Norwegian Black Metal

Norwegian black metal: an extremely problematic genre where the problems both detract from and add to its appeal. It’s a genre so problematic that even one of the co-authors of Lords of Chaos, the definitive tome about the scene, has been condemned by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Still, it’s not a form of music you can dismiss out of hand. The early practitioners of the genre succeeded not only in taking heavy metal to previously unexplored extremes but creating a sonic template that continues to influence bands to this day.

Basically, you know all that stuff that the Satanic Panic grifters got people so worked up about? These bored Norwegian teens decided to use those accusations as a to-do list. Some of it was harmless: putting on KISS makeup, running around the woods with homemade armor and weapons, goofy devil worship rituals. Some of it was less harmless: flirtations with Naziism, church burning, murder. Sometimes all of the above, in the case of Varg Vikernes. Many of the involved artists only participated in the demon cosplay. It’s hard to talk about the many merits of the music without touching on the controversy surrounding it, though.

Still, the practitioners did come up with some genuinely innovative approaches to metal. Influenced by first-wave black metal acts like, of course, Venom (who came up with the term “black metal” on the album of the same name), Viking metal originator Bathory, and demented experimentalists Celtic Frost, they rejected the strict rules of thrash and death metal in favor of their own “trve” sound that they felt allowed them to capture the desolate winters of their native Scandinavia rather than trying to sound like bands from California or Florida.

To do so, they brought in tremolo picking, blastbeats, banshee shrieking, and neoclassical keyboards to extreme metal – something lacking in the death metal sound that had been the weapon of choice to that point for musicians looking to scare their parents. Their lyrics tended to be about the devil, Nordic mythology, or medieval themes. The production sucked but in such a way that it only added to the mystique. And while their aesthetic may seem silly when viewed dispassionately, the monochromatic album art and torchlit corpsepaint of their band photos created a genuinely creepy vibe.

Caveat: for the purpose of this overview I’m including bands whose overarching philosophies aren’t aligned with Naziism or other forms of fascism, even if some individual members are problematic. That doesn’t extend to one-man acts. Vikernes, for example, played in genre progenitor Mayhem and created atmospheric black metal with his solo Burzum project, but it would be irresponsible to give Burzum a formal recommendation due to both his disturbing beliefs and violent actions. Some have apologized for their youthful indiscretions (like Darkthrone), while other acts continue to welcome members with abhorrent views into their ranks. Norwegian black metal’s legacy continues to be a checkered one.

Under The Sign Of Hell cover

Honestly some of the wildest stuff you’ll ever hear, Gorgoroth’s third album pretty much provides the dictionary definition of “uncompromising.” This half hour of overpower feels like a demon punching its way out of Hell through the earth’s crust. Trash can drum sound, wild shrieks, riffs that strike out of nowhere and return to the void just as quickly – it’s the peak form of the chaos that black metal bands worship. The Reign in Blood of the second wave (at least in terms of intensity if not hooks).

De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas cover

One of the most influential and controversial albums of all time, the musical importance of Mayhem’s debut full-length frequently gets shrouded by the events surrounding it – Oystein “Euronymous” Aarseth’s murder by bassist Varg Vikernes, Vikernes’s subsequent arrest, and the replacement of dead vocalist Dead by Attila Csihar of Hungarian thrashers Tormentor. Weirdly, those events also play into why it’s so good. Csihar’s vocals sound like the demented utterings of a reanimated corpse while merciless highlights “Freezing Moon” and “Cursed in Eternity” take on new shades of black in the wake of their tragedy-filled genesis.

In the Nightside Eclipse cover

Hard to imagine how scary this must’ve sounded in 1994, surrounded by all the vague tales of church burnings and ritual murder coming from the peaceful banality of Norway, but it intimidates even now. Barely even sounds like music at times. Breaking from the blues tradition that informed metal from Black Sabbath onwards, Emperor and their fellow travelers pioneered a low-fi intensity informed by neoclassical melodies. Emperor’s big contribution? Symphonic keyboards that made the cacophony sound as grand as the houses of the holy incinerated by their brethren.

Bergtatt cover

Ulver’s main creative force, Kristoffer “Garm” Rygg, strayed the furthest of all the genre’s early practitioners as time went on, moving into shoegaze and electronic realms as he progressed. His restless spirit shines through even on this first offering, which combines the harsh rawness of the second-wave black metal sound with beautiful folk melodies and even clean singing. The dichotomy works wonderfully, elevating the act above their more monochromatic peers. The evil parts will still scare your cat.

