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Audible Distinctions Between Black Metal and Death Metal

Audible Distinctions Between Black Metal and Death Metal
© Photograph by Angélica Vargas

If only for the benefit of those who have never had the pleasure/displeasure of being subjected to the aural assaults that Black Metal and Death Metal music constitute, it will be helpful to begin by attempting to delineate audible definitions of, and distinctions between, both Black Metal and Death Metal. That is, definitions and distinctions based on the perceptible differences exhibited between their respective sounds.

However, before doing so, we must pause to stress that no such attempt can ever pretend to amount to anything more than a rough approximation. For any attempt to delineate what might be considered definitive or immutable audible definitions of, or distinctions between, these two sub-genres is invariably problematised by at least three general facts.

The first of these, as most people who for one reason or another have acquainted themselves with the closely interrelated forms/styles of Extreme Metal are aware, is that Black Metal and Death Metal are both extreme sub-genres of the Heavy Metal genre in music, which, along with Doom Metal, Thrash Metal and Grindcore, “have radicalized certain features of heavy metal, in particular tempo, timbre and vocal styling…” Concomitantly, while any one of these radicalised features might be considered to be a more characteristic feature of a particular sub-genre, overlaps between their various forms, features and styles of playing largely negate the possibility of portraying any individual stylistic element as the exclusive property of anyone Extreme Metal sub-genre.

In a certain sense, the second general fact is the polar opposite of the first problem. That is, despite the fact that none of the Extreme Metal subgenres can claim any particular form, feature or style of playing to be altogether exclusively theirs, most bands, both inside and outside of the same sub-genre, have their own unique sound.

Thus, even within the confines of a single sub-genre we are prevented from making any immutable assertions about its sound, for we are ultimately presented with the equally difficult task of trying to accommodate what Deena Weinstein identified in the course of her treatment of Heavy Metal as “a multitude of ‘signature sounds.’”

Finally, the last, but by no means least, of our three general problematic facts is embodied in the trite truism that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” That is, to gain a true appreciation and understanding of any genre “requires comprehending its sound,” and thus, in the case of Black Metal and Death Metal, ultimately acquiring a few albums and braving those migraines oft complained of by “Metal virgins.”

Although there certainly exist some Death Metal songs, and parts of songs, which exhibit what might be considered comparatively moderate or slow tempos, Death Metal is predominantly an extremely fast and aggressive style of music. Setting this often exhausting pace, and thus providing the foundation on which every band’s musical superstructures are built, is percussion. For this reason, we will begin with the drums, which, as Natalie Purcell confirms and elaborates, “[i]n Death Metal … are often very dominant and very fast. Hyper double-bass blast beats, which mimic the sound of machine gun firing, are common and are utilised frequently.”

Often breaking up the monotonous prevalence of the rapid double bass drumming, however, are rolls and fills as apt and elaborate as the individual drummer’s feel for music and technical ability will permit. And, of course, when occasion permits, it is not unknown for Death Metal drumming to slow to beats dominated by such distinct timed blows to the high-hats that the machine-like-effect/sound generated almost borders on being able to be described as industrial — recalling as it does visions of factories and inhuman machinery.

Falling in line with the drums, much of the guitar playing in Death Metal is also extremely fast. Often played on down-tuned guitars, Death Metal riffs are customarily of a very complex, and thus seemingly even chaotic, nature; with more adept guitarists even managing to work spurts of the rapid trilling and finger tapping usually reserved for guitar solos by Thrash Metal, 80’s Glam Rock, and accomplished lead guitarists like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, into them.

It will come as no surprise, then, that the effect produced is frequently such an amazing density of sound that it renders the riffs almost wholly unintelligible to the casual listener. All is not lost, however, when the pace of the riffs deigns to slacken to a slow grind. For during these instances the chaos routinely gives way to low churning riffs whose menacing tone can be quite arresting.

