An experienced music listener who is new to black metal asked for a doorway into the genre. This raises the question of how to appreciate black metal, which like most things in life is mostly mental preparation. Without context, black metal seems like any other loud genre, and it becomes harder to distinguish the newer tryhard junk from the original.
The best way to gain context is to walk through the history of the genre from oldest to newest. This approach, common in art, literature and philosophy, allows people to see what developed from what and what the reasoning for that was and therefore, what the reasoning is behind what is here now.
The result of this query was a simple list to urge people to explore this genre further. This list originates in the history of black metal music, but also in influences that can be identified among the bands as immediately relevant. Toward the end it extends more into general conjecture based on what shows up later in highly different form among the black metal works of relevance listed above it.
I. Proto- Metal
Bathory – The Return
Slayer – Hell Awaits
Hellhammer – Apocalyptic Raids
Sodom – Persecution Mania
Sarcofago – INRI
Merciless – The Awakening
Blasphemy – Fallen Angel of Doom
Von – Satanic Blood
III. Black metal
Immortal – Diabolical Full Moon Mysticism
Mayhem – De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas
Burzum – Burzum/Aske
Emperor/Enslaved – Split
Darkthrone – Under a Funeral Moon
Beherit – Drawing Down the Moon
Varathron – His Majesty in the Swamp
Havohej – Dethrone the Son of God
Impaled Nazarene – Ugra-Karma
Samael – Worship Him
IV. Second Wave
Gorgoroth – Antichrist
Graveland – The Celtic Winter
Ancient – Svartalvheim
Sacramentum – Far Away From the Sun
Ildjarn – Forest Poetry
Summoning – Dol Guldur
Zyklon-B – Blood Must Be Shed
Gehenna – First Spell
Behemoth – From the Pagan Vastlands
V. Extended Contemporary
Demoncy – Joined in Darkness
Sammath – Godless Arrogance
Mutiilation – Remains of a Ruined, Cursed, Dead Soul
Absurd – Asgardsrei
For immediate death metal background to black metal:
At the Gates – The Red in the Sky is Ours
Carnage – Dark Recollections
Godflesh – Streetcleaner
For heavy metal background to black metal:
Mercyful Fate – Don’t Break the Oath
Venom – Possessed
Angel Witch – Angel Witch
Destruction/Tormentor – Demos
For hardcore punk background to all metal:
Discharge – Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing
Amebix – No Sanctuary
The Exploited – Death Before Dishonour
Cro-Mags – Age of Quarrel
For electronic music background to underground metal:
Back in 1986, one lineup of Morbid Angel recorded what that lineup considers the first Morbid Angel album, Abominations of Desolation, which was later re-released on Earache Records in 1991. But three years later, the band re-recorded most of the songs in a streamlined form and released it as Altars of Madness, which the lineup of the band as was at the time through the present considers to be the first Morbid Angel album.
Avoiding a peek into the controversy and the clash of personalities behind it, metal archaeologists today can look at the musical differences between these two albums. Altars of Madness focuses on a tighter and more streamlined style that too often slips into the type of verse-chorus with bridge that was used extensively on speed metal/death metal hybrids like Seven Churches and Rigor Mortis. This may show the influence of Texas band Necrovore, who established a more aggressive aesthetic but kept song structures closer to the NWOBHM model that speed metal used.
At the same time, other bands were taking a hint from Hellhammer/Celtic Frost and writing songs which had some repeated passages which could be used as verse and chorus, but behind those varied the riffs to give the song a unique structure. This opened up new possibilities that all bands entrenched in the rock ‘n roll “verse, chorus, bridge, solo, repeat” pop song format could not reach. In that new frontier, bands saw new musical and artistic possibilities, and the form of modern death metal began.
The first Morbid Angel album contained many of these aspects, particular in some of the odd structures used on the first track. For the most part however it stuck to good old fashioned pop song format with a few modifications, using the Slayer technique of introductory riffs and some hints from Possessed. This showed a dramatically different side of the band than the extended compositions of Abominations of Desolation which, while many used verse/chorus at their center, were more likely to vary riff form and use solos as a kind of second layer to the rhythm guitars.
Controversy continues to this day regarding which is the “true” Morbid Angel. As strange as it seems, the first recording may be the one that opened up more historical space, although its lesser production and expanded song structures made it less hard-hitting at any instance and thus less “heavy” or “brutal” to the audience, which is why the band wants it to be the first album: it is a better product. For many of us however Abominations of Desolation has long surpassed the first two Morbid Angel albums as the one most frequently listened to because of the depths of its complexity and musical imagination.
