Dawn Ray’d photo (upper right): Nat Wood
Since its incendiary and tumultuous second-wave in the ‘90s, black metal has been a subgenre doused in controversy and infamy. From arson to cold-blooded murder, it’s a genre with a history of violence, and if anything it has revelled in this reputation. It is after all true that its dark aesthetic adds something to the malevolent aura of the music itself. The occult imagery, satanic references and wonderfully over-the-top fashion (corpse paint et al) are all part of what makes the genre so grimly appealing, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with some commitment to playing the sinister part. But this makes black metal a fascinating case study for just how far to take an aesthetic, because as any anonymous TRVE KVLT social media user will attest, for many the perception seems to be that black metal is supposed to be shocking and offensive to the point that it is literally evil, and nothing says villain like living in your mum’s basement tweeting racial slurs and defending nazis, apparently.
Oh how rebellious it is to uphold the conservative christian beliefs the genre once claimed to stand against by upholding the status quo, fighting against diversity and denying LGBTQ+ people the right to live freely. How transgressive you must be to denounce inclusivity in a genre all about outsiderism. In a time that has seen ugly new faces of the far-right, major political upheavals like Brexit and a daily news cycle driven by hatred and fear-mongering, it’s pretty absurd to think that you’re fighting against the grain by moaning about how the woke brigade are ruining black metal to your 18 Twitter followers.
Nevertheless, as ridiculous as they are, the nazi and nazi-sympathising (read: nazi) scum who believe they have found a home in this genre are still not the fringe group of outcasts they’re often painted as, instead they’re deeply embedded within certain sects of the black metal scene. Many musicians who openly flaunt or discreetly hint at their bigotry often overlap with seemingly “safe” projects, complicating things if you’re someone who loves the music and wants to be able to support the many talented artists who aren’t bigoted assholes working within the genre. There is, of course, now a vocal globe-spanning community of anti-fascist black metal artists, not to mention the explicitly leftist RABM scene, but that wide space in between RABM and NSBM is a minefield, and nor is the distinction between “safe” and “problematic” entirely clear. Do you consider Rotting Christ “safe” because they contributed to a refugee benefit compilation; or does the fact that they’re signed to Season Of Mist – who sell shirts by a convicted paedophile in Inquisition – trump that? Panopticon may often be held up as one of the most well-known RABM bands, but they still planned to tour with Winterfylleth, whose English nationalism (already a thorny subject) increasingly looks like white English nationalism.
And it’s complicated further by the conservative perception of the genre that lies over even in that middle space. The genre is in many ways still stuck in the ‘90s, both in terms of sound and ethos, and the notion that the genre’s origins belong only to Norway still endures. Year after year, the omnipresent “Essential Black Metal” lists return, praising bands like Burzum, whose founder Varg Vikernes is a literal murderer renowned for *checks notes* being a nazi, and Leviathian, whose founder Jef Whitehead has been convicted of domestic abuse, and often doing so without any mention of South American bands like Mystifier, nor any of the infinitely more interesting modern bands who are actually keeping the genre alive by bringing it into the 21st century. Mentioning the likes of Burzum in such lists is not inherently bad – those projects are big names in the genre who have at times contributed in some small way to its continuation, but to do so without contextualising things that are as overtly negative as Being A Nazi and Being An Abuser, especially in lists that are meant in part to operate as an introduction to newcomers, shows a dangerous lack of accountability. Likewise, there can be a tendency to overlook any problematic issues around figures in black metal who belong to marginalised groups – as an example, it sometimes seems that discussion around Gaahl is focused on him being the most prominent LGBTQ+ musician in black metal, whilst overlooking that this is someone who has released records on NSBM labels and was in a band with a convicted abuser.
