The story of black metal in 14 songs

From deepest darkest Newcastle to the frostbitten north and beyond, this is your whistle-stop tour of black metal in 14 songs.

The story of black metal in 14 songs
Nick Ruskell

Perhaps more than any other genre, black metal has been defined and redefined to a point where it is in some ways difficult to square the umbrella with some of the music that falls under it. Even the definition of satanism, that most closely-aligned philosophy, has been read and expressed in so many different and occasionally contradictory ways that it's reached a point where it could mean anything. To some, this is the whole point, the ultimate freedom.

Over the past four decades, black metal has both grown and worn many hats, from the wild-eyed NWOBHM of Venom, to Mayhem's darkness, through the primitiveness of Darkthrone, the majesty of Emperor, and beyond into rewriting rules and reestablishing old, traditional ones.

It would be impossible to truly tell the story of black metal without getting into hundreds of tracks and artists all of whom have done something special. But as key turning points for metal's darkest genre, here is the story of the evolution of black metal in 14 songs…

1. Venom – Black Metal

What’s in a name? When Geordie trio Venom coined the term black metal for the title of their 1982 second album, it was a way of marking themselves out as one louder than the rest of the rising wave of metal bands going faster, harder and noisier. With more volume than Motörhead, more speed than Priest, and more diabolic imagery than Black Sabbath visiting a Hammer Horror set, they’d already set up business to the horned one with their 1981 debut Welcome To Hell. But with their second album – without having yet played a gig, claiming most venues couldn’t handle the intensity of their shows – it was made even clearer where their allegiances lay. The title-track is worthy of its name, beginning with the sound of a studio door being chainsawed through, and featuring a superbly bullish riff, proud lyrics about going wild in a Satanic frenzy, and a truly demonic performance from frontman Cronos. Almost 40 years on, black metal as a genre may be at times unrecognisable, but this remains the powerful seed from which all of it grew.

2. Bathory – Sacrifice

If Venom gave back metal its name, a clattering sonic starting point and a proud partnership with The Great Horned One in a time when bands were still trying to distance themselves from him (cowards), Sweden’s Bathory planed off Venom’s occasional laddy banter (see: Teacher’s Pet, Poisoned) and added a layer of cold, serious harshness. With the darkness of Sabbath attached to the filthy roar of British punk bands like Discharge and GBH, demo versions of The Return Of Darkness And Evil and Sacrifice found their way onto the 1984 Scandinavian Metal Attack compilation, being put together by the label where a teenaged Thomas ‘Quorthon’ Forsberg was doing work experience. It was through this bit of timely blagging that a body of work even more important than Venom’s began, after the label responded to excitement over Bathory’s tracks by telling Quorthon to write more songs for an album. Sacrifice would be redone for the band’s self-titled 1984 debut, while The Return Of Darkness And Evil appeared on the following year’s The Return…. Even containing the line ‘Come on, baby’, it was pure evil, being followed by ‘Raise your knife, welcome darling to my sacrifice’. And yes, Jonas Åkerlund would go on to show he’s much better at making music videos for Madonna and Lady Gaga than he was at drumming, but even this roughness adds to the legitimacy of illegitimacy, and helped create an atmosphere of absolute diabolism.

3. Celtic Frost – Into The Crypts Of Rays

Celtic Frost are simply one of the greatest bands ever to walk the Earth. Emerging from rural Switzerland in the early ’80s, the partnership of Tom G Warrior and Martin Ain first bubbled up as Hellhammer, who themselves were to be massively influential after their time, but split to become Celtic Frost partly because of bad reception, but also because Frosties’ grander vision was far more than that of Hellhammer. This opener from 1984’s excellent Morbid Tales EP may have the same full-throttle speed as some of their previous band’s work, but the more confident songwriting and better handle on the darkness and morbidity also showed that this was something new, something far greater. Across their amazing To Mega Therion and Into The Pandemonium albums, the band would push what could be done as a dark metal band immeasurably, bringing in keyboards, female vocals, and influences of bands like Joy Division and Killing Joke at a time when such things weren’t really countenanced. Here was the starting pistol on one of the greatest legacies in metal, black or otherwise.

