Pictured: Sunbather by Deafheaven / Transylvanian Hunger by Darkthrone
True black metal is a contradiction. It is without a doubt the most extreme metal genre, both sonically and conceptually. It has been known to embrace, even promote, themes of torture, rape, murder, and most frequently, Satanism, and its use of human shrieking, unforgivably grating instrumentation, and its insistence of poor recording quality means it sounds awful, sometimes in a good way, often not. However, despite its yearning for the extreme in everything, it is also extremely conservative, scorning any and all attempts at innovation within the genre, and is obsessed with the importance of tradition and national heritage. Tremelo picked guitars, blast-beat drums, screeched vocals, Satanic lyrics. Sway too far from the blueprint and it’s not true black metal, or, as its adherents phrase it, it’s not ‘kvlt’.
The act that symbolically represented this contradiction most completely was in 1992 when the Norwegian musician Varg Vikernes (aka Burzum), arguably the most important figure in ‘true’ black metal, to patriotically honour his Viking roots, burnt down three churches. Bands from this genre and this culture still have a huge cult (or ‘kvlt’) following: revered as edgy, subversive, and philosophically deep. Bullshit. They’re just as morally bankrupt and intellectually shallow as the next fascist or neo-Nazi. The number of times I’ve seen people wearing Burzum T-shirts at gigs is depressing. Just because Varg acts mysteriously in interviews and lives in the Scandinavian wilderness like some Nordic sage, doesn’t mean his torturous murders and vitriolic hatred towards Christians (and presumably Muslims and Jews and all other religions that aren’t Satanism or paganism) can be excused as some trendy artistic statement. I often read articles complaining that critics focus too frequently on the narrative and culture of black metal, rather than the music – but I think that’s the fault of the musicians. Especially as the music, by the musicians’ own admissions, is born from the same philosophy that prompted them to be racists. It’s a shame because albums like Transylvanian Hunger, Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, and especially Filosofem are spectacular, and undeniably seminal.
This lengthy preamble prompts the question: why write an exPearimental column telling you to listen to such a traditionally un-experimental genre, performed predominantly by obnoxious individuals? Well. Partly because the common narrative of kvlt black metal’s refusal to innovate is largely a myth; Burzum, despite keeping one foot firmly in his imagined Viking past, is actually very musically progressive. But mainly because, over the past ten years or so, there have been a number of black metal bands, predominantly American, who have relinquished the ridiculous philosophy and theatricality of black metal.
Perhaps in spite of the culture’s violent resistance to experimentation, these bands have proved to be some of the most progressive and modern sounding bands around today. They take many traditional tropes from black metal — the tremolo picked guitars, hallmark ‘blast-beat’ drum patterns, and often the screamed vocals — but merge them with elements from shoegaze, indie rock and post-rock. They realise the potential that the black metal blueprint has to make brutal, beautiful, and emotionally powerful music, but shake off the fascist baggage, and supplement it with great songwriting, and new and innovative sounds. While to the average music listener, these bands may still be hard to get into, they’ve brought the genre closer to the mainstream than anyone could have predicted possible.
If you want to listen to ‘true’ black metal, check out the albums I’ve listed above. But the following list make up what I perceive as the best of the genre’s exciting new era.
Dream House — Deafheaven
I’m adamant that Deafheaven are one of the best bands in the world. It’s truly masterful the way in which they so effortlessly bring together the genres that influence them, into such an equally brutal and beautiful sound. The hazy pink cover art of their outstanding album Sunbather is a statement against ‘true’ black metal if there ever was one. Dream House retains a black metal blueprint but seamlessly brings together influences as variable as My Chemical Romance and My Bloody Valentine.
Reign Array — Liturgy
Liturgy are perhaps the most hated band by kvlt black metal fans: probably because they are the most innovative and creative, to the point of eccentricity and occasionally pretentiousness. Their album The Ark Work is one of the most bewildering and exciting releases of last year. In their lead singer’s own words, “cross-fertilizing hardstyle beats, occult-oriented rap, and the glitched re-sampling of IDM” … whatever that mean.
IIIIIII — Krallice
Krallice’s breed of black metal is dense and mind-bogglingly technically proficient. Their album Years Past Matter is worth a listen for this quality alone. Imagine the rigorous compositions of a prog-rock band like Yes, impeccably produced, played by the heaviest band in the world, and you’re not far off.