At the Heart of Winter cover

Crab-walking, croak-talking frontmaniac Abbath Doom Occulta may be the most meme-worthy of all the black metal blasphemers to emerge from Norway’s frozen fjords. He and his corpse-painted compatriots – lyricist Demonaz and drummer Horgh – backed up their goofy looks with some of the most genuinely awe-inspiring riffs produced in the peninsula. By their fifth missive, they’d perfected their black ‘n’ roll blitzkrieg, making this journey into the fictional snow-covered mountains of Blashyrkh the most satisfying of their storied career.

Nemesis Divina cover

Soon to piss off pretty much everyone with their 1999 industrial detour Rebel Extravaganza, Satyricon capped off their initial flirtation with black metal orthodoxy with their most ambitious (and best-produced) album to date. The core duo of Satyr and Frost actually planted the seeds of their future betrayal here, incorporating groove elements they’d explore more in the following millennium. In the meantime, “The Dawn of a New Age” and “Mother North” show their mastery of the second wave’s grandeur.

A Blaze in the Northern Sky cover

With production so raw that it makes demos look polished in comparison, it’s no wonder Darkthrone’s label wanted to toss these tapes. Thank the devil they didn’t. Initially another death metal act, the band’s descent into black metal’s darkness blew open the door to the infernal Labyrinth and allowed needle-noggin demons access to our realm — an invasion that continues to this day. They didn’t invent the sound, but this is the full-length that got out there first. It’s the frontline of black metal’s second wave. As primitive as the results were, you can hear why its bleak blasphemy caught on.

Heart of the Ages cover

The debut full-length from In The Woods… ventured deep into the wilderness and emerged with an utterly absorbing, atmospheric take on black metal. Using elements of what would later be known as “dungeon synth” to create an emotionally rich bed for the usual tales of Norse mythology helped take the subject from the conjectural to the visceral. Not that they were the first or only ones to do that; their tree just stands tallest.

Enthrone Darkness Triumphant cover

Recorded at the same time as Emperor’s Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, Dimmu Borgir eschewed that act’s (relative) tastefulness in favor of all-out scorched-earth bombast. It could have gone very, very wrong. Although they don’t do a very convincing job of making the listener believe the keyboards are a symphony orchestra, these sky-bound anthems explode black metal’s dark fables into cinemascope format. Blasphemous blasts like “Spellbound (By the Devil)” bring the Book of Revelations’ depictions of Armageddon to life.

Black Thrash Attack cover

The title kinda says it all: Aura Noir were big fans of metal variants pioneered both in their homeland and two countries to the south. Although the Cobra Commander vocals and frenetic drumming encompass the “black” part of the attack, the guitar groove pays homage to Teutonic thrash legends Kreator and Destruction. The hybrid works – the infernal overkill of the 80s German thrashers melds perfectly with black metal berserker rage. Pure primeval mayhem.

The Olden Domain cover

Their name sounds like the Swedish Chef having a coughing fit but Borknagar are nothing to sneeze at. Although the members came out of the early Norwegian black metal scene, their ambitions were grander than just beating blasts and picking tremolos. Instead, they went for a progressive approach, incorporating Bathory-style Viking metal and unusual song structures. This second sojourn into the elder realms contains some of their most powerful pieces, scraping beauty out of ugliness.

Aspera Hiems Symfonia cover

They’d get much weirder one year and one album hence, but quasi-supergroup Arcturus (which counted members of Ulver and Mayhem in their ranks here) swept onto the scene with one hell of a blast of icy wind. The thin production only serves to enhance the frostbitten atmosphere, making it feel like you’re listening to these Scandinavian stories through a blizzard. At times reminiscent of seventies Rush, an odd comparison for black metal indeed, the sheer musicianship on display makes this a key and underappreciated listen.

Vikingligr Veldi cover

Enslaved’s initial rune-casting only hints at the grandiose progressive black metal their sound would evolve into, but there’s no doubt these teen terrors were onto something magical. They’d already moved beyond the genre’s first birthing pains and turned their attention to more musically complex ideas – four of the five tracks break the ten-minute mark. This delivers an epic journey through Norse mythology that, despite the heights the band would later achieve, still stands proudly on its own.

Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk cover

Opening with synthesized symphonics heralding the end of days, the second full-length from Emperor demonstrated that the genre didn’t have to rely on cheap theatrics and ugliness – the musicians had ambitions and the skill required to bring their nightmares to life. “Thus Spake the Nightspirit” remains the truly astonishing highlight but the tremolo-picked thrashing can’t hide the complexity of these compositions.

Death Cult Armageddon cover

Second wave black metal started as raw bursts of youthful passion and evolved into this, an extremely polished collection of mature compositions, in about the same amount of time it took rock ‘n’ roll to go from “Maybelline” to Days of Future Passed. In other words, it was inevitable. Dimmu Borgir’s audacious melding of kvlt darkness, industrial churning, and sweeping symphonic sounds here remains unmatched to this day – even by them.

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