Unlike the aforementioned lists, this one is not intended to be a breakdown of essential bands or releases in the genre, merely an introduction to some wonderful artists who deserve your attention and are about as safe as you’re gonna get in black metal (though, as alluded to above, the exact decision on what is “safe” should be one the reader makes for themselves). Naturally, we can never guarantee that any artist we cover is 100% safe, and we’ve been burned before when anti-fascist projects have been found to have predatory members, but we believe that it’s important both to take active steps not to financially or vocally support problematic artists and to support those artists who do promote inclusivity and anti-fascist causes – whilst also ensuring to protect the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folk who often face persecution both inside and outside the scene.
If there’s anyone out there who captures a cold, bitter atmosphere as well as one-person anti-fascist project Gudsforladt, we’re yet to find them. David Meredith’s music is raw, with unrefined production, but not in the sense of creating a harsh noisy backdrop so much as it is a confined echoing atmosphere like being stuck in a narrow cave that just seems to keep plunging deeper into the earth and thus further from the light. This is utterly miserable black metal with shades of early emo like Rites Of Spring, sure to wipe that smile right off your face and drag you into ever-deepening pits of despair. Lovely.
It’s not for nothing that Dawn Ray’d have become the poster boys of the anti-fascist black metal scene, having put their anarchist beliefs at the forefront of everything they do. First and foremost, however, the band have gone from strength to strength because their music is phenomenal, fuelling their rage at the state of the world and their optimism at what it could be into some of the most cathartic black metal on the market. Check out the band’s track-by-track breakdown of 2019 album Behold Sedition Plainsong for a deeper insight into the specific issues their tracks address.
This anti-NSBM project’s earlier music, seen on demos like Torturous Howls Beneath Blood Banners and A Pale And Haunting Moon, goes straight for the jugular, boasting material that is as raw and direct as black metal comes. These releases introduce a slight twist on the vampyric black metal playbook, jumping straight to the part where the shadow descends and the fangs are already in your neck, but if those demos see us thrust into a vampiric world without warning, then the title of latest release Festering Vampirism is fitting in the way that the music now sees us deeply immersed within its morbid gloom. Its eight tracks take on a less antagonistic yet darker and more ominous atmosphere, with an intro of gloomy synths that gives way to steady, sludgy percussion and anguished growls that dance across tremolos like a howling wind through a barren castle. Their new project with dungeon synth artist Poppet, Bloodbells Chime, is also a head-spinning delight, mixing vampiric black metal with bizarre synth sounds.
This Brazilian outfit recently shifted away from their earlier black-death sound to immerse themselves in the world of blackgaze, with a new single focused on the struggle of being human in the modern world. ‘To Paint Hollow The Skies’ is a track with a sense of anguish that builds gradually, hiding just below the surface during the slow intro but soon overtaking the foreground as the biting, barbed-wire guitars and blistering blastbeats come into play. The accompanying music video features enigmatic black-and-white shots of Rio De Janeiro, but only ever from ground level, peering up at the towering buildings whilst taking in the details on the street, from a cat absent-mindedly cleaning itself to the scrawls of graffiti on the sides of buildings. The building sites seem as empty as the multi-story buildings, the structures of the city paying no heed to the people below nor the messages on posters pleading for Covid relief measures. Throughout, the message of “a rua fala” (the street speaks) is repeated.
We can’t claim to know a heck of a lot about Rejecter given that they’re a new outfit with just the one release to their name and little in the way of an online presence, but from what little info we do have they’re explicit upfront about their “antifash, pro-people” stance. Their music is a unique proposition too, at times blending classic or thrash metal riffing with blackened vocals and at others launching more thoroughly into black metal territory. For a first release The Vulgar Wine is an accomplished one, and with some refinement Rejecter could be a serious name in the RABM scene.
Seas Of Winter
Incorporating everything from the crusty vibes of post-2005 Darkthrone through to more experimental and hypnotic extremity, Seas Of Winter’s take on black metal is refined and ruthlessly effective. Instead of cartoonish Satanism, the band’s debut record tackles the real issues plaguing today’s society – the rise of fascism, the growing divide between rich and poor and, of course, the destruction of the natural world around us. 2020’s Forest Aflame is an absolute must, a record that “enters and exits not with a bang, but with a message.”