Turning our attention to Death Metal’s vocals, it is worth noting, as Purcell has done, that it is they “which would strike the casual listener before anything else,” and that “[t]hose who are outside of the scene typically classify it [Death Metal] according to the vocals, ignoring the definite trends in the instrumental music itself.” Succinctly, the reason for this is that they are spewed forth in an assortment of primal/bestial tones that ranges from low guttural growls (which often sound as though they are being produced by someone who has just “gargled with hydrochloric acid”) at one end of the spectrum, through to maniacal, screeching screams and shrieks at the other. Thus, making them the most apt and primal vocalisation of Death Metal’s inherent aggression.

Unlike Death Metal, in Black Metal the aim seems to be generating a distinctly atmospheric feel to the music, with all of the band’s raw aggression more often than not being channelled towards that end. Nevertheless, Black Metal too is predominantly an extremely fast and aggressive style of music. Consequently, it is often even more relentless pace is similarly set by percussion. The drums in Black Metal, however, often give precedence to a more decided, constant/monotonous and simplistic double bass beat — as opposed to employing the “Hyper double-bass blast beats” that are characteristic of Death Metal. The effect: a less penetrating, if still dominant, purring.

Alternatively, perhaps more accurately: a relentless, overriding drone. Moreover, during those intervals when the pace slackens, in Black Metal you are far more likely to encounter beats that seem consciously designed to generate an almost haunting resonance than anything approximating an industrial sound.

Riff-wise, generating a distinctly atmospheric feel to the music necessitates the more chaotic style of riffing characteristic of Death Metal taking a back seat to tremolo picked chord progressions and riffs. For it is only the incessant blurring of sound so generated that seem capable of producing their peculiar spectrum of sound, which has cold and grim situated at one end and proud and triumphant at the other.

As atmospheric a sound as the combination of an incessant double bass drum beat and tremolo picked riffs can create, in isolation it can often sound quite thin. Fortunately, this potential problem has largely been overcome by the use of keyboards, whose ability to thicken up Black Metal’s sound and augment its distinctly atmospheric aspirations have increasingly served to render them an almost indispensable feature of the sub-genre. In fact, their usage has become so prevalent that Deena Weinstein, in her influential book ‘Heavy Metal: The Music and its Culture’, appears to regard their use as the defining instrumental feature between Black Metal and Death Metal music. For she wrote: “To a death-metal base, black metal added swirling layers of cosmic keyboard soundscapes…”.

However, despite being highly illustrative of our point, this assertion is somewhat misleading. For it neglects the fact that a number of Black Metal’s most influential acts have traditionally taken a very minimalistic approach to writing and recording Black Metal — an approach that largely shuns the sort of embellishment that the keyboard can provide.

After the release of their first album, ‘Soulside Journey’, which was a well-produced Death Metal album that uncharacteristically featured sporadic keyboard accompaniment, Darkthrone, in particular, switched to writing and recording increasingly minimalistic Black Metal albums. Consequently, by the time they were recording their fourth album, ‘Transilvanian Hunger’, they found themselves in a four-track studio that physically would not have been able to effectively record much more than your basic vocal, drum and guitar tracks.

This aside, Weinstein’s assertion could perhaps have been passed over without further mention if it were not for the fact that its simultaneous description of the sound produced by the subgenre’s keyboardists bears a greater resemblance to what might be dubbed a hippy’s description of drugged-out musical experiences than anything one would ever find on any Black Metal album. A more accurate way to describe the sounds exhibited by Black Metal keyboarding then, would be to say that they range from the relatively simply provision of sombre chords, which loom behind the guitar riffs, through to the more conspicuous provision of grandiose overtures and orchestral-sounding accompaniment.

As was the case with Death Metal, with Black Metal too we can freely say that it is the vocals “which would strike the casual listener before anything else.” However, in place of the beast-like vocal spectrum found in Death Metal, in Black Metal we encounter a more hellish spectrum of sounds, dominated by what can only adequately be described as rasped and screeched attempts to sound as “demonic” as possible — with the occasional high pitched tortured scream apparently being thrown in for good measure. Consequently, the effect Black Metal’s vocal spectrum serves to generate is not so much primal as it is malignant — making it the perfect vehicle for the subgenre’s unholy fervour.

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