Cheat Sheet: Black Metal
by Chuck Eddy | October 30, 2012
There has quite arguably and notoriously never been a more "evil" rock-oriented musical genre than black metal. Its notable legacy includes countless church arsons; the 1991 suicide of an influential artist (well-named vocalist Dead of Mayhem), after which his bandmate (guitarist Euronymous) took a picture of the bloody corpse and it wound up on the cover of a live bootleg; the 1993 murder of said Mayhem photographer by an even more influential artist (Varg Vikernes of Burzum); white supremacist Nordic nationalism (Varg and followers). Still, all of those are more exceptions than rules in this genre: They're the sensationalist, tabloid-selling extreme of a music traditionally more defined by its high-register shrieking (a 360-degree turn from death metal's low-register growling), double-kick-drummed blastbeats, intentionally horrible production, religion-spurning (but unintelligible) lyrics and structure-spurning distorted sadism.
There basically seem to be two schools of thought about when black metal started, and the roster of representative albums below somewhat splits the difference between those schools: In other words, Venom's 1982 Black Metal (which invented the style's name and its lo-fi, more-Satanic-than-anything-before raison d'être) and Bathory's 1984 self-titled debut (whereon Quorthon is generally credited with originating the style's signature snarling) make the list despite being deemed by some masochists to be mere "important '80s predecessors" rather than black metal per se. But the corpse-painted, allegedly sincere '80s devil worship of Mercyful Fate/King Diamond and the avant-nuclear '80s pandemonium of Hellhammer/Celtic Frost were deemed more peripheral to the issue at hand, and thus were left out.
By the early '90s, though, all sorts of frightening Norwegians -- from Mayhem and Burzum on down -- were welding black metal for sure. Several are unearthed below, along with demon banshees from other mostly frigid habitats that prove hell froze over ages ago. Eventually some of the fad's less unlistenable purveyors of ugliness (Ulver, Sigh, Carpathian Forest, Drudkh) took the noise in more ambient, prog, pagan folk or just plain perverse directions; others concentrated on Viking stuff or war battles, or formed theoretical new hybrids by bridging gaps with death or doom metal. Or American dudes, alone in Mom's basement, pretended to be scary Scandinavians. Like all metal subgenres, at what point black metal stops being black depends on how big a purist you are. Here are 20 albums to help you decide.