The old black metal had no sound of its own. It was not a genre. It was more of a marketing category used to differentiate Christian music from (purportedly) anti-Christian music (Weinstein 286–287). In this way, black metal was once no different from earlier music dubbed Satanic, including folk, blues, and jazz.
Nevertheless, while many types of music have been condemned in this way, heavy metal subcultures are different in that their members have made a tradition of playfully rearticulating rhetoric from out-groups. This is not to say that metal was the first to attempt such an innovation, but it was among the first to make it a central part of its subcultural identity and to articulate it with a distinctive sound.
One instructive point of comparison is the United States band Coven, whose 1969 album ‘Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls’ featured a cover depicting the band dressed in quasi-medieval garb, accessorised by a skull sceptre and inverted crucifix.
Along with songs like ‘Pact with Lucifer’ and ‘Dignitaries of Hell,’ the final thirteen or so minutes of the album features the band reciting a black mass. Regardless, the music may have been black but it was not metal, sounding like a slightly more psychedelic Jefferson Airplane. Among later, heavier, more metal acts of the 1970s, like Led Zeppelin (England) and Black Sabbath (England), such dark symbolism would become more routine. Yet the first to directly reappropriate the black metal label was Venom (England), releasing ‘Black Metal’ in 1982.
Though Venom’s historical importance was recognised by the metal subculture prior to the emergence of the black metal genre, the fact is that they were understood as a primordial stage from which better, heavier, more extreme metal, such as death, had evolved.
Unlike Coven, however, Venom were far less committed to the Satanic shtick, mixing in oblique references to devil worship among the usual rock themes of sex and drugs. This was the typical intragroup understanding of Satanic metal as merely part of a greater pastiche of countercultural signifiers (Walser 151–160; Weinstein 141–142).
The dearth of actual Satanists in the subculture had been an open secret, and knowledge of that fact undoubtedly drove fascination with the cult-like crimes of 1990s Norway. One of the greatest questions has been: why did not the Norwegians understand that the diabolical icons typical of extreme metal were not entirely serious? Venom, for example, were hardly earnest or convincing in their Satanism; they are frequently compared to the band in the mockumentary ‘This is Spinal Tap’ (1984). All the same, as Moynihan and Soderlind speculated, “Early Black Metal bands like Venom might not have been very serious about their image, but many young Norwegians may have been unable to realise this” (40). It is not difficult to imagine that the Faustian farce of a minor 1980s metal band from England might, a decade later in Norway, appear as something other than what it was meant to be.
However, in the Kerrang! magazine cover story that brought the Norwegian scene to the attention of global metal audiences, the problem seems to be not an inability to see through the image, but an unwillingness.
In the article, Mayhem’s Aarseth cites Venom as an influence, and when the interviewer points out the obvious inauthenticity of Venom’s act, Aarseth answers that Norwegians “choose to believe otherwise” (Moynihan and Soderlind 97).
Likewise, in Baddeley’s interview with Varg Vikernes of Burzum (Norway), Vikernes explained, “We are the way Venom, and Bathory claimed to be. We believe what they pretended to believe” (206). This demonstrates the willful ignorance of contradiction identified by Kahn- Harris as typical of black metal fans.
Still, contradiction is hardly rare in music subcultures, or in any culture for that matter. There is nothing more contradictory, for example, about death metal artists denying personal diabolical belief or evil intent while fostering a prolific, focused, and elaborate aesthetics of Satanism and other despicable themes with their music.
More to the point, the intragroup crisis of the black turn was not so much about failing to understand the subtle, often ironic deployment of Satanic signifiers as it was about refusing to affirm what counted as a good, heavy sound. However, while the term “black metal” originates in Christian othering, and was taken up in the spirit of identifying with this imagined Other, this is not the case with all iterations of the form.
Satanism per se is but one component of what was, and what continues to be, a more diverse ideological field organised around similar sounds (Hedge Olson 125–129; Weinstein 286–287). To understand fully what a counter-hegemonic recollection of an already transgressive past entails, one has to understand the emergence of true black metal as something more than anti-Christian or anti-social, neither of which would distinguish it as a genre or describe the breadth of themes present in today’s black metal. One must understand that the black turn was largely anti-metal, and that this created the real split from which it could become an audibly distinct (re)collection.
Natalie J. Purcell’s 2006 study of death metal revealed a number of fans who questioned whether metal had reached the ultimate extreme of heaviness in death. Even death metal artists sensed that their genre suffered under the weight of its own formulaic decadence.
In a 2002 documentary, members of Immolation (USA) explained why they strayed from standard death style, and detailed what had come of following death metal to its logical extreme. Commenting on their own move away from the 1990s trend toward extremely complex yet barely melodic metal, the group’s guitarist admitted, “I would be in the car, put in a tape of one of my favourite bands, and I would have to listen for two or three minutes before I could even tell what song it was. It had gotten ridiculous. So we wanted, on the next album, to get back to basics, using fewer riffs with more hooks” (Zebub).
Still, the most decisive proof of death metal’s aesthetic bankruptcy may have come in 2006 when the Wall Street Journal published a piece lamenting how weak contemporary death metal had become compared to its 1990s pinnacle, and especially mourning the decline of death metal’s most distinguishing feature, the “Cookie Monster” timbre of its vocalists, which had been displaced by clean singing and even rapping. The author opined that death metal may have reached its heaviest extreme and thus been forced to return to other, lighter means of innovation (Fusili).
This is to say that not everyone followed the black turn. For most, the solution to the crisis was a return to what Weinstein would call a more Dionysian form of metal, making the music more accessible yet less heavy. Black metal, however, is the product of those who would not cede the fundamental value of heaviness. However, how best to do such a thing?
Explaining what makes this type of music blacker than other metal, Darkthrone (Norway) drummer “Fenriz,” a self-styled historian and mouthpiece for the Norwegian scene, told a reporter: “There was not a generic sound back then […]. We had to decide ourselves what we deemed worthy of the black metal stamp. There were many “thrash” releases with a lot of “black” in them, whereas others had no “black” at all. This is not maths, so I cannot say one plus one equals 30. It had something to do with production, lyrics, the way they dressed and a commitment to making ugly, raw, grim stuff.” (Campion)
But what, exactly, was the black sound they sought, and how did it differ from death metal? What is one listening for when one returns to the archive in search of ugly, raw, and grim sounds?
When it comes to recording, Joseph Russo explained: “black metal, in its varying and perpetually evolving states, employs a literal decomposition and decay of its own presence; that is, the sound of the metal itself is, in a sense, rotting away before our very ears” (95–96).
In more concrete terms, the most readily discernible aesthetic manoeuvres in the turn away from death metal were the preferences for amateurism over virtuosity and for low-fidelity production over high. But the black turn pursued not just any kind of amateur, low-fidelity work. Rather, it reified only particular sounds, creating an ugly, raw, grim aesthetic specific to the dominant sensibilities of extreme metal at the time.
By tracing the roots of black metal to some of its earliest recordings, the following section articulates some of the fundamental qualities of this sound as well as how it came to be.