Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Genre Definitions: Black Metal

There are a lot of heavily contested journal articles about what is and is not some genre or another. I thought I would layout the genres as I've come to define them over the years. This way there really is no misunderstanding when I label a band a particular genre. Genre classifications are very important to me, since I cater to a very small niche of the Heavy Metal sub-genres. People that try to say "we can't be classified" or some such nonsense are useless. If you class all bands as Metal, that doesn't help me distinguish between Blind Guardian or Sargeist and I really need to operate under a clear distinction for the two projects. Without classifying music correctly I would not be able to find the music I am interested in.

At the end of each definition I'm going to try and list one of the key originators of the genre, if I can think of it. I'm really going to try and stick with a single main project, rather than run through a giant list of bands that were performing the style around the same time.

So, here is a list of terms I will likely use over time on this website:

Black Metal: Probably my most controversial definition is for Black Metal. It is only controversial since some media journalist came up with some weird new definition of Black Metal by splitting it into waves. I do not do this, I do not acknowledge some 1st wave or 2nd wave or whatever someone might dream up with a third wave. This was never a problem in the early 90's. No one would have ever classed Slayer's "Show No Mercy" as Black Metal under any circumstance. I've seen it done post-2000 though and it irks me. Was that album influential to Black Metal bands? Yes? Was it Black Metal, no, it was Thrash Metal. Classifying Black Metal this liberally has lead to me seeing people class Mercyful Fate as Black Metal, which I find entirely preposterous. In 1995 no one called them Black Metal. I've seen Deicide classed as Black Metal as well since then too... this is something I outright do not understand. The argument runs something along the lines of, since they are Satanic and Death Metal isn't... etc. Well, I happen to disagree with that.

I got into Black Metal around 1994/1995 and I used to keep up with a lot more review 'zines back then. I don't keep up with the media as much anymore and because of this I may not have "gotten with the times". That being said here's what Black Metal was referred to in the 90's and it is on that perspective I am going to build my definition. As a genre Black Metal's style is heavily driven by the way the guitar is performed and to a lesser extent the vocals. The drumming style is heavily borrowed from Thrash Metal, Grind, and Death Metal. The guitar work is played in a fashion to evoke a particular atmosphere for the listener. It conjures terms like "dark", "evil", or "unholy". It really is the antithesis of Major Chord driven positive sounding music. Black Metal stays mostly within the realms of dissonance and minor structures. The added element is the way these chords are tremelo picked by the musicians. This is really where that difference in genre is built, in my opinion. Black Metal vocals are almost always harsh. Some bands, like Emperor, will use clean sections, but the predominant vocal performance is very harsh. I do not consider this a type of "growl" like many Death Metal bands are classed, because Black Metal has often used a higher range of vocals to complement the style of music. Black Metal guitar tone can often come off as sounding very thin, when compared to the thick crushing sound of Death Metal. So, Black Metal tends to use a mid-range to high-range harsh vocal style, rather than a deep guttural sound.

I consider this genre being invented in the late 80's by Thorns/Stigma Diabolicum, specifically with Snorre Ruch on guitar. This might be considered very controversial as well, but this is where I think the largest step in invention took place. I realize that this sort of takes early Mayhem off the invention track, but I really do think early Euronymous work was heavily influenced by Venom and thus the name Black Metal was taken. However, I think Ruch was more influenced by Bathory and most Black Metal draws on a Bathory influence rather than a Venom influence today. Both projects were influenced by Satanic ideas, so it doesn't really matter where Black Metal got their Satanism, I think it would have wound up there anyway.

The additional requirement for Black Metal is that it cannot be Christian. In fact, I don't consider much in the way of any religion can be Black Metal. This is a tough situation in some regards, because Black Metal is heavily rooted in Satanism, to the point where there are people that say a band cannot be Black Metal unless they are Satanic. I guess I'm a little more liberal in my definition than that, and while Theistic Satanism is more in line with Black Metal, other religions are not. The genre is nearly Atheistic in this sense of rejecting religion. A lot of the aligning towards Satanic ideas has to do with combating Christianity, which is typically the majority religion oppressing band members' countries. If Black Metal had been born in the Middle East it would have had a strong Anti-Islam following, and Black Metal from that region certainly does. This is where people argue over the genre the most, in my opinion. The whole concept that a genre can have an ideology attached to it is anathema to some Music Journalists, not to me though. I proudly wear the banner of anti-religion.

