For some, boundaries aren’t thought of as the guidelines to the acceptable, or the limits of possibility. Instead, they’re an affront – a manifestation of social norms that threatens the sovereignty of the individual. For some, there is an endless road that leads from polite society out into the wilderness.
Lashing out against the status quo isn’t a new phenomenon. A glance at the Marquis de Sade’s novel “Justine” (1791), or Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” photograph (1987) is proof enough that humans are no strangers to transgression. Whether it’s through the written word, images or sounds, people have never stopped looking for ways to obliterate expectations and propel their chosen crafts to new heights (or depths).
The world of music is a prime example of this march into the unknown. In 1913, Igor Stravinsky’s composition, “The Rite of Spring,” was found by some critics to be provocative or even derogatory due to its experiments in rhythm and dissonance. Echoes of this critical outrage can be heard whenever innovation in music occurs. Take George Beauchamp for example. His invention of the electric guitar in 1931 sent shock-waves through history that would lead to Bob Dylan fans booing his amplified performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Three decades did little to cull the suspicion (or outright hostility) towards this instrument that would prove so crucial in the birth of rock and metal music.
By the late 1960s, the members of Black Sabbath were marrying occult themes to horrific, lumbering riffs that could whip mom and dad up into a fury in seconds. This traditional heavy metal sound was given a shot of adrenaline in the early 80s in the form of thrash metal, which combined the speed and aggression of punk music with double bass drumming and heavy riffs. But even then, there was a hunger for extremity: more speed, more evil, more Satan was the call. The response was black metal.
The emergence of black metal can be divided into three movements, beginning with the First Wave bands of the early-mid 80s. Artists such as Bathory, Venom, (creators of the term “black metal”) and Mercyful Fate led the iniquitous charge, pioneering the aesthetics and sound of the genre: King Diamond (of Mercyful Fate) sang into a microphone attached to a crucifix of bone while wearing makeup that made him resemble a corpse. Quorthon, the frontman of Bathory, performed the shrieking vocals that became a cornerstone of black metal.
With the passing of a decade, the Second Wave was spawned in Norway, and with it came an ethos of extremity that figuratively (and in a few cases, literally) changed the face of the country. Second Wave bands included the likes of Emperor, Gorgoroth, Immortal and the infamous Mayhem. These artists solidified Norwegian black metal as a style known for its lo-fi production, icy reverb and tremolo-picked chords, along with some less-than-savory elements. Anti-Christianity, nihilism and misanthropy were but a few of the Second Wave ideals that led to the arson of several historical churches and a number of murders and suicides (and even an alleged case of cannibalism).
The third black metal movement is more of an evolutionary explosion that is taking place right now. Cross-pollination with death metal, ambient, avant-garde and rock & roll (to name a few emerging styles) has reforged the genre as an entity more dedicated to experimentation than exclusion. Recent output by bands like Imperial Triumphant, Deathspell Omega, Aenaon and Batushka show a genre in good health: increasingly globalized, rife with sonic experiments, and showing no desire to adhere to the works of the past.
The Pokémon I’ve chosen to represent black metal is Golduck.
Known for its unparalleled speed in the water (courtesy of its webbed fore- and hind limbs), it was an excellent match for the blasting percussion and speedpicking associated with the genre. Although Golduck is a Water-Type Pokémon, it is capable of learning Ice- and Psychic-Type moves as well. An aura of mysticism surrounds the red gem on its forehead; it is thought that the Pokémon’s telekinetic powers originate in this esoteric stone. Golduck is often mistaken for the kappa, a yōkai (ghost or phantom) demon in Japanese folklore that lures children into rivers and lakes. This demonic reputation meshes well with the occult themes and imagery that were (and for some artists, continue to be) an integral part of the black metal scene.
