Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Black Metal Primer

The Black Metal Primer

As we prepare to study this fascinating genre, there are a few albums that will help us understand the context, and prepare for the cold winter. The Norwegian black metal bands are also referred to as "second wave" black metal bands. This is to differentiate them from the handful of foundation-setting bands called the "first wave:" Venom, Celtic Frost (aka Hellhammer), Bathory, Mercyful Fate, and Possessed. There are others, but these are the chief ones mentioned in most of the literature. It is also worth mentioning Slayer, as their brand of thrash was markedly different from everyone else in California (except for the aforementioned Possessed). 


Venom's second album was called "Black Metal," so let's start there. Venom are overtly satanic, to almost a comedic degree. Their simplicity and rawness separate them from many of the other metal bands of the day. They probably scared a few people back then, but Venom is decidedly the least scary of the first-wave bands. They have a touch of traditional heavy metal cheese (Ala "Teacher's Pet") at play here, so it's hard to take them too seriously. Still, the basic elements are here, and it's hard to deny their influence, plus - their album covers made great shock-value T-Shirts.


Celtic Frost's "Morbid Tales" is a completely different story. Tom G. Warrior's impact on the entire metal community cannot be overstated. Starting as Hellhammer, Celtic Frost's first full length album after name change is a heavy and raw offering that blends metal with the rawest elements of hardcore punk. Morbid Tales has both groove and speed in abundance. "Crypts of Rays, "Dethroned Emperor," "Circle of the Tyrants," and "Nocturnal Fear" are untouchable metal gems. One can detect similarities to Venom, but Frost has no hints of cheese, these guys are dead serious... Ooh!


Though heavily credited for death metal's origin, Possessed's "Seven Churches" album has detectable influences in the black metal world as well. Not only that, it's just a damn fine album. Did you know Primus' Larry Lalonde plays guitar on this? That's weird right? Florida's Death used this album as a blueprint for their "Scream Bloody Gore" album, and the rest is death metal history. 


The first time anyone hears King Diamond's voice, they are always dumbfounded. "Is this guy for real?" Yes indeed he is. Mercyful Fate's debut, "Melissa" inspired not only Metallica, but also the Norwegian "Black Circle." Though the influence may not be as instantly recognizable, the approach behind the music is key. The occult elements at play here are also undeniable. At times, this album is downright frightening. 

In terms of black metal's sound, no band deserves as much credit as Sweden's one-man-band, Bathory (aka Quorthorn). The eponymous debut is clouded in mystery and is so damn raw and scary, it has still yet to be equalled. Three minutes of wind and bells set the stage for an all-out attack cranked just a pinch faster than he can actually play. Bathory is about as cool as they come, and the first three albums are simply the shit. After that, Quorthorn singlehandedly started another genre - Viking Metal. Any fan of metal needs to check out Bathory, they are as fundamental to the genre as Sabbath, Motörhead, or Priest. 


Though Slayer’s entire body of work holds a certain amount of significance to the metal world, their debut and follow up EP (Haunting the Chapel), have a considerable influence in the early black metal. Slayer’s refinement would lead them to great success, but “Show No Mercy’s” raw aggression and Venom-esque undertones would put it in a class all its own. Though no truly Kvlt Norwegian black metal band would ever give props to an American band, the sound is definitely there, and hard to deny.


In the 80’s, the US had the “Big 4” thrash bands, and Germany had the “Big 3:” Kreator, Sodom, and Destruction. These three bands played a much rougher and unrefined style of thrash, appealing to those who would later play black and death metal. Kreator’s “Endless Pain,” Destruction’s “Sentenced to Death EP,” “Infernal Overkill,” and Sodom’s “Obsessed by Cruelty,” “In the Sign of Evil EP” all deserve further inspection from the aspiring black metal student. 

There are other bands out there that many consider to be legitimate “first-wave,” but it really is a select few. Important second wave band Mayhem’s first EP, “Deathcrush” good very well be considered a first-wave black metal album in 1987. But for the most part, the above list should prepare you for the journey ahead. Enjoy, and happy listening.

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