Before there was high speed access, or even AOL and dial-up, or even access through your favorite local educational institution, there was a network of hackers and metalheads who traded information with each other through person-to-person dial-up. These were primitive days for technology with most computers maxing out at 1MHz and 64K of RAM, which is like 1/10,000th of a smartphone.
At that time one of the most revolutionary acts was to run an AE (for “Ascii Express,” the program used) line, which was like a 4chan for 1986: completely anonymous, where anyone could upload any file and anyone else could download any file. Metal fans swapped lyrics, reviews and concert information through these online resources, as chronicled in my articles in Perfect Sound Forever and 2600.
The Metal AE served as the ground zero for all metal-related communications and people calling in from all over the world, blue-boxing or otherwise phreaking calls or even using corporate networks to dial out locally. This is where I started, publishing the reviews that eventually became the Dark Legions Archive. The tribute site whose link follows contains some of the flavor of early days of metal on the net.
Early death metal (Bathory, Slayer, Hellhammer, Sodom, Master) emerged as an aggregate of the past, comprised of speed metal (Metallica, Exodus, Nuclear Assault, Testament, Megadeth), late hardcore (Cro-Mags, Amebix, Discharge, The Exploited, GBH), classic heavy metal (Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Motorhead) and thrash (DRI, COC, Cryptic Slaughter). As a result, most death metal bands exhibited some tendencies more than others, although the founding early death metal bands tended toward the type of tremolo-powered phrase-based riffing exemplified by Slayer.
For example, Deicide on its second album Legion arguably made the album that …And Justice For All wanted to be, with lots of choppy percussive riffing forming intricate textures from which a melody emerged. Early Master sounded more like a punk band with its simple song structures and emphasis on droning, protest-like vocals. Second-wave death metal like Death and Possessed had a tendency to apply speed metal song structures and riff styles. Even advanced death metal like Pestilence often sounded like a more technical and complex version of early speed metal.
But focusing on death metal requires we look at what was unique to it. Getting past the vocals and the intensity, what distinguishes it musically is its use of that tremolo-strummed phrasal riff. This in turn forced bands to escape from riffs integrated strictly with drums, and to as a result put more riffs into the song to drive changes that previous would have been done by the drums. That in turn forced bands to make those riffs fit together, what Asphyx call “riff-gluing,” so that songs avoided the “riff salad” plague that captured later speed metal.
These bands exploded onto the world from 1983-1985, inspired in part by Discharge’s Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing which hit the ground in 1982. Slayer in particular stitched together classic heavy metal and ambient hardcore like Discharge and GBH and ended up with its particular formulation, taking the tremolo and riffs independent of drums from Discharge and matching them to the complex proggy structures of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden with Motorhead speed and aggression. This was what launched death metal free from the shadow of speed metal, which was the first metal genre to break out of underground status despite being — for the time — fast, aggressive and dark.
If you want to get to the core of death metal, these albums might help. They’re albums I keep returning to year after year because they have enough complexity and that unquantifiable quality of having purpose and being expressive, perhaps even emulating the life around them and converting it into a beast of mythological quality, which makes them interesting each time I pick them up. Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, the players….
Slayer – Show No Mercy
While Hell Awaits has more expert composition, South of Heaven better control of mood and melody, and Reign in Blood more pure rhythmic intensity, Show No Mercy captures Slayer flush with the fervor of youth and the belief in big concepts. As a result, it is an intensity mystical album, uniting a narrative about war between good and evil with the actions of people on earth. It is not like Hell Awaits more solidly situated in a single mythology, nor like Reign in Blood and after an attempt to explore the dark side of modern existence in a literal sense. Instead, it is a flight of imagination mated to an apocalyptic vision of a society crumbling from within. As a result it is musically the most imaginative of Slayer albums, creating grand constructions of visions of worlds beyond that stimulate the fantasy dwelling within our otherwise obedient minds.
Massacra – Enjoy the Violence
Another early album in very much the style of Slayer but with intensity cranked to the ceiling, Enjoy the Violence shows a band intent on conveying intense energy through their music. To do this, they rely on not only near-constant breakneck speed but also vivid contrasts between the types of riffs that are used in a song, welding a rich narrative from riffs that initially seem simple like the scattered twisted bits of metal left after a battle. The result is closer to epic poem that punk music and blows conventional heavy metal and speed metal out of the water with the sense of unbridled aggression and lust for life that surges through its passages. In addition, it carries on the mythological tradition of Slayer but adds a Nietzschean spin whereby constant war for supremacy and domination is the only path not only to victory, but to personal integrity.