Move 1 – Confusion
Band: Imperial Triumphant
Album: Inceste (EP)
Song: “Kaleidoscopic Orgies”
The opening section of this song is the musical equivalent of chugging a handle of vodka and trying not to fall over as a rug is ripped out from under your feet. Imperial Triumphant immediately let listeners know they’ll be given no quarter; experiments with dissonance and noise (sometimes referred to as “skronk”) are an integral part of the band’s sonic repertoire. Growhowski’s stumbling drum rhythm is backed by guitarist Ilya’s seasick slide riffs that both impress and nauseate, creating a sense that the song could implode at any second.
It’s a testament to Imperial Triumphant’s songwriting abilities that the transitions into free-form jazz (and other oddities) that pepper the track come across as organic, rather than a feeble grasp at the avant-garde. When Ulrich Krieger’s tortured saxophone begins to scream around two minutes in, it’s a profoundly disturbing experience: this is the sound of an instrument (and composition) being stretched to the absolute limit. Paired with slow arpeggios that reek of paranoia, Imperial Triumphant succeed in their mission to both disorient and enthrall.
Move 2 – Bide
Album: Ashes Against the Grain (LP)
Agalloch was always a band that found inspiration in the turmoil of life. Long-form epics focusing on solitude, depression and suicidal ideation have been a staple since their earliest releases. However, a reverence for the natural world nests comfortably amongst these dirges, celebrating the beauty of falling snow or the flight of birds. This skillful balancing act between wonder and despair has made Agalloch one of the most influential USBM bands of all time.
The somber droning of guitars that opens the song is the beginning of a journey that leaves listeners emotionally exhausted. Throughout the ten minute runtime, reverb-soaked post-rock riffs (backed by Jon Haughm’s distinguished rasps) and acoustic passages form peaks and valleys that mirror the turbulence of our existence. If these highs and lows represent the story of life, the colossal climax beginning at 7:37 is the looming specter of death. Strains of yearning, regret, hope and joy can be heard as the instruments wail and pummel with one last burst of energy before their swan songs fade.
Move 3 – Blizzard
Album: Sons of Northern Darkness (LP)
Song: “In My Kingdom Cold”
The ringing chords that introduce this track showcase a guitar tone unique to Immortal. Both treble-heavy and saturated with reverb and crunchy distortion, the production sounds as though it’s coated in a layer of frost. Abbath’s croaking vocals (and the lyrical homage to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos) create an aura of alienation, evoking the most barren and isolated portions of the band’s home country of Norway.
Horgh’s drumming is pure Second Wave material, driving the urgent tone of the song with his prominent use of blastbeats. This constant pummeling gives way to a lurching rock & roll beat at 3:42 that shows another side of the band – a tongue in cheek playfulness so rarely seen in this genre. While posing in nail-studded greaves and leather is a tradition in black metal, Immortal’s knack for the theatrical (including fire-breathing in their live shows) brings some much-needed fun to the front. Lest we forget:
Move 4 – Amnesia
Band: A Forest of Stars
Album: Beware the Sword You Cannot See (LP)
Song: Virtus Sola Invicta
Describing A Forest of Stars comes as a challenge: this troupe from the UK lingers on the fringes of black metal, favoring a melodic guitar sound akin to Storm of the Light’s Bane-era Dissection. Less than one second into the track, the conversational vocals of Mister Curse are heard for the first time, betraying the band’s taste for the avant-garde. Strange whirring sounds surface along with the beautiful strings of Katheryne, Queen of the Ghosts, and just a minute in, the black metal blasting that began the song has vanished.
One could be excused for forgetting which genre this song was supposed to belong to as a vaudevillian speech begins, backed by gloomy bluegrass violin and a rotary Hammond organ. By the time the rasping vocals sound, the song is halfway through its 6-minute runtime, but the atmosphere is decidedly blackened throughout. With this album, AFoS prove themselves masters of composition; no matter how many instruments, vocal styles or studio effects are stitched together, they’re never ornaments. Each component is necessary in the story they tell: one of the power of subversion. AFoS aren’t trying to break the rules of black metal. They’ve lost sight of them altogether.