For this Christmas season, a new view of underground metal. Presenting the:
Dark Metal Compilation
Those who have contemplated on the history and legacy of metal music might have noticed that the trajectory of movements within the genre can be roughly divided into periods lasting about five years, allowing for a certain amount of overlap. The early 1990s were an interesting era in this regard as it saw the convergent rise of death- and black metal, reaching full maturation with releases such as Onward to Golgotha (1992) and Pure Holocaust (1993). For many this period represents an absolute peak, but like other “golden ages” it was followed by decline as the underground became a victim of its own success.
Still the mill keeps on grinding with multiple commercially successful but artistically empty endeavors to keep “the scene” alive and current. Metal after 1996 could be likened to a perpetual process of fossilization, hybridism and rock-ification that feeds on listeners’ desire for nostalgia, novelty and entertainment respectively. This explains why metal has kept its popularity, but also why it has become rotten from the inside. Each attempt at revitalization has rung depressingly hollow, lacking any sense of direction beyond being likeable, provocative or “smart.” What is needed is a reversal of the outside-in malady that has taken hold. Great music cannot be reduced to a set of stylistic signals; it derives its strength from deeper impetus to express something which carries meaning beyond the domain of organized sound.
One of the few serious contenders to carry on the legacy of death- and black metal with any sense of dignity was the short-lived dark metal phenomenon of the late-80s/early 90s. Liminal and mysteriously elusive in nature, dark metal began to take shape during the transitory period between death- and black metal, from which it acquired many of its characteristics. However, dark metal differs substantially from later black/death-hybrids in both spirit and song craft.
A telling example is found in the first Darkthrone LP. Arguably the earliest and most prominent representative of the style, Soulside Journey (1991) interjected a subtle sense of melody into what was essentially a death metal architectural and rhythmic framework, which allowed for the creation of emotionally charged, yet contemplative music that hinted at a radiating but unattainable beauty embedded in a whirlwind of chaos, negativity and nothingness. This is obviously a different beast than the high-on-intensity black/death performed by bands like Angelcorpse. While some regard it primarily as a stepping-stone towards black metal, Soulside Journey is indeed a fully formed vision in itself, distinctive from both its death metal heritage and what was soon to come.
While most of the music that could qualify as dark metal gravitates towards the intersection between death and black metal, bands would draw on multiple styles (primarily heavy, speed and doom metal) to further the expression. Most essential here is the impetus to explore the darker and outlier aspects of metal music. Like a Gothic version of a Joseph Conrad novel, dark metal delve deep into the cavernous regions of humanity. Embracing the horror of a futile and existence constantly threatened by death by discovering its peculiar sense of art and beauty.
One of the main reasons why this style never caught on derived from this external lack of a clear definition. Dark metal resembles doom metal in the sense that it has its own artistic mode while still not being a fixed sub-genre, yet the former is far less bound to any particular method of expression such as tempo. Rather than being defined solely in terms of external musical parameters, dark metal could rather be described as carrying a certain spirit that can manifest in any form of metal music, impregnating it with a characteristic but not easily grasped aura that transcends stylistic boundaries. However, this assertion doesn’t imply that parallels are nonexistent between dark metal acts. Common ground can be found in melodic gesturing for example, which explains why a common thread can be spotted between bands as diverse as Witchfinder General, Iced Earth, Obliveon, Cadaver and Septic Flesh. Not easily categorized, but a potential source of inspiration for aspiring artists who seek a revitalization of the metal genre.
Cemetary – “An Evil Shade of Grey” from An Evil Shade of Grey (1992)
Weaving a nocturnal vision through high speed death metal strumming applied to slower chord changes, Cemetary knitted together riffs into a landscape of dreams. While others saw the potential in this as a new form of “dark metal,” none were able to fully capture the mystery, imagination, and suspension of daily life that this album spun.
Sentenced – “Rotting Ways to Misery” from Shadows of the Past (1992)
Thunderous old school death metal that sluggishly builds momentum only to come surging down and sweep away everything in its vicinity. Although retaining a rudimentary approach to both form and function, Sentenced graced their early material with an undercurrent of archaic melody similar to what Sinister attempted on Diabolical Summoning. This band showed that underground metal was more than an outlet for aggression by hinting at a deeper and ultimately darker reality operating beneath shrouds of elemental destruction.
Septic Flesh – “Crescent Moon” from Mystic Places of Dawn (1994)
Staying true to the romantic spirit of metal, Septic Flesh created warm and outlandishly orchestrated music that branches out into a kaleidoscope of contrasting moods before settling down somewhere between melancholy and grandeur. Songs tend to be expansive in nature, hinting at a cyclical/narrative approach that incorporates an exceptional variety of metal stylings yet thankfully with enough compositional stringency to avoid degenerating into carnival music.