Tackling themes of heritage and community in an altruistic and investigative manner, rather than the hateful and cynical renditions of such topics that are so prevalent in metal, Wretched Empires’ sound is dark and antagonistic. Featuring Allfather vocalist Tom B. and Redbait alumni Will J. (guitar) and Cody A. (drums), the band incorporate touches of potent punk and roaring classic metal in a manner that will be familiar to fans of early Cradle Of Filth, but the presence of melodic and folky aspects in the vein of Panopticon also gives these tracks a mournful quality.
Black metal is often described as cold, as if in its malevolence it is entirely uncaring, devoid even of the sentimentality that makes us human. Californian duo Ragana take the genre’s icy heart and give it life, albeit only in the most nihilistic sense, their latest release We Know That The Heavens Are Empty taking its name from a line in the poem ‘The Toast Of Despair’ by early feminist and anti-capitalist icon Valtairine De Cleyre, a poem that purports that God is a lie and thus celebrates death almost as an act of liberation. The band’s music poignantly encapsulates the mood of this poem, blending sparse doom rhythms with serrated guitars and desperate howls that emanate up into an uncaring universe.
This US duo’s self-titled album dropped back in May, with their debut full-length Antigone The Martyr coming just three months prior. Despite such a short turnaround, the band’s second album is easily one of the best black metal records of the year thus far, absolutely oozing in atmosphere, as if the whole thing were recorded in an ancient graveyard under the light of the full moon. Though the band do rawness and aggression as well as anyone, with Antigone The Martyr in particular making great use of punky guitars, their USP is the sinister aura that sits like a heavy fog over each track. This is vampyric black metal of the highest order.
Victory Over The Sun
Vivian Tylinska’s music under the Victory Over The Sun moniker has always been intricate in a way that black metal often isn’t, defying the genre’s ironically rigid boundaries by making music that’s dynamic and interesting whilst still being heavy and confrontational. It makes for metal that’s exciting, like discovering a restaurant with a completely different interpretation of your favourite dish – the ingredients are mostly the same but they’ve been rearranged in a way that makes the experience feel fresh. Latest album Nowherer is a thoroughly unique experiment in microtonality, offering something you won’t find anywhere else.
On their long-awaited debut album Our Bodies Burned Bright On Re-Entry, Underdark transcended their comparatively simple black metal origins, shedding their former skin and re-emerging as a force to be reckoned with in the realm of blackened post-metal. The band have long been vocal about their leftist beliefs, but since joining the band vocalist Abi Vasquez has brought a more poetic approach to the lyrics, exploring political issues through a thoroughly personal lens.
A notoriously hate-filled hellsite that we won’t bother to name here once tried to insult Feminazgûl by calling their debut, then a solo project project of founder Margaret Killjoy, “the most feminine black metal album of all time”, inadvertently making the band sound cool as fuck (which they are). Now a trio, Feminazgûl’s sound sits within the black metal genre but eschews its usual approach to composition and instrumentation, crafting something that’s mournful and epic in a way that few bands can match. Reinterpreting Tolkien’s Nazgûl as feminist figures who strip men of their power, the band have gone from strength to strength despite such crybaby vitriol from edgelords, releasing one of 2020’s best albums in No Dawn For Men and more recently dropping new single ‘A Mallacht’ through Adult Swim and a phenomenal split with Awenden (more on them below) through the incredible Tridroid Records.
With a majestic sound that overwhelms not through nonstop intensity but through glorious melodies and captivating post-rockisms, the first thing you notice about Olympia, Washington’s Awenden is just how oddly soothing their transcendent soundscapes are. But without the lows, the highs wouldn’t be nearly as impactful, and the band can certainly drag things into the depths when required, even tinkering with death-doom at moments on their latest record Golden Hour. Openly presenting themselves as an anti-fascist band, this is post-black metal you can enjoy without any niggling doubts.
