Today’s post is brought to you by “Catholics Listen to Norwegian Black Metal“, an insightful study on one of metal’s most iconic genres presented by students at Franciscan University. I think a more apt title would be “Catholics get trolled hard by Abbath“, because inasmuch as what they have to say about “the dark side” of black metal is true, they could not have picked a nicer guy to associate those concerns with.
I’m not planning to respond to the video directly, because it represented itself well enough. Resident metal expert, Ned, certainly met my standards of discussing metal: he recognized that Dragonforce is the hardest metal known to man, and he dedicated at least a third of the conversation on black metal to an in-depth look at nu-metal. Why not? He also called to my attention a genre known as “blood metal”. I look forward to listening to it… when it actually exists.
Instead, I’m going to provide my own thoughts on Norwegian black metal, and indeed black metal in general. Perhaps my perspective will offer more insight into the positives of black metal, rather than only its questionable qualities.
I’m just going to get out of the way what New Catholic Generations implied and what many people tend to assume about black metal: it is without a doubt one of the edgiest genres on earth. The lyrics, the imagery, and the overall aesthetics of the genre range from the Satanic to the Wehrmacht. The Norwegians who really brought life to black metal in the 90’s took this edge factor even farther: church burnings, suicides, and murders. These actions should not be encouraged, but largely speaking I don’t find that they ever were encouraged. I won’t dwell on them in this article; although it turns out that some of the perpetrators are still active in the black metal scene, the genre has moved far past where it was in the 90’s (as we shall soon discover).
How much of this edginess carries into the music itself? In truth, very little. You can’t see a band through a song, and that’s well over half the battle when it comes to “image,” isn’t it? There are the lyrics, of course, and they may well be demonic, but I challenge anyone to actually understand what any of these vocalists are saying. Black metal, like most heavy music, uses the vocalist as an instrument – another sound aesthetic – more than as a conveyor of lyrical ideas. And I have, of course, discounted the importance of lyrics altogether in the past. So we are left with only the sound of the music.
Black metal really isn’t that heavy, as music goes. Aggressive, certainly, but that is often all that you can say about it. It isn’t that technical either — its sister genre, death metal, takes that honor. What it lacks in these areas it makes up in atmosphere. The blast beats, the raspy, whispering, nazgul-like vocals, the oftentimes questionable production quality, and the ominous (quasi-Baroque) tone all combine to produce dense layers of noise and sound. It possesses a lot of the same positive characteristics of noisy electronic music while still being an “analog” style of music; preferring one to the other is an aesthetic decision. And indeed, the decision about whether or not to enjoy the nuanced sounds of black metal largely comes down to one’s ability to appreciate art in general.
I called the genre “iconic” earlier. I said so because black metal has one of the most recognizable sounds in music. However, it is an interesting claim to make in practice, because despite there being this trifecta of elements that comprise the black metal “sound” (blast beats, vocals, tone), oftentimes bands don’t utilize all three. And yet there exists parody after parody that play off that instantly recognizable sound. A good example of a song that is quintessentially “black metal” is Freezing Moon by Mayhem. It can serve as a comparison point as we look into bands in the genre that have moved farther and farther away from this standard form.
Before I take us down that road, let’s at least discuss one genuine specimen of “trve kvlt” Norwegian black metal. They’re from Norway, their first proper black metal album was released in 1992, and they are an interesting demonstration of the early evolution of the genre. There is a certain degree to which black metal is a descendant of hardcore punk, and you can hear that element in Darkthrone’s music. Beholding The Throne of Might is a prime example. The pacing, vocal cadence, and drumwork are highly reminiscent of punk, but there are a couple of things that Darkthrone does to make it their own: namely the guitar breakdowns and the actual vocal timbre.
I’m a fan of their more identifiably “black” songs like Transilvanian Hunger. It’s actually a moderately melodic song, all things considered — something that people unfamiliar with black metal would presumably not expect to find here. And more than just being melodic, it actually “rides” the melody through the song. What I mean is that what the guitars are playing is basically “the” dynamic of the entire song, and the vocals and drums are just there to provide texture. That type of situation is none other than a “wall of sound” that turns up again and again in this genre and others with the genesis of post-rock and post-metal in the late-90’s to ’00’s. En Vind Av Sorg is another good example.
