The 13 greatest black metal albums of the 21st century
The shapes black metal has made over the past 20 years have been myriad. More primitive, more intelligent, looking back to a folk world, or picturing the grime of a grim future, the millennium has seen its tentacles reaching out in almost every creative direction imaginable, and plenty you never thought of.
Here, we present the 13 albums that best represent black metal over the past two decades. Whether they’ve been a commercial smash, or a hidden underground gem, all have been an artistic statement that’s made an impact. Sometimes challenging, sometimes a celebration, always magic, these are the none-more-black albums you need this Halloween…
13. Svartidauði – Flesh Cathedral (2012)
Svartidauði are as cold, dark and possessed of a sense of impenetrable distance as the thought of Icelandic black metal seems. Wearing face coverings to ensure their anonymity remained, when they released Flesh Cathedral in 2012, there was a feeling of otherness around the enigmatic quartet that was similar to the way black metal felt in pre-internet times: there was genuine mystery and intrigue, and your mind was left to fill in the blanks. Musically, this is something truly special as well. Darkly chaotic while maintaining a surgical precision, the abyss they create is a gnarly and enticing one, and even when loosely grouped with similarly-minded peers like Negative Plane, Mgła and One Tail One Head, Svartidauði stand that bit taller than those around them.
12. Winterfylleth – The Threnody Of Triumph (2012)
The magic of Winterfylleth lies in their ability to evoke black metal’s traditional vastness and scale, but in their own, uniquely British way. Call it suggestion if you will, but as Emperor summoned the wild terrain of Telemark, or Negură Bunget the dense forests of Romania, the heart of The Threnody Of Triumph is in the green rolling hills of their own small island. Indeed, the cover is a shot taken in Snowdonia National Park, perfectly capturing something of the music within. There’s a vastness to The Threnody Of Triumph that’s less combative and misanthropic than black metal can often seem. Instead, their sense of melody, light and shade actually make them a welcoming proposition, while the acoustic interludes are genuinely beautiful and gentle. Deservedly, it pit Winterfylleth at the forefront of British black metal, a place where they remain today.
11. Cradle Of Filth – Midian (2000)
Midian found Cradle Of Filth at their apex. Having firmly established themselves as Europe’s biggest black metal band with 1996’s Dusk… And Her Embrace and 1998 Elizabeth Bathory concept album follow-up Cruelty And The Beast, with Midian they embraced their profile wholeheartedly and made the most ambitiously theatric and grandstanding album possible. Featuring a vocal spot from Doug ‘Pinhead’ Bradley, and in Her Ghost In The Fog something approaching a macabre hit single, ironically it was in Midian’s more aggressive moments that it shines darkest. Opener Cthulhu Dawn is a full-pelt thrasher with Maiden melodies, while Lord Abortion and Saffron’s Curse swell with fury beneath their plush exteriors. Love them or hate them, Cradle had won big here.
10. Negură Bunget – Om (2006)
The name Negură Bunget translates as a dense, thick fog coming from a dark forest. An apt mood for the music of the Romanian outfit. Mystical, shadowy and difficult to get hold of easily, their mixture of black metal with traditional Romanian instruments and ancient language gave them as much of an identity as it made them creatively brilliant. A decade and change after they formed, Om put them on a bigger map than previous (superb) albums had, its intelligent artistry and primal strength drawing much deserved attention to a band who, previously, had been absent from most radars. Tragically, founder and drummer Negru died in 2017, but he leaves behind a legacy of genuinely unique, special music, with Om as the absolute jewel.
9. Wolves In The Throne Room – Diadem Of 12 Stars (2006)
Where Nachtmystium brought a cloying, choking sense of modern times to American black metal, Wolves In The Throne Room exist somewhere altogether more rugged and untamed. Shunning Satanism in favour of a more earthy, mystical outlook, the Olympia band also make music of a more stargazing stripe. This debut may have arrived without much fanfare, especially compared to the obsessive fandom they would later generate, but it remains a keystone of their journey and that of USBM. With four songs each clocking in at around a quarter-of-an-hour, with closer (A Shimmering Radiance) Diadem Of 12 Stars breaking the 20-minute barrier, the songs build and flow in a style more in tune with Neurosis than Darkthrone, reflecting the vast wilderness in which it was written and is in part a tribute to. More would come, but there’s something about this first step that puts it in a place all of its own.
8. Satyricon – Volcano (2002)
Volcano asked a very big question of Satyricon. Having signed to Sony after years operating on mainman Satyr’s own Moonfog label, did it represent a sell-out, or the conquering of a new world? For Satyr, this was other people’s problem: “They wanted a band with credibility and authority within the scene,” he explained, adding that, other than enabling him to indulge his creativity by giving him money for his bigger ideas, nobody ever got involved. Still, single Fuel For Hatred did have a certain accessible Black Album quality to it, and the Jonas Åkerlund-directed video, while controversial (bruised naked women are never a particularly comfortable look, to put it mildly), was a smash. Away from this entry point, however, Volcano is simply a natural continuation of Satyricon’s rebellious way of doing their music, only as out of step as the scraping, urban feel of predecessor Rebel Extravaganza had been to the Nordic majesty of Mother North from Nemesis Divina. And while some purists argued, Satyricon’s raised profile and increased sales began dropping seeds for a new generation of fans that would bloom in the following years.