Originators: Stigma Diabolicum/Thorns, Mayhem

Atmospheric Black Metal: This is a term I've been more apt to use more and more lately. This genre has really taken off in the mid-2000's. For many years though, bands playing this style were very hard to classify. In fact I see terms like Ambient Black Metal used almost interchangeably with Atmospheric Black Metal. In order to keep things simple, I'm going to use "Atmospheric" to refer to both aspects. The reason for this is that the guitar work associated with both styles is fairly similar. Music associated with Atmospheric Black Metal is much less dynamic than traditional Black Metal. It doesn't matter if the music is mid-paced or fast, the style manages to mesmerize and is usually just something you immerse yourself in. It is not a genre that really makes someone shake their head to the beat. A lot of people may consider this a droning effect, which is also common in Ambient for listeners.

I'm also going to class DSBM (Depressive Suicidal Black Metal) under the Atmospheric moniker as much as possible. This seems to bring in a lot of confusion as well and for all intents and purposes there is little difference between DSBM, Atmospheric, and Ambient Black Metal. They all generate a similar feeling through nearly the same methods with some tweaking here and there. The only major distinction, I think, someone can argue with DSBM is the fact that I hear a lot of bands under this title incorporate some Doom Metal elements in their writing. The vocal performances are also sometimes much higher pitched wails influenced by early Burzum. I am, personally, not convinced this really warrants breaking up the genre level one more time.

Originator: Burzum

Symphonic Black Metal: Given my definition of Black Metal and its need to evoke a particular feeling it is no surprised that adding keyboards to the mix is an idea to make that feel more apparent. When it comes to this style of Black Metal I do not consider the use of keyboards as the major distinction, but how a song is composed. In Symphonic Black Metal the use of keyboards is a much more central factor for compositions. In fact bands will use this is a much more driving factor than guitars. If a band is keyboard driven, rather than guitar driven, then I would say the band is Symphonic Black Metal. For example, Emperor would not be considered Symphonic Black Metal and usually never was in 1995. Their music is almost entirely driven by composing with guitars. Dimmu Borgir, on the other hand, holds the keyboard as a much more central role in how it drives their songs.

Originator: Master's Hammer

Black/Thrash Metal: This term really feels redundant, because what Black Metal band doesn't have Thrash influence? However, bands like Aura Noir just have so much Thrash in their sound that it cannot be ignored. The real key factor is based around the blending of the down-picked Thrash guitar work with the tremelo picked chord structures of Black Metal. From this the music tends to be a lot "catchier" in terms of drawing listener in.

Originator: Desaster

Experimental Black Metal: This is a term that I will probably use very rarely, but I will invoke it if it is the only thing that really fits. This term is often used interchangeably with Avantgarde Black Metal, or so I've seen over the years. Experimental Black Metal seems to be a catch-all for the bands who don't quite fit any other category. However, I have no idea where else I would class Dodheimsgard's "666 International" album, other than Experimental. If you listen to that... the term "experimental" certainly comes to mind. I'm going to try and use this term only in cases where things get a little weird or off the beaten track of other genres.