4. Mayhem – Deathcrush

The arrival of Mayhem draws, for many people, a historical line in the sand for black metal. As arguably the first band of the genre’s second wave, here was an outfit who saw black metal as a genre in itself. Where forebears like Bathory, Venom, Hellhammer and Celtic Frost were separate bands doing their thing with very little contact or common ground (indeed, Quorthon once said, "I have heard Slayer's first and a few from bands such as Sodom, Destruction, Wimphammer / Celtic Compost, and I think they all suck. I don't even listen to black metal, death metal, satanic metal, or thrash metal at all. It's mostly crap,") Mayhem pulled all these parts together to create something whole. Put out by guitarist and leader Euronymous on his own Deathlike Silence label, the Deathcrush EP was far more extreme than any of their influences, unlistenable to some (who also mocked that what was meant to be a sinister red sleeve actually came out pink), but setting a new frontier in the underground they were trying to marshal. The rock’n’roll element was all but gone, in its place a harsh form of battery that came about by design, far more than by accident.

5. Bathory – A Fine Day To Die

As Bathory continued, Quorthon moved in a more ambitious direction, easing off the speed and introducing the grandeur of Sweden’s Viking heritage. His first full album of it would be 1990’s exceptional Hammerheart, but he laid the groundwork for it perfectly with the opener to Blood, Fire, Death two years earlier. With a stately folk intro complete with battle sounds and neighing horses, A Fine Day To Die immediately evoked misty mountains and cold, wild nature, while its lyrical story of ancient war and Norse mythology harked back to an age lost under industry. It didn’t just begin Bathory’s second chapter, but opened a door to a generation of bands to follow like Emperor, Enslaved, and anyone who’s ever looked to the fires of the ancients for inspiration.

6. Darkthrone – Kathaarian Life Code

One can only imagine the look on the faces of Peaceville Records’ staff as they hit ‘play’ on Darkthrone’s A Blaze In The Northern Sky album for the first time and the razorblade riff that opens Kathaarian Life Code bled out. They had signed the Norwegian band as a death metal outfit, and their Soulside Journey debut had seen them doing decent numbers and gathering a good level of respect for their technical heaviness. And then, drummer Fenriz recalled later, “They called me up and said, ‘What the fuck is this?’ And I said, ‘That’s fuckin’ black metal, man.’” Harsh, dark, cold and primitive, it was unexpected. More to the point, it was unlike anything else you could hear at the time. Fenriz will split hairs that there’s still death metal riffs in there, but it’s like saying there’s chicken in a nugget – it’s there somewhere, but only nominally. It has the distinction of being the first ‘true’ Norwegian black metal album from the country’s notorious ‘Black Circle’, and this song remains the absolute jewel in its crown.

7. Emperor – Into The Infinity Of Thoughts

As the darkness creeps over the Northern mountains of Norway and the silence reach the woods, I awake and rise.’ Just reading Into The Infinity Of Thoughts’ opening line, there’s a sense of something dark and foreboding, something majestic, something imposing but natural in beauty. When you put them to the staggering music the words accompany, it’s almost like summing up early ’90s Norwegian black metal in one song. Emperor were literally teenagers when they wrote and recorded this – indeed, part of the reason mainman Ihsahn kept his nose clean while his mates were out committing murder (drummer Faust) and burning churches (guitarist Samoth) was because he was not of an age where he could go out to the pub – but you could live to be 100 and still not manage five seconds of the genius they put across here. Proving that it wasn’t all about primitivism, instead the composition here is technically and creatively staggering, with ethereal keyboards adding a freezing atmosphere. Of all the bands from the Norwegian scene, it was Emperor who would have something approaching a normal career, but they were also the band who, in a time when black metal was often a thing to be mocked, earned a deal of respect and credibility for their self-evident excellence.

8. Mayhem – Freezing Moon

It’s difficult to name the definitive version of Freezing Moon, but this is something that speaks to the song’s demented genius, in that its menace almost transcends who’s playing it, while also gaining from the individual circumstances of different versions. For many, it will be the version captured on the band’s masterful De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas album, on which the sound of Euronymous’ guitar is like frozen barbed wire during its minor-key opening, and Attila Csihar’s vocals are truly twisted. It also features Varg Vikernes on bass, whose parts Euronymous’ parents asked to be removed following their son’s murder in 1993, but were instead simply made lower in the mix by drummer Hellhammer. But equally macabre is the version on the Live In Leipzig live album from 1993, featuring original singer Dead on vocals before he died by suicide. Even his introduction – “When it’s cold! And when it’s dark! The Freezing Moon can obsess you…” – carried with it something that leaves a mark. Or how about the Dawn Of The Black Hearts bootleg, or the studio version with Dead done as the 1990 Studio Tracks tape in very low number, and reissued several times as the only studio recording of Dead? Whichever, Freezing Moon is possibly the greatest black metal song ever written.