Morbid Angel – Abominations of Desolation
Most prefer the more refined versions of these songs from Altars of Madness and Blessed Are the Sick, but my ear favors these nuanced and unsystematic detail-heavy songs which feature more of a blending of textures into what sounds like a communication from another world heard underwater or through the croaking voice of a medium. Trey Azagthoth’s solos were best when he used his half-whole step leaps to make solos that sounded like the creation of gnarly sculptures, and these songs powered by Mike Browning’s drums and voice have more of an organic jauntiness to them than the later mechanistic tanks-crushing-the-shopping-mall sound of the full albums. In addition, this combination of songs strays from the later more interruption-based riffing this band would attempt and instead brings out their inner desire to rip all ahead go at all times, creating a suspension of reality like war itself.
Incantation – Onward to Golgotha
When the idea comes to mind of death metal at its essence, this album will be mentioned because it creates a sound unlike anything else. Incantation took the Slayer riff and song formula and slowed it down, doubled the complexity, and focused on alternating tempos and riff styles to create a building mood of immersive darkness. The result was not only aggressive, but melancholic and contemplative, like a warrior looking out over an abandoned bullet-pocked city. Detuned riffs collide and deconstruct one another, resulting in a sound like the inexorable flow of black water through underground caverns as civilizations collapse above. This rare group of musicians achieved a triumph here that none have been able to repeat individually, suggesting this album was born of a magic confluence of ideas more than a process (ham sandwiches on a conveyor belt).
Carnage – Dark Recollections
If you want “the Swedish sound” at its most powerful, Dark Recollections offers every component synthesized into a package that has not yet had time to become self-critical and neurotic, and thus is an unfettered expression of the thoughts of precocious adolescents translated into sound. The components of Swedish death metal are the modified d-beat, the use of melody to expand song development, a gritty electric explosion of guitar sound, and a tendency to write songs that are half searing budget riff and half horror movie sound track.
Sepultura – Morbid Visions/Bestial Devastation
The first EP in this two-EP package is the more classic death metal version and packs a solid blast of inventive riffcraft staged with theatrical precision into songs that form narratives of the topics denoted in their titles. But the riffs are instant creations of their own, shaped from raw chromaticism and whipped into fury by two levels of rhythm, both in the change of chords and the texturing of the sounding of them. The result owes quite a bit to Slayer, Bathory and Hellhammer, but also to the punk hardcore underlying those acts and a good knowledge of dark metal of the time, and yet is still its own animal. Nothing sounds like this except it, and by giving itself a unique voice, it conjures a power of revelation that endows these songs with lasting enjoyment for the listener.
Obscurity bias arises from our desire to discover hidden essential influences in the past. In metal, it is the search not only for concealed gems but for lost ancestors of our favorite music.
This thinking is a variation on our perpetual quest for more alternatives. We look at what’s there and think we want something better. This ignores the basic rule of life that usually what’s wrong is a lack of quality, not need for another alternative.
When we look back for historical alternatives, we are seeking to avoid the obvious historical truth: there are few ancestors because few necessary steps lie between 1969, when Black Sabbath recorded the first proto-metal record, and today.
Metal, punk and prog evolved in the 1968-1969 period in parallel, and since then have been trying to find a hybrid equilibrium that preserves the heavy worldview of metal, the intensity of punk and the complexity of prog without falling into the bluster, one-dimensionality and incomprehensibility that are the downfall of each respectively. With underground metal, arguably the last genres with any intelligence in metal, we ended up with metal riffing, punk strumming speed, and progressive rock song structures with underground metal, and that worked pretty well.
What happened after the initial invention was a hiccup. The music industry invented proto-glam by trying to make Deep Purple/Led Zeppelin bands “heavy” enough for the new Black Sabbath audience. What happened was that they made rock-metal, and while it was popular, it didn’t satisfy the core audience. After the hiccup metal retaliated with NWOBHM, most importantly Motorhead, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. The next generation combined those to make speed metal; the generation after that mixed in the punk that arose after Motorhead, hardcore punk, which was far more extreme and less musically related to rock music than anything which had come before.
In 1982, Discharge released Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing. The following year, all hell broke loose. Metallica unleashed their first album, starting speed metal. Slayer took off on a separate tangent. While both these bands were partially inspired by Venom, it was more in an aesthetic sense than a musical one, because if you remove the rough playing and bad production, Venom is basically Motley Crue. Slayer in particular took more from the punk side of things and made chromatic riffs and elaborate internal song structures where Metallica followed more of the rock format harmonically and used fairly standard song structures, except for their prog-influenced instrumentals.