God Macabre – “Lost” from The Winterlong… (1993)
Drawing primarily on the pioneering works of Entombed and Candlemass, God Macabre delivered a moody and more dynamic take on Swedish death metal. While not as gratifyingly feral as their peers, this band deserves credit for introducing a subtle, almost Gothic sense of foreboding into a subgenre that was well on the way to becoming little more than a well-worn trope.
Divine Eve – “Harlequin of Perpetual Destiny” from As the Angels Weep (1993)
Taking cues from the Swedish death metal scene of the early 1990s and the (brief) revival of doom metal to follow, Divine Eve hybridized that approach with a Motörhead-style bounding rhythm and chorus-focused, addictive hook. This not only provided fodder for the late-90s stoner doom explosion, but brought out some of the hidden origins of death metal tropes.
Absu – “Descent to Acheron (Evolving into the Progression of Woe)” from Barathrum V.I.T.R.I.O.L. (1993)
Rudimentary death metal band Absu pushes towards frenzied clarity by breaking up recombinant sequences of chromatic riff-patterns with melodic inflections inspired by the first wave of Scandinavian black metal. At times oddly similar to the first Darkthrone’s first LP, Barathrum V.I.T.R.I.O.L. stands as a lost blueprint to a potentially stylistic hybrid that remains largely dormant to this day.
Mythic – “Intro / Spawn of Absu” from Mourning in the Winter Solstice (1993)
Working within a deliberately reductionist framework, Mythic crafted grinding death/doom that spells out its vision of engulfing darkness using the most basic of underground techniques. Iterations of discrete but internally related riffs-clusters derived from a shared set of core-motifs direct attention towards a single source of power hidden in chromatic patterning.
Darkthrone – “Cromlech” from Soulside Journey (1991)
Starting out in the midst of the death metal revolution as it was veering into chromatic riff textures in tightly calibrated percussion structures, Darkthrone instead began with the hypothesis that melody could unite this new form of metal and be used to create an ambiguous mood, or contexture of moods, instead of a forceful one. This inspired the black metal to follow as well as influencing the more avant-garde death metal to follow.
Samael – “Macabre Operetta” from Blood Ritual (1992)
Repetitive, palm-muted speed metal riffs engaged in internal dialogue with undemonstrative but highly adaptive percussion establish a fundamentally dark mood before delving deeper into morbidity. Contemporaries to the Scandinavian pioneers of the early 1990s, Samael paved way for an alternative vision of doom-laden black metal where practices of previous eras are put in the service of a dark force on the rise.
Varathron – “Unholy Funeral” from His Majesty at the Swamp (1993)
Although praised for their stringent approach to riff-based narrative composition grounded in older metal stylings, the artistic achievement of this Hellenic black metal band remains shrouded in mystery. In-depth study of the album’s modal/minor harmonic architecture would tell us how it “makes sense” in technical terms, but could not possibly explain the deeper implications perceived intuitively if taken as an organic whole. An esoteric paragon of lucid simplicity, few metal albums — irrespective of sub-genre — awaken the dormant realms of imagination like His Majesty at the Swamp.
Maleficarum – “Time I Am” from Across the Heavens (1995)
Death metal was pretty much in freefall by the mid-1990s, marred by either dead-end brutality or saccharine consonance. Although largely forgotten by now, Maleficarum was one of few bands of the time who understood how to combine the compositional syntax and punishing rhythms of death metal with black metal’s imperative for establishing atmosphere through melodic development.
Torchure – ”Depressions” from Beyond the Veil (1992)
Although initially written off for its speed metal technique and heavy metal mannerisms, Torchure’s debut album demonstrates a unique dark metal alchemy. Leaden palm-chugging with cadences from the Metallica era interweave with modally-inflected doom metal melodies which are subsequently absorbed into a spacious structural framework of pure obsidian. This fusion of death metal, heavy metal, and speed metal into a slower and more atmospheric format showed the underground how to extend its emotional reach by using techniques from the world above.
Asphyx – “Valleys in Oblivion” from Asphyx (1996)
As one of the early wave of death metal bands, Asphyx merged the doomy sounds of Black Sabbath into a hardcore-fueled, full-intensity sound. This created an epic song form within the most primitive and violent of musical approaches, unleashing the imagination of metal fans toward a primeval outlook on life.
- Download the Dark Metal compilation (2017) 117mb, zip/mp3