One thing I will call to attention before moving on is the absolute garbage production quality of these songs. It’s something that all black metal of the period seems to have in common, and I’m not sure at what point it stops being a matter of circumstance and starts being something done on purpose. If you’re willing to see it this way… it does provide “something” to the overall aesthetics of the music.
Marduk goes hard. Without a doubt, they are one of the heaviest and most batshit insane groups in the genre. Their music has moved away from the hardcore punk elements mentioned above, but in terms of sheer ferocity they have something in common with powerviolence bands like Nails and Weekend Nachos. Songs like Thousand-Fold Death demonstrate what I’m talking about. Even the songs reminiscent of punk, like Panzer Division Marduk, are absolutely brutal in ways that just aren’t paralleled by many (any?) other black metal bands.
What’s interesting is that in their massive discography full of songs like Warschau, their attempts to branch out are not too bad at all. Dreams of Blood and Iron is a respectable sludge song, for example. However, for the most part they’re fast, they’re angry, and they’re explosive.
In the mid-90’s to the ’00s, some black metal acts started to adopt characteristics from folk (melodies, pacing), as well as borrowing some ideas from a contemporary genre of rising importance: post-rock. Some of the most well-known bands to do so are Ulver (with their excellent album Bergtatt), Agalloch (The Mantle, that album with the elk on the cover), and of course Blut aus nord.
At this point, I’ve heard a decent smattering of albums from throughout their career, and I have to say that I prefer the balance of “blackness” to mellifluence that they had on their early albums compared to their recent releases, which seem quite mellow indeed. The fact is that Memoria Vetusta I and especially Ultima Thulée are just excellent albums that the group has not really attempted to replicate in recent times (e.g. 777 – Cosmosophy) — their sound has evolved.
The Son of Hoarfrost is a good example of what I’m talking about: it has some very soft, ethereal elements to it (this was released in 1995, so some time had passed from the truly raw era of black metal in the early 90’s), but it still contains a decent amount of true-to-form black metal. The Plain of Ida is even more mild, but it counteracts it with a heavy, sludge-like component. And one habit they seem to share with post-rock on this album is that they know how to end a record well: cue The Last Journey of Ringhorn. From Memoria Vetusta I, I particularly enjoyed The Territory of Witches. Some of the ways the song transitions between sections, and the melodic choices made, remind me of power metal — a genre I am normally not a fan of. I think the black metal elements temper the often overly buoyant nature of power metal to make a good track, here.
In the middle of their discography is a rather strange album called MoRT which is worth mentioning. It is the most experimental album the band has made, and perhaps one of the most experimental albums of the genre. Every song is almost pure dissonance (e.g. Chapter I) — almost random, at that, but curiously most of the tracks still adhered to a basic (4/4?) structure. It’s an odd listen. I’m on the fence about whether or not it is a good album. It seems clear that it has had no lasting impact on the genre¹, as the most typical forms of black metal found today sound a lot more like their post-rock work than they do like this. That applies to the progressive groups (as we shall see next) just as much as with the standard ones (as we shall see at the end).
These guys definitely push the definition of black metal, if not the genre. They’re highly progressive, and highly experimental when it comes to taking elements from other genres and applying them to black metal as we know it. What do I mean by that? Well… try listening to Saturaatio. It has some surprises… starts like a Tool song, turns into traditional black metal, then some kind of Pink Floyd, spacey-sounding section, then Dream Theater, then post-rock? I don’t know what’s going on, but I like it. Värähtelijä is even less traditional; Havuluu is more (although the beginning might fool you). The band grasps a lot of concepts that I sometimes miss in heavier artists: dynamic adjustments to volume and pacing, changes in tone, developing a song over time. If I had to pick one complaint, it would be that their songs that sound most like straight up progressive rock really don’t end up being that interesting. They’re almost like interludes to an album with a lot more depth than a few space-age sounds.
All in all, they’ve managed to package a tremendous amount of variety onto Värähtelijä, their newest album. Don’t shy away from the longer tracks on the album, either. They are well worth the listen.