9. Beherit – The Gate Of Nanna

Finland’s Beherit could be both fiercely barbaric and mysteriously atmospheric as the muse took them. Their first album, The Oath Of Black Blood, was actually a compilation of their two demos, after the teenaged band supposedly spent their label advance on booze without actually doing any work. It was a happy accident that resulted in an essential document of bestial black metal violence. But it was on their Drawing Down The Moon album that Beherit’s black magic became truly apparent, particularly on the slow, moody The Gate Of Nanna. With a heavy influence of doom bands like Saint Vitus (notably, the song would later be covered by Finnish doom legends Reverend Bizarre), it showed further that black metal was as much about the atmosphere that could be created as speed and violence. That later Beherit mainman Nuclear Holocausto Vengeance would release albums of dark synth music under the Beherit banner should not have become a surprise after this.

10. Cradle Of Filth – Cruelty Brought Thee Orchids

When Cradle Of Filth grew quickly from the underground in the mid-’90s, some began to cry sell-out before they’d actually got much to sell out with. Bigger they may have become by the time of 1998’s Cruelty And The Beast, but they were also increasingly bold, the album forming a concept story about infamous Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who supposedly bathed in virgins’ blood to retain her beauty. This song proved something of a stand out, with its declaration of sin at the start and its massive riff. Not a ‘hit’ in the traditional sense, it was nevertheless part of Cradle Of Filth’s increasing profile (the band would feature on the cover of K! at least 10 times), and with it, dropping the seeds for a new generation of black metal fans and bands to grow.

11. Ulver – Porn Piece Or The Scars Of Cold Kisses

Black metal’s ideals of traditions are just as keenly observed as its insistence on forging one’s own path and breaking whatever creative chains you may find in search of expression. The purity, it is often said, is just as much about intent as sound. For Norwegian outfit Ulver, this artistic freedom has always been paramount to them, often challenging to the listener, but always stunning in its execution. As early as their second album, 1996’s Kveldssanger, they were breaking the rules, making a record entirely on acoustic instruments. But even this was nothing next to the shift on 2000’s Perdition City. Owing more to Portishead, Massive Attack and Björk than Mayhem or Bathory, on the surface Porn Piece… with its beats, piano and talk of ‘Streetlights and the grating of gravel in pedestrian subways’, the connection to traditional black metal is vanishingly small. But then, such is the point. At the time, main brain Kris ‘Garm' Rygg told K! that, “Things turn grey on me a lot quicker than they do on other people,” and made the point that such an intent to shake things up has always informed him as an artist. Thus, in some ways here he proved that black metal is only a matter of tagging and context – so long as you continue to do what thou wilt.

12. Satyricon – Fuel For Hatred

Like Cradle Of Filth, Satyricon’s huge profile would go on to help usher in a new legion of young black metal fans to the cause. And as a peak of this, Fuel For Hatred was more palatable than earlier works in some sense, with its almost garage-rock riff and semi-industrial stomp, it also retained an uncompromising fist, thanks to its controversial video, shot by Jonas Åkerlund – which was slick, but also featured a bruised naked woman with a snake. Satyricon undoubtedly had better songs, and definitely more traditionally black metal ones (Fenriz once called Mother North from 1996’s perfect Nemesis Divina album as “a black metal national anthem”), but as an illustration of black metal’s rise into the mainstream, there are no better examples than this.

13. Watain – Devil’s Blood

As the key players of black metal’s second wave either split (Emperor), became as comfortably dependable as Motörhead (Darkthrone), played keyboard in prison (Burzum), went a complicated way round to not live on past glory (Mayhem), abandoned the form completely, or drifted too far from the underground to be part of it, so a new clutch of bands began to rise. With a return to traditional values and sound, as well as a renewed affection for Satan that had started to go wayward, at the front of this new wave stood Sweden’s Watain. This opening track from their landmark second album Casus Luciferi outlined their intentions clearly: orthodoxy, dedication, Satan. ‘From stigmatised wounds now the river of gnosis runs free in the glorious light of the five point star,’ declared Erik Danielsson, as if to underline the point. While some showed that black metal’s fire could reach artistically into myriad sounds, Watain were going back to the source to stoke the flames and see how far they would go.

14. Deathspell Omega – Sola Fide I

Mysterious even by the standards of French black metal, Deathspell Omega are also masters of the modern(ish) genre. Maintaining a similarly dedicated, orthodox outlook to Watain, they also refuse to be constrained by convention, with a genuinely artistic brilliance that puts them on a plinth entirely of their own. With this new third wave, a great deal of pride has been placed on such a balance of tradition and making your own mark (as was the case in the early ’90s), and Sola Fide I is a shining, brilliant example of just how far it’s possible to go with both without sounding stretched or strained – a guiding light for others along their own path.

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