Thus by 1985 we had Slayer, Hellhammer, Sepultura, Bathory and Sodom making proto-underground metal; by 1986, Morbid Angel had formalized the style. If anything, the Death and Deicide assault of the next two years brought death metal back toward the speed metal — Metallica, Exodus, Prong, Nuclear Assault, Overkill, Testament, Megadeth, Anthrax — of the previous five years. Death metal took on a life of its own when it escaped that with releases like the first Incantation, Massacre, Morpheus Descends, Massacra, Carnage and Pestilence releases with the turn of the decade. These brought metal back to its Slayer-Hellhammer-Bathory nexus, with tremolo strumming and labyrinthine song structures, and away from the more speed metal song structures of Death and Deicide. Black metal grew out of the melodic death metal bands who started structuring their songs using melodies, not riffs alone, and thus needed less of a drum-dominated approach. That brought them closer to the original punk sound, but kept the metal method of making riffs.
So what’s with the search for missing ancestors?
Black Sabbath creating proto-metal in 1969 was no accident. The band sought to find a new sound. They also realized the hippie movement was in the process of grossly selling itself out, having gone from a form of protest to a lifestyle of dissolution through mental obesity. It was time to kick over that false figurehead and do something new. Coming from a prog-tinged background, they invented something that sounded a lot like progressive rock, if it weren’t addicted to a dark and foreboding approach.
The message of Black Sabbath more than anything else was that truth is staring us in the face. People make a lot of noise to cover everything in flowers, sex and brotherhood, but really underneath it all a darker reality threatens. Most people are crazy. Most ideas form mass delusion of the herd. And these people have nuclear weapons, and control of economies, and other methods of taking these screwups to an exponential level. Every teen rock ‘n’ roll band sings about how the world is crazy, in part because it is crazy. Punk bands expanded upon this with an outlook of total nihilism at first, and later a kind of comfortable anarchism combined with genteel progressivism. These outlooks helped drive the evolution of genres to express a sound that was more rootless (punk) and more apocalyptic (metal) as time went on. This made it clear to each generation what the next would sound like.
The scary fact is that we can navigate metal based on a few nodal points. First, Black Sabbath, King Crimson and Iggy and the Stooges; next, after the proto-glam years, the NWOBHM triad of Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Motorhead plus the punk music that simultaneously wracked the UK (Discharge, Amebix, The Exploited) and US (Cro-Mags, Black Flag). Death metal would have arisen from these alone, but Venom accelerated the process aesthetically, although took a step back musically toward the bad old days of proto-glam. It was natural that death metal bands would experiment more with melody, and so black metal was an obvious outgrowth of this.
All of that leads me to today’s topic: Terminal Death, whose 1985 demo and other recordings have been released as Terminal Death by Shadow Kingdom Records. Their press release states:
TERMINAL DEATH: One of the first DEATH METAL bands 1985!!!!!
When you talk about the earliest Death Metal bands, we think of SEPULTURA, DEATH, POSSESSED (all stemming from VENOM) right off the top, but there were a few ripping bands that quickly fell into obscurity and TERMINAL DEATH is one of those bands. This is not just an obscure band; they could have been a HUGE Death Metal band if they were signed to the right label back then. They certainly had all of the talent the aforementioned bands did. Their 1985 Demo tape screams with energy and intensity! This is a re-mastered collection of their complete and very short-lived career. The CD booklet is massive with a very in-depth and lengthy interview done by Laurent from Snakepit Magazine. There aren’t that many Death Metal bands can come close to how amazing these songs were. This collection is another snapshot of that amazing early Slayer-esque Death Metal. Co-founder Shaun Glass, whom also co-found SINDROME later joined the more well known classic Death Metal band BROKEN HOPE in the early 1990’s. Shadow Kingdom Records teamed up with Hells Headbangers Records to release this lost gem as a Double LP. If you’re into vinyl, keep your eyes peeled for it will be a glorified presentation.
Let’s look at this historically. By 1985, the big three of death metal — Slayer, Hellhammer and Bathory — had already recorded. Then we listen to Terminal Death. For the most part, this is simplified speed metal at a punk pace, more in common with early Sacrifice than the death metal to follow. Not only that, but Deathstrike had already beat it to the punk/metal hybrid of that era. OK, so what? I don’t consider that important, other than that it somewhat contradicts the marketing. Let’s look at the music. It’s not terrible, but it’s also not very inspired. Lots of chromatic riffs, drums kind of struggle to keep up, and heavy repetition with standard song form. There’s a reason this band took a back seat to the other influences on the rising death metal movement. It’s not bad, but it’s not great.
The DLP doesn’t look bad, but it’s unnecessary. It’s basically the 1985 demo plus three unreleased songs and several other versions of the demo songs. It might make more sense, since the album is appealing to people who want early proto-death metal, to release the 1985 demo with the three unreleased songs for a CD that presents this band at its best. Hopefully SK will do that in the future. But the question for metalheads now is why to buy this. Its historical significance is not really that great, and the music is not exceptional either. With that in mind, I’d say Terminal Death is something we can bypass.