Originator: (No idea)

NSBM: NSBM stands for National Socialist Black Metal, and yes, it refers to the political party of 1930's era Germany specifically. Personally, I find politics in Black Metal to be stupid. Black Metal, as an idea, is a critical response to religious ideals. However, I cannot deny that some of these would be politicians do perform some good music and from time to time I will review such music. I will also very rarely use this term, because it is used far too liberally today. People don't seem to understand that writing about your nations history or lands doesn't make you political. Bands that are proud of their nations heritage has nothing to do with a political stance... and they really just play Black Metal. Also, people seem confused when a band sings about the historical nature of World War II. Just because you play Black Metal and sing about the war does not mean you are a Nazi. Bands like Endstille and Nekrokrist SS are NOT Nazi projects. They are from Germany and that is part of their nations history, which they sing about and use imagery from. Also, a musicians political beliefs need not be associated with their writing as a Black Metal musician. Bands like Naer Mataron manage to do this and just because a member is involved with politics does not mean Naer Mataron represent any kind of political agenda.

So, unless a band sings about how the Jews are taking over the world, how awesome Hitler is, etc. then I'm probably not going to class them as NSBM. I hope it is clear that I define Nationalism as being extremely different from Nazism.

Originator: (Don't know, don't really care either...)

Pagan Black Metal: Here's another definition that might get me in trouble... but here it goes. The origins of this style are from Viking Metal, a genre that is still sometimes used today. Viking Metal is strictly from Norway, in my opinion. This style of Black Metal was reserved for a blending of Black Metal with more of a Folk style for a particular nations ancient heritage. The real main influence stems from Bathory, once again, because when Bathory started transitioning out of a Thrash Metal phase, Quorthon shifted into a Heavy Metal/Folk blend where he sang about ancient Scandinavian mythology. Bathory was always a massive influence in the realms of Black Metal, but they also influenced this variant as well. Frankly, Viking Metal is really what Bathory should have been called after "Blood Fire Death", but this genre ended up being built primarily by Black Metal bands, so I think that's why Viking Metal became more associated with Black Metal.

As this idea grew in popularity we ran into a serious problem... if you are from Slovakia, for example, and sing about your nations ancestors and conjure up that ancient atmosphere you certainly can't be called Viking Metal! There were no Vikings from Slovakia... so I've settled into using Pagan Black Metal as a catch all for this style. So, if you really evoke a sort of Folk/Ancient atmosphere with you music then I'll probably class it is Pagan Black Metal. I will probably still use the term Viking Metal for certain bands, because I have used it for so many years when discussing the projects, but they really mean the same thing.

Originators: Enslaved, Einherjer

Melodic Black Metal: Like Death Metal, there is a sort of Melodic variant in the Black Metal world, probably influenced by the idea that Death Metal could also have a Melodic theme. The whole idea behind this usually requires two guitars where one guitar plays a particular variant of the rhythm guitar, usually just adding 5ths or 4ths onto a tremelo picked guitar line. It's a lot more specific than just playing a lead guitar, because this evokes a very specific sound and feel to the music. As with Melodic Death Metal this came out of Sweden and I'm honestly hesitant to name Dissection as the originator, because they have always had a degree of Death Metal edge to it, but I will name them anyway.

Originator: Probably Sorhin and Dissection

Bestial Black Metal: Now, in the early 90's Black Metal really had a couple paths it could follow. The majority of Black Metal follows a very structured and well defined path for songwriting. The music is, honestly, not very chaotic in it's written form. Defining albums like Mayhem's "De Mysteriis dom Sathanas" are extremely well structured and well thought out in the way it feels. This is not so with Bestial Black Metal, which is a term I will use rarely, mainly due to the fact I do not like it much. In the early 90's the band Beherit reared it's ugly head and gave birth to this genre in my opinion. While the Norwegian counter parts were playing with structure, Beherit was playing with chaos. I really use this genre to classify bands that really have a chaotic feel to their writing. Bands like Blasphemy and Bestial Warlust, for example lack a refined structure to bring a listener into their atmosphere. Instead these bands are an all out assault on the senses, while blending it with a very dark atmosphere. This approach to the genre didn't capture the majority in the same way, but I like a few bands who manage to pull this off particularly well. For the most part it's not really my thing though.

Originators: Beherit, Blasphemy

1 comment:

  1. i agree on your thoughts about snorre/thorns.
    as for the "bestial"-issue, which in fact i do like very much, beherit were greatly influenced by blasphemy and, of course, sarcofago.