Black metal is a genre often characterised by its brutal simplicity, but in the hands of these artists, it’s so much more.
For those who don’t know, way back in 1991, Peaceville initially rejected Darkthrone‘s genre-defining A Blaze In The Northern Sky because it was too rough around the edges. Black metal has always been about doing what the fuck one wants, about individualism and transcendence – and to this day, black metal enjoys an almost jazz-like longevity due to the very loose confines of it’s musical limitations.
Whilst in the modern day, some sects of the genre are still bound by orthodoxy, black metal has croaked up a lot of bands that stretch the original template or demolished it completely, so we thought we’d collate a whole bunch of them for you to consider.
All the bands here have taken the musical style most conventionally associated with the frozen winds of Northern Europe and taken it to weirder aeons, subverting its tropes and approaching it with a more progressive mindset. It’s the spirit of the proceedings we’re looking into, not just bands that are really hard to listen to, so you’ll find everything from the fizzing static of nothingness to the weathered stone of coal-black doom, not to mention some stuff that doesn’t make immediate sense and some stuff that never will.
Hailing from Omihachiman, Japan but originally from Australia, Moonboat are a three-piece with their roots in the ragged ends of black metal, but their leaves and branches everywhere else. The trio of Nick Bowman, Tim Carr and Craig Lorimer released the sparse and harsh Black Pine Mountain in July 2009, and the confounding Spirit Panther in May 2014, with the latter’s mix of shrieking, freezing blackness grating bones with deliberately off-time death rock, muffled shoegaze, four bars of dark eurodance and some truly skeletal blasting. Some tracks change direction so firmly that the first couple of listens are a disquieting experience, adding to the enigmatic air surrounding this mysterious trio. With almost no information about them online, Moonboat are about as elusive as it gets, leaving their extremely odd music to do the talking. Also, don’t Google the term ‘moonboat’ because it’s rude.
Blut Aus Nord
Avant-garde takes on metal genres were not an entirely new idea when French stalwarts Blut Aus Nord emerged almost 25 years ago, but the band’s commitment to weaving experimental textures into their thrilling form of black metal has undoubtedly been a major inspiration to many of the younger bands on this list. In many ways, the band are the antithesis of black metal at its most stale and predictable – not only have they denounced the “satanic clowns” they’re often compared to and distanced themselves from themes of Nationalism, but whilst many continue to contribute to the cycle of primitive production, corpse paint and provocation set down by the subgenre’s second wave, Blut Aus Nord have been tackling boundaries and tropes with murderous rage since 1994. Their latest, Deus Salutis Meæ, comprises terrifyingly addictive black metal with the weight of only the most colossal doom metal and the most distressing of predatory death metallers, rounded out by industrial textures and mesmeric avant-garde extremity.
A band that ended up on a lot of end-of-year lists in 2017, Australians Bolt Gun took the idea of black metal and stretched it out over a very, very wide area. Last year’s Man Is Wolf To Man, aside from being influenced by Russian works by Lopushansky, Tarkovsky and Kieslowski, took the icy cold so many try to harness and drew it to almost absurd lengths, with their two tracks of droning, starving, broken atmosphere clocking in at 30 and 23 minutes apiece. Previous records Iron Surgeon and Exit As A Swarm aren’t office party material either, and show the Fremantle trio to be not all that into warmth in any way. One of the most striking bands signed to Aussie extreme-in-every-sense label Art As Catharsis, Bolt Gun will serve you well if you’ve ever wished your black metal was sadistically harsh, genuinely sinister, and influenced by the Russians.
This classic one-man band started up in Switzerland in 1997, and from the ‘98 release Steineiche took the atmospheric black metal template defined by the likes of Burzum and ran with it into the forest. Occasionally entirely bereft of drums or anything other than the sound of howling winds, Paysage D’Hiver crafted a truly desolate landscape of total ice, with tracks frequently breaking the fifteen-minute barrier. The vocals sound genuinely inhuman for the most part, with production leaning so far towards lo-fi as to border on the result of excessive tape-to-tape copying. A total devotion to this bass-free method of creation has been alleviated only by main man Wintherr’s tenure in the nightcrawling Darkspace, where a mild concession to listenability has manifested. Nevertheless, few bands capture such an isolated, warmth-free feeling as that found on Welt Aus Eis.