The history of Caïna could, to some extent, serve as a demonstration of the issues raised in the introduction to this piece, with early releases including splits with bands including members who would go on to embrace nazism, and record labels that most of us would now consider “problematic” at best. And yet, Caïna also serves as an example of why someone’s history should not be used against them when their more recent actions reveal the truth of who they are. Sole member Andy has long been a vocal supporter of feminism and inclusion, to the extent that a 2014 interview where he spoke about such issues caused a brief “metalgate” storm, and recent interviews and social media presence make clear his views. All this and one of the most creative, diverse discographies in metal!
One of the most under-appreciated acts within the broad umbrella of black metal today, for over 20 years the Birmingham duo have been concocting some of the most punishing music out there, combining the muscularity of industrial black metal with the sheer viciousness that the second wave brought to the fore. Despite never publishing their lyrics, the context the songs are presented in – thanks to their titles, album art, and surrounding imagery – makes clear the band’s anti-authoritarian bent, with the horrors they describe being less the domain of Satan or Lovecraft, but the sheer horror of what human can do to fellow human, whether through war, capitalism, or ignorance.
Lamp Of Murmuur
Anonymity in black metal can be used for a multitude of purposes, whether it be to add mystery, to separate your music from your “regular” life, or to protect your identity from real-life repercussions. As such, it can sometimes be a worry when a black metal artist keeps themselves hidden, issuing few statements or interviews, especially when there has been a long history of anonymous black metal projects which have revealed themselves to be pushing an intolerant agenda. Thankfully, what few interviews Lamp Of Murmuur have given show that this is likely not the case, with their interview with Call Of The Night subtly mocking NSBM and fascist sympathies in black metal. A huge relief, as Lamp Of Murmuur are one of the most musically exciting bands of our times, with album Heir Of Ecliptical Romanticism being one of the best black metal albums in a long, long time.
Book Of Sand
Book Of Sand’s take on black metal is never straightforward, featuring jazz, surf and folk as often as it does frostbitten riffs, caustic shrieks and a raw production style that’s used as an instrument as much as anything else. The excellent Occult Anarchistic Propaganda is arguably the most accessible starting point, and makes the politics of the band clear. This is black metal that’s been subtly twisted into something new, full of menace and the promise of better things to come. If you’re looking for something that challenges not just the conservative politics of much black metal but also its musical conservatism, then Book Of Sand is what you want.
With more than a little bit of crust punk to their sound, Germany’s Ancst have been railing against capitalism and the way social systems can be used to separate and isolate us ever since their first demo released in 2012. Time has done nothing to calm their fire, and though many of their lyrics can be relatively poetic, there are moments – such as on ‘Kill Your Inner Cop’, the opening track to 2020’s Summits Of Despondency – when the lyrics are every bit as direct as the music. This is music for railing against the injustices that surround and trap us all, and as violent as the music can be, hope for a better tomorrow underpins it all.
Terzij de Horde
The intersection between black metal and screamo is one that a lot of black metal fans probably want to deny the existence of, and if you take black metal at its most mundane form then they might be right. But venture into more experimental waters, and the sound of a band like Terzij de Horde makes total sense, combining as it does the heavier end of Level Plane Records-style screamo and Dutch atmospheric, experimental black metal. With poetic, introspective lyrics inspired as much by philosophy and poetry as anything else, their album Self has been on constant rotation since its 2015 release, being as it is a soul-searing search for liberation, the difficulty and challenge of what it presents being at odds with the fact that the band members are some of the most friendly, welcoming people within black metal.
The music conjured by Minnesota one-person project Morke (pronounced “mor-keh”) should damn-near be considered a revelation to the black metal genre. Seeing a project use atmospherically rich black metal to deal with struggles so vividly and without pretence is refreshing, and sole member Eric Wing’s openness on social media about each release’s themes helps give the music a tangible vulnerability, whether they’re addressing mental health recovery (…Of Oak And Snow) or “the hardships of begging those you’ve hurt for reconciliation” (Redemption).