An interested reader wrote in, and so we continue our discussion of whether modern metal is important at all, and whither the future of metal.
So, metal music is over? Or do you that have a big journey to happen?
No, it’s not over. It needs to find new content. Its form is a refinement of its original form, and it can be refined further, but not by hybridizing it with other genres. Jazz-metal is dead, math-metal is dead, blues-metal is dead, indie-metal is dead, alt-metal is dead because these were always old and tired ideas. Alternative rock is punk mixed with 1980s indie rock. It’s self-pity music. Indie metal is emo and Fugazi mixed with d-beat and black metal. Post-metal is just slowed down indie metal. All of this music sounds more like Nirvana, Jawbreaker, Fugazi, Rites of Spring, etc. than metal. All of that stuff was born dead. What’s alive is the metal spirit. From Black Sabbath through Judas Priest through Slayer through Incantation through Immortal, it’s a continuum. Metal has just finally left rock behind with death/black metal and it needs to continue that transformation. It needs to finally become its own musical language entirely separate from everything else.
What is your opinion about mathcore (Botch, Converge)?
It’s an extension of late hardcore. Black Flag “The Process of Weeding Out” is the grandfather, and they ran it through the Fugazi filter. Neurosis was a better direction but the people who’ve cloned that don’t understand what Neurosis was on about. They can imitate the music, not understand the soul.
And what will happen with the black metal genre?
It died in 1996. Since then, with maybe five exceptions, the new bands have been imitators. Their goal is to make music that’s like black metal on the surface, but like regular indie rock underneath, so they can sell it to the kids for weekend rebellion but not so much that it sets them off-course and they can’t return to school, jobs, watching TV and voting for idiots during the week.
What will happen with metal? It’s over? There new things to create?
See the first question. “Big journey” is more true than “over.”
Here at the DMU, one of our goals is chronicling the history of metal, from its dual origins in hard rock & classical music up to its current form of diverse genres. The Heavy Metal FAQ is the definitive tome of metal knowledge; however, one of the best time-tested methods for communicating this information is simply through listening.
Last month, Australian radio program Burning Bitumen presented a 2 hour long aural history of speed metal, from its humble beginnings in ’70s hard rock, to the ’80s NWOBHM, up to the current state of speed metal which attempts to amalgamate the influences of the past while still striving to innovate.
For those who are new to the genre, those who would rather experience sound than read about it, or those who just want to listen to a couple hours of solid metal; this is an excellent place to begin.
We can only know the present by knowing the past. In the case of heavy metal, it is a murky past obscured by both the grandiose rockstar dreams of individuals and the manipulative fingers of a voracious industry.
Metal arose through a complicated narrative worthy of a lost empire, and by knowing this history, we can know more of the music we enjoy today.
Specifically of interest are a number of threads that interweave throughout the history of the genre, both as outside influences and later as internal habits, which influence its twisting path from something a lot like rock to a genre entirely separate.
This story then is a tale of how many became one, or how they found something in common among themselves, and how it has taken years of creative people hammering on the parts to meld them into one single thing, known as heavy metal.
However, no one really likes a lengthy essay. Instead, here’s metal’s history the best way it can be experienced: by listening to it.
1968-1970 — the origins
Three threads ran alongside each other: punk, proto-metal and progressive rock. All three are on the edge of being metal, since the type of progressive rock in question is raw and disturbing and not of the “everybody be happy love friends” hippie style. This is music that thinks our society is disturbed, and that therefore many of the values we reject are worth a closer look. Some is fatalist-nihilist, like the self-destructive tendencies of punk, where progressive rock is more clinical, and metal more epic (looking for meaning in the ancients, in nature, the occult and conflict).
Iggy and the Stooges – Raw Power
Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath
King Crimson – In the Court of the Crimson King
1971-1981 — maturation
A lot happened here, but basically, metal became more like its ancestors (hard rock), progressive rock faded out, and punk got more rock-music-like. The punk from this era is more like normal rock music than the outsider stuff it originally was, but also gains some aggression from Motorhead, who may technically be metal but were born of a progressive rock band (Hawkwind) and sounded very punk and inspired the next generation of punks to be louder, lewder, etc.
Punk music arose from the earlier work by Iggy and the Stooges, but formalized itself into a pop genre that used guitars more like keyboards than like the guitar fireworks of conventional guitar-intense bands like Cream and The Who.
An exception to the metal of the period was NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal). DIY and extreme for the day, it left behind the Led Zeppelin-styled “hard rock” vein of metal and got away from Sabbath’s detuned doom and gloom to make energetic, mythological but also somewhat excited-about-life metal.
