As we enter the winter months, it’s time for Death Metal Tuesday to switch over to its more seasonal, and Nordic cousin, Black Metal Tuesday. Okay, for you casual metal fans, “What is the difference between death metal and black metal?” A fair question, and one that the uninitiated ear cannot easily detect.
To understand black metal, we must understand the particular brand of death metal that they were playing in Sweden. You see, Norway and Sweden are like siblings too close in age, always competing with each other, and not-so-subtly criticizing each other. By the time death fever hit Europe in 1990, every musician in Sweden between the ages of 15 and 24 were starting to play an identical style of death metal -even to go so far as to be produced by the same guy and in the same studio. Naturally by 1991, the words Swedish Death Metal referred to scores of bands that sounded nearly identical to each other: buzz-saw guitars, punk beats, and guttural vocals.
Across the border in Norway, a group of young musicians calling themselves the “black circle,” under the leadership of Euronymous from the Norwegian band Mayhem, developed an “answer” to the Swedish Death Metal saturation. They took the polished recordings, and muddied them up. They took the subtle thematic elements and ambient passages and brought them to the front. The drums became an inarticulate wash, the guitars, darker and more dismal. Instead of brutality and aggression, black metal emphasized evil and darkness.
At the onset of the Norwegian movement, the bands embraced and exploited Satan, like so many bands before them. As their death metal counterparts were taking stage as normal looking dudes in jeans and high-top sneakers, black metal bands were dressed in old school metal garb with black leather, chains, spikes, and make up / corpse paint. (Corpse paint is that white & black face paint popularized by the American band, Kiss, and then taken to an uglier and less clown-like level).
Black metal songs are classical based - not rock based. This means that they are not verse-chorus-verse type songs, they are like stories with a beginning and an end. The other important aspect of the “Black Circle” is they participated in actual crimes including mass church burnings across the Norwegian country side, and in extreme cases, murder.
This makes Black Metal the most extreme subgenre of metal, hands down. As a young child, I remember hearing that Ozzy ripped the heads off bats on stage, or that Alice Cooper stomped on puppies with giant boots. Of course, none of that was true. But with black metal, it was all legit. These were seriously messed up individuals, creating a music that reflected directly on the disturbed and clandestine lives they led.
Black Metal, when done correctly, sounds cold. It is a distinctly different genre of extreme metal that has since been watered down, mainstreamed, and commercialized in many forms. Thankfully, there are still plenty of bands playing legit (called "kvlt") black metal today, and to some extent, it still enjoys an underground status. The genre has evolved, splintered and surprisingly endured. In an age where so much of the metal genre is overproduced and completely sterile, black metal continues to supply raw, organic, and challenging music. Compared to death metal, black metal can be even more inaccessible and difficult, but consequently, it's that much more rewarding. So strap in and prepare for a cold and evil winter. Celebrate the darkness, don't be afraid.