Greek project Spectral Lore has been challenging metal tropes since 2005, with sole member Ayloss creating music that defies black metal convention whilst also being vocal about his leftist politics. This year’s Ετερόφωτος is the project’s most recent offering, whilst last year saw Ayloss combine with Mare Cognitum for an epic, almost two-hour concept record entitled Wanderers: Astrology Of The Nine which simply needs to be heard to be understood. Find out more about the project in our interview, and be sure to check out Ayloss’ other black metal project, Mystras, as well.
As mentioned above, Mare Cognitum’s collaborative release with Spectral Lore, Wanderers: Astrology Of The Nine, deserves your attention first and foremost, but once you’re done there it’s time to dive into the Mare Cognitum back catalogue. The one-man band, created by Jacob Buczarski, is ever reaching to the cosmos for inspiration, staring up into the mysteries of the infinite universe and using them as a basis for epic atmospheric black metal with songs frequently topping the ten minute mark. Latest release Solar Paroxysm looks up with wonder but also inwards with a deep sigh, using the concept of a dying star as a warning for what will happen to our species and the planet we inhabit should we continue on our current trajectory of authoritarian politics and environmental destruction.
Black metal has always been a space for people to embrace and explore their ancestry, something that has of course all too frequently devolved into bigotry and hatred. But it can also be a positive aspect of the genre, allowing bands outside of Europe to introduce their own perspectives and merge the traditional musical customs of their home cultures with the existing black metal framework. Akvan’s atmospheric black metal makes use of Iranian folk instrumentation, adding a hypnotic tone to the music itself, whilst the lyrics tackle Persian and Iranian history and mythology, seeing sole member Vivasera explore his own culture and the ways in which it is misinterpreted.
Whilst Woe’s early records were notable for the quality and passion, when it came to lyrical content their USBM was largely run-of-the-mill misanthropy, as apolitical as such a lyrical focus can be. That changed with 2017’s Hope Attrition though. Political upheavals – most notably the rise of Donald Trump to become US president on the back of a hate-filled campaign – prompted mainman Chris Grigg to turn his ire on the far-right, including those who would sully black metal with its influence. The stand-out track of the album, ‘No Blood Has Honor’, is a vicious indictment of the misguided beliefs of racist and nationalist bigots. It also provides a foil to the false idea that black metal, by embracing misanthropy and hatred as lyrical themes, must also embrace prejudice.
For over a year now Old Nick have been delivering a unique take on black metal. Described on paper it may not sound too unusual – raw black metal with dungeon synth is everywhere these days – but Old Nick stand out because of both their sound and spirit. Their aesthetics might pull from black metal tropes – corpse paint! Weapons! Ridiculous stage names! – but their records are called things like Haunted Loom!!!, Flying Ointment and T.N.O.T.A.A.T.P.B.T.Q.A.S.F.A.B.O.O.T.D.O.S.S.T.T.E.V.H.S. (The Night of the Ambush and the Pillage by the Queen Ann Styl’d Furniture, Animated by One of the Dozen or So Spells That Thee Eastern Vampyre Has Studied). Simply put, there’s no one else in black metal making music with this kind of aesthetic approach, whole-heartedly embracing the campiness inherent within black metal. They’ve also made their anti-fascist stance clear, with the band’s Abysmal Specter telling us “it’s important to separate oneself from hatred and bigotry”.
If you’ve found a new black metal band and are wondering if they are in any way tied to NSBM, there’s some research you can do to put your mind at ease. First step is Encyclopedia Metallum, where you can look at song/album titles and the labels they work with, as well as their lyrics (if anyone’s uploaded them) and, most critically, look at the band member’s other projects. Googling the band, finding old interviews and seeing who they tour with can also shed further light. For a more in-depth breakdown of this, click here.
Words: George Parr & Stuart Wain