Satan – Court in the Act
Angel Witch – Angel Witch
Iron Maiden – Killers
Judas Priest – Sin After Sin
1982-1987 — the peak
Punk got its act together, in part inspired by the more commercial bands like Ramones and Sex Pistols. This is where hardcore punk really happened. That in turn spurred a revolution because music had finally left rock behind, and by mating the nihilistic (no inherent rules) composition of punk with the longer-phrase riffs of metal (derived from horror movie soundtracks), the riff styles of death metal and black metal were born, and the progressive song structures of speed metal evolved. At the same time, essentialist movements in punk hybrids (thrash) and metal (doom) emerged, sending many back to the roots of these subgenres.
Discharge – Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing
The Exploited – Death Before Dishonour
Amebix – Arise!
A second generation arose in the USA (all of the above bands are UK):
Cro – Mags – The Age of Quarrel
Black Flag – Damaged
Minor Threat – Discography
1983 — the big branching: speed, thrash and death/black
1983 is a crucial year, and so it gets its own entry. Metal and punk cross-influenced each other. The result was a lot more metal. If you’re familiar with nu-metal or more radio style metal, start with speed metal, as it’s the most like really violent rock music with influences from progressive rock in song structure. If you like messy punk (!!!) try some thrash. And if you’ve already given your soul to Satan, try death/black. With death/black, there’s also some influences from progressive rock, although they’re balanced with punk technique which makes for a chaotic spawn.
Speed metal took the complex song forms of progressive rock, the muted-strum guitar riffing of the NWOBHM bands like Blitzkrieg, and added to it the high energy of punk hardcore and came up with songs that kept getting faster and faster. This shocked people of the day, and was the primary reason speed metal bands were different from the NWOBHM that came before them, hence it was dubbed “speed metal.”
Metallica – Kill ‘Em All
Nuclear Assault – Game Over
Megadeth – Rust in Peace
Testament – The New Order
Thrash is a hybrid genre that takes punk songs and puts metal riffs in them. Its name arises from “thrasher,” or skater, and those were the people who embraced this style of music that was more extreme than metal or hardcore at the time. While it leans toward punk, it used metal riffs, and wrote short songs that in the punk style lambasted society but in the metal style tended to mythologize the resulting conflict.
In 1983, these bands contributed just about equally to the new sound. In the largest part inspired by NWOBHM like Venom and Motorhead filtered through aggro-hardcore like GBH and Discharge, the unholy triad invented underground metal to come.
Bathory – The Return
Once proto-death/black metal had occurred, people began to expand on the formula. One side decided to make it more technical, and riffy, and taking after Hellhammer’s “Triumph of Death” and the increasingly mind-bending riffing of Slayer, made it use mazes of mostly chromatic phrasal riffs. On the other side, some wanted to preserve the atmosphere of the simpler songs that Bathory and Hellhammer had to offer, but injected melody and loosened up the drums to keep it from being as clear and rigid as death metal. While that latter group went off to figure out black metal, the death metal team experienced a boom of creativity and excess during 1985-1995.
Necrovore – Divus Te Mortuus
Morbid Angel – Abominations of Desolation
While death metal was just starting up, other bands were trying to figure out how to make melodic ambient metal, structured equally after early melodic metal and free-floating songs like Slayer’s “Necrophiliac.” The result had chaotic drums, deliberately bad sound quality to avoid becoming a trend or something which could be imitated, and high shrieking vocals to death metal’s guttural growl. Taking a cue from Bathory, Slayer and Hellhammer, it also embraced the occult and esoteric and rejected conventional social norms and religions.
As black metal matured, it moved into Norway, possibly inspired by the previous generation of melodic Swedish death metal bands who used high sustain through heavy distortion to make melodic songs which featured less constant riff-changing than the bigger bands from overseas.
Immortal – Diabolical Full Moon Mysticism
Mayhem – De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas
Darkthrone – Under a Funeral Moon
This is just the beginning; there’s a lot more after this in all of the genres, which kept developing in their own ways. This is only an introduction to the history of it all, and is not designed to be comprehensive…
Bathory’s relation to the band’s fanbase is an infected story of contradictory interests concerning very human desires for truth and meaning. Oftentimes fans and creator pulled in opposite directions, fighting over whether to leave the Bathory mask on or reveal Bathory’s inner workings.