As it happens, I’ve also listened to their second most recent album, Valonielu. And as it happens, it is different in its own way. But it still has songs that vaguely remind one of black metal, such as Vino Verso, and songs that really… don’t… like Reikä Maisemassa. I think that unless you are an absolute purist, Oranssi Pazuzu is going to be one of the most rewarding bands you’ll find in black metal.
I really do hope you’re not an absolute purist, or you’re not going to like what comes next. Ladies and gentlemen, the most mild-mannered band in the edgiest genre known to man. One of the only groups in the history of metal to release an album with a bright pink cover. “Black metal to listen to with your girlfriend.” Their reputation precedes them.
But all of that is a bit histrionic to me, because Deafheaven makes compelling music, and Sunbather is actually the best example of that. Are they a black metal band that strongly incorporates shoegaze into their music, or are they a shoegaze band that strongly incorporates black metal? It’s a losing battle to even attempt answering that question, so let’s move on to the songs.
As you’ll find in Dream House and even moreso in The Pecan Tree, Deafheaven succeeds in two main areas. They’ve got an effective balance between the heaviness (the blackness) and the softness in their music, which I described as a positive for Blut aus Nord as well. But what they also have is a mastery of keeping the melody present when the music gets really heavy. It’s something I have long admired in other punk offshoots such as emo and screamo, and I think it is obviously the reason that Deafheaven has such an appeal to people that are not traditionally fans of metal, not to mention black metal.
There’s a degree to which that preference for melodiousness is an aesthetic choice, but although I am not particularly learned on the philosophy of beauty, I suspect there’s something good to be said about music that possesses the quality. I’ll return to that point sometime in the future when I’ve studied more.
A quick word on Liturgy
I thought about focusing in on Liturgy in this article. They’re roughly as controversial as Deafheaven for roughly the same reasons, with the addition of the fact that their frontman is extremely obnoxious. The problem is that for as much as he has to say about black metal as an art, his band really doesn’t deliver. Their strongest, most coherent album is their first and least experimental one, Renihilation. After that they gave us Aesthetica and The Ark Work, which I want to claim are interesting albums, but upon reflection I’ve decided it isn’t so. Both have a strong deconstructionist bent about them. They take a concept in black metal and just grind it down until it’s time for the next song. What happens is that it makes for a seemingly interesting listen… until you come back for the second runthrough of the album and realize that there isn’t anything else there. It’s a shame.
At a minimum, I believe everybody in the room for the “Catholics React” rigmarole should be able to enjoy Deafheaven — except perhaps the guy in the trilby, who seemed to be the only person who wasn’t sandbagging. I’m sure it’s possible for him to come around, but he’d have to listen to some “Ned bands” first.
From a grander perspective, it clearly isn’t difficult to find black metal artists that are utterly disconnected from the truly dark side of the genre. The edgiest groups left standing today (like Marduk) are really just creating an aesthetic they think is cool, and that you are by no means obligated to indulge in when you listen to their music. When it comes down to you and the album, there’s not a lot of edge left to come in contact with. I say again: if you can understand their lyrics, maybe you can find a way to be offended by them. I certainly can’t.
¹It has been suggested to me that perhaps Deathspell Omega or Dodecahedron are examples of bands that drew inspiration from MoRT. I’m not buying it. There are nominal similarities: Deathspell Omega is also from France, the bands are both experimental bordering on avant garde, and they do make use of dissonance.
However, I think it is a bit of an oversimplification to suggest that either Deathspell Omega or Dodecahedron is really doing anything like Chapter V on their albums. Their songs are substantially more directed toward “typical” (pop) music — just done fast and heavy. On MoRT, Blut aus Nord is approaching the kind of mood I get from field recordings, if not actual noise. (but then I have to account for how structured the album honestly still is)
What do I think that Deathspell Omega and Dodecahedron really use as inspiration (with songs like Wings of Predation or Allfather as examples)? Technical death metal, a bit of grindcore, and in Deathspell Omega’s case, maybe even post-hardcore. It just doesn’t really strike me as music written with MoRT as a jumping-off point.
Are there isolated black metal bands out there who make music along the lines of MoRT? Maybe, but as I said before, the impact of the album on the genre seems almost nonexistent.