Diving Into the Black Metal Rabbit Hole

Genres of music are being broken down into very specific, micro classifications due to the tags that taste makers, music bloggers, and critics fabricate to identify a certain styling that has yet to be labeled. At times, it can be difficult to keep up with but, at the same time, they are very fun to explore. Each week, I will explore a different sub-genre and try to explain the stains left on my shirt after climbing out of each tedious rabbit hole of musical stylings.

I was reading a review on Deafheaven’s Sunbather which I had assumed was either a dance record or an indie rock act based on its vibrant cover. I was shocked to find that what I was reading about had the surface packaging of a Los Angeles electro outfit. Instead, the review pointed out that there were no popping synth lines or pulsing bass. What was offered on the album was black metal. I pulled up the record on Spotify and started listening. Yup. Black metal. Machine gun drums, shrieking vocals, plodding bass lines and assaulting guitar chords. But there was a sort of shimmering softness to it. A kind of lush instrumentation on the downbeats. Is this the norm for a branch of metal most closely associated with Satanism, paganism, nihilism, I thought. What I found was when you hold Deafheaven’s music in contrast with the other acts it stands out as the brightest, most beautiful sounding thing there is. Everything else indicates that there is darkness ahead. Oh boy.

Black metal today is commonly thought to be a product of Norway, where church burnings, beatings and murders happened in conjunction with the rise of its prevalence in the underground metal scene. However, black metal originated in England from the mind of a band called Venom. The group was reaching towards a more confrontational and darker sound. With subject matter that dealt mostly in Satanic imagery and anti-Christianity, its sophomore effort Black Metal proved to be the foundation on which the sub-genre was built.

What followed were bands like Hellhammer, Mayhem and Bathory who employed a darker, lo-fi, atmospheric sound that was filled with apocalyptic noise. Listening to it, black metal can feel as if the end of the world is coming through your speakers. It’s violent, brutal and in your face. You can’t escape it. It forces you to either turn it off or pay attention. Out of the aforementioned bands, Venom and Hellhammer are the easiest to digest. While they still gives you the creeps and makes you wonder why you’re listening to them, those bands are nowhere near as torturous as Bathory and Mayhem are. The vocals are what sets these bands apart from the former two. The front men of Bathory and Mayhem sound froggy, sometimes shrieky, almost non-human. It gives the sound an edge and elevates the level of the message being conveyed (at its root, black metal is more about smashing the institutional thought of Christianity and social norms).

The sound only got heavier once the Norwegian scene grew around Mayhem. The small amount of space that black metal had in its music was now filled with even larger vocal presences. It had everything to do with the way Mayhem had changed its sound on its follow-up effort, De Mysteriis Dom Satanas. There were no longer high-pitched, squealing noises that evoked images of scrawny demons with a master that held more power than his winged messenger. These new vocals were growling, gnarling, gnashing. Mayhem on its sophomore album is like hearing Dave Grohl as “The Devil” in The Pick of Destiny waking up from hibernation.

Norway’s most infamous export is Gorgoroth, a band named after a setting created by J.R.R Tolkein. They have become the subject of controversy, like many other black metal bands, for the activities that have occurred outside of their music. Its lead singer, Gaahl, was charged for torturing someone and attempting to make them drink their own blood. According to him, it was all in self-defense. This is just one example of the tabloid-y things that happen around the band.

Musically, I think Gorgoroth has one of the densest sounds within the sub-genre. It’s black metal at its fastest, loudest and maximalist. A wall of sound that not even the hordes from Tolkein’s fiction could penetrate. The drums pound and rattle at a non-stop pace, the vocals act as roars of hell rather than espousing actual lyrics, the guitar strums feverishly with no light at the end of the tunnel. The live shows that display Gorgoroth’s dark material have all the typical trappings of black metal bands: pentagrams, corpse paint and dim lighting. But they have also incorporated impaled sheep heads. The sheep heads are representative of the herd mentality that many follow, while the goat (a symbol of Satanism) represents free will, according to the band. I’d say the symbolic lamb kebobs get the message across just fine, but the band has also used the naked men and women on crucifixes as part of its act. Very theateric, that Gorgoroth.

As I mentioned earlier, Deafheaven is one of the lighter bands in the sub-genre. There are more that utilize instruments of Trans Siberian Orchestra rather than the Devil, but Deafheaven has songs that make it the most accessible. Some songs feature sweeping piano interludes as well as strumming acoustic guitars at the tail end of the music that make the actual sonic happenings of its records more profound than those of the other bands. From an ideological standpoint, black metal is interesting, but the wall of sound can turn into a whiny drone rather than furious angst. At times, I felt like I was trapped in my office with the white noise machine playing.


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