7. Forgotten Tomb – Springtime Depression (2003)
To Italy, where we find a man with a German name (mainman Herr Morbid) creating a depressive atmosphere and seemingly loving every minute of it. Slow, steady, and shivering with emotion, Forgotten Tomb’s second album is a work of darkness that’s also weirdly uplifting at points. Indeed, the same could be said of similarly gloomy-minded outfits like Bethlehem, Shining, Silencer and Strid, finding something comfortable in such uncomfortable sounds and expanding them to drag the listener in. It’s oddly cathartic, and whether that result is Morbid’s intended one or not, the fact is that this is powerful music that freezes the blood, making it all the more pleasant when it thaws.
6. Xasthur – Nocturnal Poisoning (2002)
Like Nachtmystium, Xasthur played a huge part in making American black metal A Thing. Unlike them, however, Xasthur was not so keen on playing live, interviews, or even other band members. Thus, this loner, alongside the similarly no-mates Leviathan and Weakling, established an arm of USBM that in some ways suited the isolation and sparseness of parts of the scene at the time. Indeed, Nocturnal Poisoning is best-suited to headphones at night with no distraction, as you stare into the abyss and ride the waves of misery that solitary member Malefic pours into the music.
5. Enslaved – Isa (2004)
With the exception of Darkthrone, no band from the early days of true Norwegian black metal have had the long consistency of Bergen’s Enslaved. Already a known quantity with an allergy to making shit music thanks to albums like the majestic Frost and atmospheric Below The Lights, on Isa they continued their evolution around a corner that attached their vastness to something less ancient feeling. Already vocal on their love of prog bands like Genesis and King Crimson, on Isa shades of Tool and post-metal bands like Isis, Neurosis and other bands whose names don’t end in ‘is’ cast a new shadow, adding to their vast, mountainous sound while also pushing forward with a Viking’s determination.
4. Blut Aus Nord – The Work Which Transforms God (2003)
“Blut Aus Nord is an artistic concept. We don’t need to belong to a specific category of people to exist. If black metal is just this subversive feeling and not a basic musical style, then Blut Aus Nord is a black metal act. But if we have to be compared to all these childish satanic clowns, please let us work outwards from this pathetic circus.” Thus spake Blut Aus Nord guitarist/singer Vindsval. But if the French unit were ambivalent about the black metal tag, it’s partly because they are, in meme terms, galaxy brain, far above most. Nowhere have they proved this better than on The Work Which Transforms God, a truly spellbinding work that takes a black metal shape, and fleshes it out with depthless dark ambience and scraping, almost industrial elements. Naming it as a concept album despite (somewhat hilariously) not printing the words nor revealing what the concept actually is, it is nevertheless a grand artistic statement which, 17 years since its release, remains a towering expression of individuality and unique darkness.
3. Nachtmystium – Instinct: Decay (2006)
While in Europe black metal found itself an underground foothold reasonably quickly in the ’90s, in America things were very different. Put it down to whatever factor you like – too vast for a small underground to function, not as much crossover with the relatively booming death metal scene as in Europe, not a natural(ish) addition to an existing musical legacy, just not so much of a black metal kind of place – there were bands, but no definitive scene or sound. But as a new century began, that slowly started to change. Chicago’s Nachtmystium were not just one of the bands who proved that America could do black metal very well (alongside Krieg, Wolves In The Throne Room and Profanatica), but also brought to the table a distinct sound. With a nightmarish psychedelic element, third album Instinct: Decay is a warped trip through a cold, gritty place that feels suffocatingly urban, and inspired in its wake a host of new bands. Things wouldn’t end well for the band, with drugs, money issues and accusations of bad dealings clouding the music, but when they made it work, they were tremendous.
2. Deathspell Omega – Si Monvmentvm Reqvires, Circvmspice (2004)
Where once the French black metal scene revelled in primitiveness (and, indeed, such pleasantness as sending people dead rats in the post), with Deathspell Omega it showed it could also boast a wealth of depth and intelligence. As wreathed in shadow and mystery as their forebears in bands from the Les Legions Noire circle like Vlad Tepes and Belketre, the identities of the guilty parties here was, for a very long time, unknown to all but a chosen few, but the music on Si Monvmentvm Reqvires, Circvmspice (‘If you seek a monument, look around you’) has a dark character all of its own. Intelligent, skilled, focussed and overpowering, it is as artistic as it is threatening, creative and violent. And though this band have never made a dud, they’ve never bettered this, either.
1. Watain – Casus Luciferi (2003)
It really was quite something when Watain stepped onto the stage at London’s much missed Verge in March 2004 for their first gig on UK soil. It would be wrong and ridiculous to say that suddenly everything changed, but it was nevertheless clear that a new line had been drawn by this new blood. And there was blood. And it smelled. As hello moments go, it was devastating. At the time, the second wave of black metal had either run out of energy or changed into unrecognition. In some cases, black metal had become a badge of shame, or had become a hat worn so uncomfortably that it became comical. But there was something pure to Watain, something hungry, something that recaptured the flame that made this stuff so thrilling and special in the first place. The orthodoxy and fanaticism of Casus Luciferi proudly continued the lineage of second wave champs like Mayhem and Dissection, but there was also a sense of punching through to the next place. From here, Watain would go on to become arguably the most applauded black metal band of the 21st century, but it is from small acorns that mighty oaks grow, and with Casus Luciferi they firmly announced their intentions at the same time as they wasted no moments in acting upon them. Now, as then, their invitation to bathe ‘In the glorious light of the five-point star’ is one it’s hard to refuse.
Read this next:
From deepest darkest Newcastle to the frostbitten north and beyond, this is your whistle-stop tour of black metal in 14 songs.
Gerard Way has reflected on My Chemical Romance’s writing process on The Black Parade, and discussed how he’s been working on music “lately”. Ooooh!