Coagulating out of the snowy confines of Australia, Convulsing’s split with Siberian Hell Sounds broke arses left right and centre last year. This writer was astounded to learn part way through that 21-minute opus that it was all the work of one bloke, albeit one that has enough vision to make Jef Whitehead from Leviathan look like he’s standing still. A constantly shifting, barking mad amalgam of sinister cleans, deathly Portal-isms, outright blasting, roars, screams and cataclysmic unpleasantry, Convulsing nevertheless sound like a terrible beast that its sole creator has somehow managed to get a leash onto. Pulling from all the lightless parts of music, from doom to hyper-detuned death, and sounding like an unholy firestorm, the defiantly disorientating approach taken across Convulsing’s current releases puts them in the same hateful vortex as Deathspell Omega, and fans of any of these aforementioned bands need to get in on it.
As this list attests, one-man bands are a ridiculously common occurrence in the realms of black metal, with individuals often programming and recording all the instruments themselves. Few and far between, however, have successfully combined the grim atmospherics of black metal with the impending dread of power electronics and hard noise. Australian project Nekrasov, the work of Bob Nekrasov (also of Rebel Wizard), has managed to take those genres and turn them into some of the vilest, most unsettling pieces of music this side of Gnaw Their Tongues. Nekrasov’s latest record, The Mirror Void, traverses the line between unrelenting atmospheric black metal and harsh power electronics to create a truly horrifying listening experience, almost playing like a dream collaboration between Transylvanian Hunger-era Darkthrone and Merzbow.
Harsh in a truly clattering way and sounding like they record from one phone into another phone, Kastchei hail from the UK as part of The Dropa Collective, nestling somewhere between ’80s UK crust punk with the shrill, cacophonous racket of black metal’s primal origins backing up their fizzing, spattering missives. Titling your record Communist Black Metal Madness! does set one’s stall out in quite a robust manner, and the stirred-with-a-drill combination of hardcore punk, pogo-grind, ultra lo-fi synth, anti-production and errant blasting marks them as a band not terribly interested in what they’re supposed to be playing, if such a notion exists. With both their current EP release and their split with Grimmness being worryingly engaging listens in their own right, this is a band right at the very edge of black metal with a long, ugly strand connecting them to its core.
Like being shut inside your own mind and simply left to deal with it, the merciless onslaught that is The Hyacinth Garden came into being at the tail end of 2017, with an emphasis on making as wild a black metal release as possible. While giving the listener the thinnest possible guarantee that those in charge have some control over the outcome, Graveflowers‘ distorted, unintelligible vocals and atonal approach to just about everything show what happens to someone when their musical normality baseline is Watchmaker and Black Witchery. Scything their way out of Portland in the United States, this bass-free racket teeters on the brink of igniting while giving some alarmingly mournful and melodic sections a chance to shine through what often sounds like two bands playing over the same drummer.
Wolves In The Throne Room
Taking black metal’s longstanding love of nature, tradition and old gods whilst forsaking its Nationalist tendencies, this Olympia, Washington band’s output takes heavy influence from their Scandinavian predecessors, but also draws from those on the avant-garde spectrum, like Neurosis, and even synthesiser-based artists like Popol Vuh. Whilst they’re more-than-adept at unleashing primal blastbeats, raging roars and abrasive riffs, Wolves In The Throne Room are also ones to embrace the use of ambient textures to get across their environmentalist messages. Admittedly, the band has struggled of late, with the ambient-dominated Celestite proving somewhat of a misstep in 2014, but 2017 follow-up Thrice Woven held more than a few hints that the band remain one of modern black metal’s more noteworthy names. As founding member Aaron Weaver once put it: “Wolves in the Throne Room is not black metal, or, more accurately, we play black metal on our own terms, for our own reasons.”
Fancy being blindsided by churning Italian black metal seen through the filter of a more understanding Can? Well, you’re in luck. Hatching on Fallen Empire Records, Blattaria’s self-titled record appears to be a concentrated attempt to capture the exhilaration of being fully awake in all of your nightmares at once. On the very cusp of making the most fleeting of sense, this is black metal seen through the filter of psychedelia, at the very apex of whatever drugs you’ve taken too many of. Literally hellish in places, little concession is given to riffs, mercy, rules, or anything else that might bring the listener any comfort. The fact that it sounds like someone trying desperately to grab pieces of their spirit and nail them back together when those pieces want to spend all their time exploding gains it extra points in this score-less segment.
