Friday, December 16, 2011

True Norwegian Black Metal

Something about the dead of winter demands that I listen to black metal. Black metal is a truly fascinating sub-genre, one of the many extreme metal styles that have splintered off of thrash since 1980. A bit of background for the uninitiated:

It's not black metal without an
illegible band logo!

Thrash metal was created in the early 80's. Innovators like Metallica and Exodus merged the technical skill and style of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden with the raw approach and intensity of hardcore punk to create music perfect for mosh pits. Thrash is probably my favorite musical style, and it evolved rapidly. Within a few years, the earliest thrash records had already begun to sound dated. In latter half of the 80's the genre reached its peak of innovation. Albums like Slayer's "Reign in Blood", Metallica's "Master of Puppets" and Megadeth's "Rust in Peace" seemed to leave little room for improvement.

Death metal was a splinter from thrash around this time, pushing metal into entirely new extreme territory. Death metal was harsh, bleak, and violent. The music was technically complex and nearly emotionless with its emphasis on indecipherable "death growls". It was certainly heavier, but not to everyone's liking.

Black metal was primarily a reaction to death metal. Early 80's artists like Celtic Frost and Venom are considered influences, but the Norwegian black metal scene marked the true flowering of the style. This music seemed tailor-made to be blasted out of cheap stereos in the middle of the Norwegian forest. The guitars were as fast a death metal, but usually much more melodic. The vocals ranged from standard "clean" singing to a kind of raspy shriek, lending them more range and humanity. Keyboards were highly prominent, as was Scandinavian folk music and the occasional acoustic guitar.

Often there was hardly any bass at all, and the guitars were almost uncomfortably trebly. It's not clear how much of that was intentional, or simply because a lot of the early bands couldn't afford decent production. The feel of the music was stripped down and primitive, with lyrics to match. Popular subjects included folk tales, paganism, satanism, and vikings. Black Metal bands adopted an iconic fashion style, frequently incorporating corpse-paint, spikes, black, black and more black.

Not the best Rotting Christ album,
but I love the cover!

I don't own much Black Metal, mostly because so much of it has terrible production. Even now that the style has become to an extent globally popular, many of the most successful artists still insist on emulating the awful dental-drill treble sound of their inspirations. Thankfully there are exceptions. One the coolest black metal bands is Borknagar, a fairly melodic band that goes way overboard on the folksy stuff and has produced a healthy body of work. Some of Einherjer's early work was great Viking raiding party music, but they have long since jumped the shark into self parody.

Ulver have also produced some interesting work, though their best albums came after they abandoned black metal and went experimental. Their last record before doing so almost seemed to be a parody of black metal's stylistic restrictions with intentionally ear scraping and terrible production. The rumor is that they took most of the album's budget and spent it on nice cars.

My favorite band in the genre has got to be Rotting Christ. They're a Greek band whose music almost always sounds like the processional music for some kind of black mass. Despite their name, they don't really rip on Christianity much in their music  Most of their lyrics just focus on incomprehensible occult imagery. They've got riffs aplenty, and though their music can sometimes become a bit repetitive they've been very prolific over two decades of existence. In recent years they've embraced their heritage and added more Greek lyrics and folk singing to their music to excellent effect.

In the dead of winter, after a fresh snow, with bare trees under a clouded sky, there's nothing like some crunchy, evil black metal to make me throw the horns.

Album recommendations:
Einherjer - Naar Hammeren Heves
Borknagar - Oceans Rise
Rotting Christ - Theogonia

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