Whose idea was this, anyway?
The origins of black metal are mysterious and obfuscating. Some say it has existed since the dawn of mankind, passed down by secret societies since time immemorial. Others say it is the natural product of hard drugs, occult magic, and frigid climates. All that we can really be sure of is black metal's most recent musical lineage. Long story short, the names you need to know are Celtic Frost, Bathory, and Venom. Although these bands largely retained the roots of thrash and traditional heavy metal in their music, they arguably planted the seeds for the subsequent evolution of black metal through their use of evil sounding riffs, pounding rhythms, and gruff vocals, as well as a harsh, unpolished guitar tone.
What exactly does black metal sound like?
Well, according to me circa that last paragraph, black metal is characterized by evil sounding riffs, pounding rhythms, and gruff vocals, as well as a harsh, unpolished guitar tone. But that could just as easily be a description of death metal or hardcore punk rock, so let's elaborate a little...
Black metal is about atmosphere. It's not about exploiting one riff, or one verse, or one beat. It's about the whole, the effect, the dark swirling vortex that is invoked as the combined elements of the music transcend the sum of their parts in the mind's eye of the listener. The technical intricacy of the music is not merely an exercise in musical showmanship, but a necessary means to this end. Any third-rate punk band can play a fast beat, but with black metal, the beat is extremely fast and densely layered with different cymbal, snare, and bass drum patterns. This rhythmic approach lacks the obvious anchor points that people normally use to gauge the beat cycle of a piece of music, and thus the music seems to leave the ground altogether, becoming truly atmospheric. Paradoxically, the same can be true of doom metal - often the beat is so slow that the listener's internal metronome cannot properly anticipate the gaps, and thus the music appears to "float" between drum hits.
Now let's get back to the evil sounding riffs, and why they sound so evil. In music theory, you have your major scales and your minor scales. To use a gross oversimplification, major scales tend to sound brighter and more cheerful, while minor scales tend to sound darker and more evil. Why is that, you ask? Aside from the inherent bias of human perception, it's because major scales use mostly whole notes, whereas minor scales use a lot of half notes (i.e., the black keys on the piano). If you've ever fucked around on a piano, you've probably discovered that you have to get the black keys involved in order to play anything really creepy sounding. That's why those keys are black, and that's why black metal is called black metal (well, okay, I made that last part up).
There is dissenting opinion on whether synthesizers can play a useful role in adding to the atmosphere that black metal aims to create. Most listeners believe that it simply depends on how skillfully and tastefully the synthesizer is used, but some traditionalists argue that if a black metal band is skillful enough to begin with, then they do not need the help of synthesizers to create atmosphere.
Personally, I can understand both arguments, and I would use the metaphor of hard liquor to rationalize it like this: Just as there are times when you would rather take shots than have a mixed drink, there are times when you would rather experience the effect of the guitars and drums on their own rather than mixed with synthesizer parts.
Why do black metal musicians wear spiky body armor?
Why does KISS wear mascara and eyeliner? Why does the pope wear that funny hat? Why does GWAR dress up as... whatever the hell they're supposed to be? It's just theatrics. For people who grew up in the grunge era (and now the pseudo-indie-post-rock-woe-is-me era) it's hard to understand why a performer would wear something other than their normal clothes while onstage, but this is known as being theatrical, and it is another way in which black metal differs from death metal. Unlike death metal musicians, who typically wear t-shirts and jeans onstage, many black metal musicians are known for wearing black and white makeup (corpsepaint), spiked armbands and shoulder pads, and anything else they can find that looks menacing. No, they are not trying to convince you that they are some kind of medieval warriors. They are just trying to make an artistic statement against the comfort and complacence of contemporary society (that's my guess, anyway...) To be fair, pop stars have their own makeup and wardrobe departments consisting of stylists, hairdressers, fashion designers, etc. - the only difference is that they are still trying to look like average people to some extent, whereas the black metallist is trying to differentiate himself from the average person. The problem is that when all the other black metal artists are trying to look the same way, it becomes a kind of reverse conformity and ends up being another cliche.
Of course, not everyone who wears black and white makeup is involved in the black metal scene. Learn to spot the differences:
Dimmu and Cradle?
Dimmu Borgir and Cradle Of Filth are two of the most well-known bands associated with the black metal scene. However, many black metal purists do not consider them real black metal for a number of reasons:
- Both bands use synthesizers to create a symphonic sound that accompanies their guitar riffs, and many die-hard fans believe that black metal should not involve synthesizers.
- Both bands are often accused of playing a watered down version of black metal in order to gain a wider audience.
- Both bands have achieved commercial success, and this in itself is arguably a contradiction of black metal's anti-establishment ideology.
These arguments will either seem reasonable or completely unfair depending on your point of view, but regardless of whether Dimmu Borgir and Cradle Of Filth can accurately be called black metal, the fact is, they are metal bands, and they are typically associated with the black metal scene, for better or worse. I personally enjoy Dimmu Borgir because I think they write interesting music, however I am not a fan of Cradle of Filth.
What are the sub-genres of black metal? And why do people spend so much time squabbling over them on the internet?
I'm afraid I can't answer the second question, but I will attempt to shed some light on the first. In a frostbitten nutshell, the sub-genres of black metal are as follows:
Troo / Kvlt BM, such as Mayhem, Marduk, and Burzum.
Symphonic / Classical BM, such as Emperor, Tvangeste, and Dimmu Borgir.
Melodic BM, such as Dissection, Lord Belial, and Old Man's Child.
Industrial / Futuristic BM, such as Thorns, Kovenant, and Limbonic Art.
Folk / Pagan BM, such as Borknagar, Vintersorg, and Rossomahaar.
Avant Garde / Post-Black BM, such as Lux Occulta, Sigh, and Diabolical Masquerade.
Mesopotamian BM, such as Melechesh, and... that's pretty much it.
Satyricon also deserves a brief mention in any comprehensive discussion of the black metal genre. They don't really fit neatly into any of these sub-categories, but they deserve some credit for influencing many of the bands that do.
Is black metal satanic?
In a word, no. Black metal is simply a medium of artistic expression. Is William Friedkin satanic just because he directed The Exorcist? Is software developer John Carmack satanic just because he created Doom? Was Anton LeVay satanic just because he wrote The Satanic Bible? Okay, bad example.
Generally speaking, the purpose of dark imagery in any type of extreme metal is to compliment the dark atmosphere of the music in a symbolic, symbiotic way. Lyrically, black metal artists often draw upon a wide variety of mythological and cosmological subject matter without giving special treatment to any particular viewpoint. The fact that some black metal bands can become almost fanatical in their anti-beliefs doesn't alter the basic premise that such vocal ramblings essentially serve to embellish the musical rumblings, aesthetically rather than dogmatically.
In the end, the final verdict on whether a song's content is to be interpreted concretely or metaphorically must ultimately reside with the listener. I would also like to remind the jury that they themselves are merely self-conscious representational vibrations in an infinite spectrum of matter-energy substance: The song of the Universe.