Debuting in 1984, Bathory’s cult status was rapidly acknowledged in the musical underground. But during a long time a certain air of mystery surrounded the band. It seemed beyond time, beyond space, and even out of national context (to a Swedish person this Stockholm wonder didn’t seem as typically Swedish as many of the later Death Metal bands). In general, main man Quorthon kept to himself, few pictures of the band existed, and there were hardly any live gigs at all, in particular once the music got closer to Wagner than to Motörhead. Bathory took one heavy metal tradition to extremes: it created a mythos out of nothing more than a few cover images and an interview or two. This obscure and ambiguous myth bound people together. They wanted to live out this vision as they found it more appealing than their world. When the fanbase went looking for answers, and found little else but songs of evil, darkness, destruction and conspiracies with Satan, imaginations ran wild and filled in the gaps with what they wanted to see, not what they saw.
People have a desire for continuity in an individual’s past. In this case, that desire was expressed among metal fans by trying to explain Bathory’s music through references to a heavy influence from a band which prior to Bathory was seen as the most extreme: Venom. In several interviews Quorthon himself has denied any Venom influence, but in many biographies the memory of early Bathory as a Venom clone is nevertheless quite persistent. (According to Quorthon, his main influences were Black Sabbath, Motörhead, The Exploited, and GBH, and later on Wagner, Beethoven, and Haydn among others.)
The will to interpret Bathory’s music as a logical continuation of Venom, and accordingly seek out a sense of “eternity” in the genre which these two bands (among others) officially created in the earliest of times, is hardly surprising. A consistent pattern which suggests some sort of intention is simply more attractive than a chaotic mess of a genesis produced by two groups entirely unknown to each other.
It is, however, easy to recognize among the authors of reviews of early Bathory albums an aspiration towards and an acknowledgement of a distinct identity of the band and its founder. Regarding Bathory’s self-titled debut album and its follow-up, a mantra is repeated: these records are the starting point for a whole genre and Quorthon is its first hero. This is, so to speak, the creation myth associated with Bathory.
Repetition of this myth is presumably what makes it go beyond historicity and is what makes it timeless. It’s a way for a metal fan to not only “create” Bathory, but also be a part of the phenomenon. Even repeated listens to Blood Fire Death is a repetition of a mythical Now, which gives us a sort of “vertical anchoring.” If myth is a celebration of life, a summary of the Past in the Now, then this is certainly what Bathory is to the band’s followers.
Quorthon himself seems to have had an enormous respect for the mythical power of Bathory. Referring to his fanbase as “The Bathory Hordes”, he tried to reach out to it in order to receive answers on how to deal with this beast:
[…] send me a letter of what you think, what you would want us to do in the future […] Remember, it is you the fans out there on whom we depend on. […] Stay united and may the northstar shine on you all, keep metal at heart!!
This kind of democratization most likely rendered him unable to control the myth of the band. As Quorthon “grew out” of Satanism, and myths surrounding his persona still insisted on his being a demonic devil worshipper, he wanted to set the record straight. And this is where things get interesting.
In 1996, Bathory released Blood On Ice, a retro album with liner notes containing a lengthy exposition on the band’s early history. Presumably, Quorthon had wished to update his biography and rid it of the misconceptions that according to him were abundant in the metal world, but it was probably also a way to pay tribute to the legend by contributing to it with a few “behind the scenes” stories.
This, however, proved to be a serious miscalculation of what the fans wanted. The unmasking threatened the consistent cultural memory of Bathory. And reactions weren’t long in coming: fans spoke of sacrilege and treachery in the many letters that were sent to Quorthon as a direct reaction to the liner notes. The memory of Bathory was now to a great extent a social concern and no longer only the creation of one man. Quorthon writes:
I realized then more than ever before that BATHORY was surrounded by the same sort of stuff only legends are made from. The element of mystery and suspense was still very important to a lot of die-hard BATHORY fans. [The truth] didn’t suit the image that a lot people had of BATHORY or myself.
Quorthon died in June 2004, but shortly before his death he founded an official Bathory website in which he denies the old image of himself as someone who eats children, drinks blood, and lives in a cage, an image that apparently still needed to be denied. Quorthon tells of an interview many years after he abandoned his satanic image: despite the time that had passed, he was still expected to pose for a photo session with pentagrams, skulls and cobweb.
Ironically, many fans have as of recently noted that Quorthon himself tampered with the truth quite deliberately. The iconic Bathory goat – which has become a sort of identity marker among fans – is, according to Quorthon, a collage created out of bits and pieces “from several horror comic magazines”. In fact, the goat is taken from a finished illustration in a book on witches from 1981. It wasn’t until 2007 that the originator, Joseph A. Smith, got to know that his drawings had been used as subject matter for tattoos and the like all around the world for decades. It also turns out that the lyrics and title to Bathory’s “For All Those Who Died” is more or less stolen from a feminist poem by Erica Jong.