Tar black and with one of the most breathtaking covers in this rogues’ gallery, the boundless mire that is Mizmor came into being in 2012. Taking a truly morose stance towards the environs of black metal on their hour-long opus Yodh, this is a one-man outfit with more of a doom slant. Huge, long songs confront a life lived in the throes of depression, yanking into one miasmic whole some surprisingly tender acoustic work, crumbling mesas of cursed doom, billowing shrieks, magnificent droning and some intense blasting. There’s hints of the late Johnny Morrow and the is-he-alright expulsions of Alan Dubin in the vocals of sole member A.L.N., and those of you who wish Burning Witch had gone a bit further – like chucking in a bit of blown-out thrash – will find this Salem, Oregon band particularly fulfilling. Written on Bandcamp as מזמור , Mizmor translates (appropriately) as ‘mystic’.
Zeal & Ardor
Originally kicking off his new project after asking users on 4chan to give him two different music genres, Swiss-American multi-instrumentalist Manuel Gagneux (also of Birdmask) set out with the intention of blending black metal with African American spirituals, with the latter suggestion coming from a random, slur-using racist on the platform. The resulting material is even more experimental and distinct than that description would infer, with black metal blastbeats meeting not only spirituals and electronic textures, but hints of rockabilly, blues, and even melodeath. In truth, one would be stretching to call this simply black metal, but official debut album Devil Is Fine certainly took from the genre’s themes of freedom and liberation, underpinned as it is by a narrative thread involving African chain gangs using Satanism to rebel against their Christian captors. Though reception of any kind was initially relatively minimal, the release was eventually picked up by MVKA and rereleased in 2017 to widespread acclaim. Since then, the project has catapulted from a mysterious online cult to somewhat of a phenomenon in the metal scene, even landing a support slot for Prophets Of Rage. Now bolstered by a significant following and a full live band, Gagneux is preparing to release the project’s second full-length, Stranger Fruit, in June.
Snarling, burning, hate-ridden French barbarism abounds on the 2016 release of False Highs, True Lows by the confounding weapon of wretched unkindness that is Plebeian Grandstand. Hard as balls and toweringly ugly, these Toulouse-based firebreathers take the stargazing approach of Blut Aus Nord and left-hand path of Mithridatic and set it alight, biting at the flames and smearing themselves with the ashes. This is a progressive take on black metal that makes little or no effort to bring the listener any sort of joy that isn’t related to being turned inside out by the desperate, baleful, dismembered vocals or the shifting sands of the drums, save for the knowledge that the pieces are so well written you could listen to them for months and not hear everything. Unlikely to be played at your local metal night, but maybe they’re super cool.
Harrowingly slow and centred around a debilitating crawl, Nortt are the ideal black metal band if you consider a band like Loss a bit pacey. When the full-length Galgenfrist was released it stood in the musical landscape as a colossal, lightless tower, an edifice so opaque that listening to it required a tanning bed session beforehand. When Endeligt dropped at the very end of 2017, a full ten years after Galgenfrist, the heartless crush of yore had given way to a bony, sharpened finger, agonising in its wisdom and a painful reminder of mankind’s mortality. The whole record sounds as though it’s dying, but not in a romantic, heroic way; it is a creature that knows it’s out of time. A true titan in the depressive BM universe, it takes a special sort of pain and commitment to produce music as spartan and gloriously sad as this.
Formed by the late IT (Tony Särkkä) and All (Jim Berger) in 1989, Abruptum were once described as “The audial essence of pure black evil” by Euronymous of Mayhem, who signed them to his label Deathlike Silence Productions. Their sound can be defined as a mixture of second wave black metal and dark ambient influences, with a focus on not creating any structured songs, instead opting to go for more improvisational methods throughout their career. Their 1995 opus Evil Genius, a compilation of their first two demos and seven-inch EP, was made up of droning Sunn O)))-like guitars and doomy Black Sabbath-esque drums, with random stabs of keyboards mixed in to create a truly unholy racket. The stand out performance were the vocals, though, which are truly horrifying, pain-riddled screeches – rumours (albeit unverified) even circulated that the band had tortured and cut each other during the recordings. Abruptum exists today as an ambient/noise-focused project led by Evil (Morgan Steinmeyer Håkansson) of Marduk, who joined in 1991 and took over after IT stepped away from the scene in 1996.
Words: John Tron Davidson, George Parr, Dan Hallam, Richard Lowe