The legacy of Bathory will nevertheless die hard. Quorthon created a legend so powerful neither he nor its fans could control it, an art that hovers above independently of its creator and its receivers. Yet we shouldn’t forget the core quality of its longevity: Quorthon’s compositions. These are what will always create very much alive “elements of mystery and suspense” in the mind of the listener. That’s where the magic happens. Hence the art of Bathory is stronger than both the fans’ myth-making and Quorthon’s myth-busting.
Going through Bathory’s albums again, experiencing the passionate evil melody of “The Return of the Darkness and Evil” or the haunting existential angst of “Twilight of the Gods,” they contain the same everlasting power they ever did and is what makes Bathory eternal. The mask is put back on. Continuity reappears and everything returns.
The other day I looked up Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. I had seen it before a couple of times and heard it was important. It’s basically some chicks from a brothel with bodies deformed by Pablo’s furious brushstrokes, eyes staring at you uncomfortably and somewhat comically. A painting central to the evolution of Cubism, apparently. The point is that this is where visual art collapsed. The year was 1907; the nightmarish figures of modern art had already been around for decades, but now all traditional assumptions had to be annihilated, paving the way for all modern things to come – for all things post-modern as well. In hindsight, it’s simply the putrefaction of dying tradition doing its job. And we understand you, Pablo; you, the genius, had to show us what this meant, you had to show us the horrors of having no perspective at all. (How do we even start looking at a woman with two and a half arms?) Comedy aside, make no mistake: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is sheer terror. As such, it suffices, it does what it should – it works. Those disconnected shapes told of all modern art to come, avoiding conformity to the most extreme degree.
But as with all such experiments, it fails to tell a story. It’s easy to point fingers at modern art because of its apparent ugliness, but its real weakness is that it’s a simple cry in the dark. Yes, the modern world leaves quite a few existential challenges for man to take on, but making your art as pointless as you perceive the world will make us all end up in a downward spiral. If you have something to tell the rest of us, then wrap it up properly and share the experience. You can’t do that with a “perspectiveless” experiment. But that is, unfortunately, how modern and much of contemporary art has interpreted the world.
(Now, I’m no expert when it comes to modern art and I have no problem saying that all modern art is not crap. But when you’ve come to understand its overall idea, you don’t have to be an expert to dismiss it. As with jazz, the very idea behind modern art is “faulty”, which is why the probability of finding beauty among the rubbish is very modest.)
Heavy metal music chose a different path. Black Sabbath knew the world was not all beer and skittles when they recorded their first album, but they weren’t crybabies either. They didn’t, like Picasso, make an experiment based on how we have nothing to base things on. Instead, they told a mysterious and intriguing tale of what the world had become. Following in their footsteps, bands like Slayer, Deicide and Emperor put all this ugliness in musical narratives which in themselves were paradoxically beautiful. Not as direct mirrors of our world and society, but as stories with a glimmer of excitement.
This is how metal music rediscovered tradition, a tradition of storytellers who have supported our souls through the ages, from Homer to Bach to Rembrandt to old men by a fire in a small hut in a murky forest. Metal was chaotic, especially at a glance, but underneath it all was a spirit that believed in life. This way metal music created a resonant mythos for people in the postmodern era.
But finding tradition seems a happy coincidence in this case, or, more likely, something which metal music realized only through sheer necessity. Deliberately reinventing tradition in art isn’t always a good idea. It has been tried before, and in my experience the results are actually worse than a cry in the dark. If we go back to the visual modern arts and look across the spectrum from Picasso’s wild experiments to the opposite side, we find (among others) the Academics, like William-Adolphe Bouguereau. This is from the wow-I-can-definitely-see-what-it-depicts-but-it’s-boring-me-to-tears school of art. It has no urgency. Great art is almost by necessity always inspired by personal experience in the world and time we live in. Trying to remove yourself from it will turn the art into stories about virtually nothing. And that’s what we see in Bouguereau. An artist trained in the old school, with all the craft of tradition but none of the spirit gained from experience. That experience doesn’t need to be one of terror, but giving an artwork weight demands an ability to pick up what is going on around you and inside you. And we are not talking socio-political particularities here, but an existential understanding. What does it mean to be human during this time and this place?
One may find it hard to believe that the musicians of the most extreme bands in existence ever thought about this, and perhaps many of them never did. But somehow their instincts have sniffed in the air the feelings of the time, remolded it in their heads and had their guitars resound of what it tells – even if they motivate it by, “Listen to this sound, man, it’s awesome!” The artist is told something about the world, and tells it back to us. Bouguereau in comparison sure makes fancy wallpaper, but it’s anything but awesome – it’s lifeless.
Metal music, then, builds anew in accordance with a tradition that the Academics only very superficially mimicked. It also sees much of the same things Picasso saw, but while he screamed with pathetic terror, metal screams with delight.