Genre Benders: How Black Is Black Metal?

Genre Benders: How Black Is Black Metal?

Genres and labels have become a necessary yet arbitrary force in the music industry. A band is analyzed by their sound and then grouped with similar acts in order to forever place them in a cube of adjectives to help describe just what they sound like. It can be both good and bad, with the good being certain people who browse through these labels might find that specific artist, but bad if a band just wants to make music and all of a sudden they are labeled as something they didn’t even know they were or want to be associated with. That being said, an authority figure has to police the authenticity of certain genres, right? Welcome to Genre Benders, a fun and inventive column that uses wit and research to tackle just what it is that makes a genre well, a genre.

I was introduced to the genre of Black Metal when I began listening to Death and Viking metal in the early 2000s. To give a bit of unwarranted history, when I was growing up I was raised on any kind of metal, and most of my friends were not. Me being the weird sadist I am, I would always be trying to find new music to ‘scare’ my friends with. The rich melodies of Viking/Death metal were enough to keep my friends interests but they couldn’t really stand the screaming, so naturally I went further. I eventually found a sonically evil sounding genre that polarized my friends and probably got them wondering if I did secret rituals or murdered cats in my backyard listening to bands like Behemoth, Gorgoroth, Satyricon and Cradle Of Filth.

That’s the thing, the genre is really known for its ideology rather than a true symbiotic sound. Yes, the early likes of Bathory, Celtic Frost (Hellhammer) and Darkthrone began playing the formula of sonic continuity that would flow from the 80s into the 90s, but the genre elitists prefer the Satanic presence to really keep the purity. It’s this particular reason that bands like Deafheaven, Wolves In The Throne Room and Altar Of Plagues receive a small dose of backlash for their ‘post-black metal.’ However, in my opinion, the bands bring in a fresh sound to a rather familiar genre.

For those that are not particularly invested in the genre, the sound described as black metal often contains tremolo picked chords/notes, excruciatingly fast blastbeat drum patterns and a grotesque vocal approach. By the way, the vocals do not ALWAYS have to be piercing screams, as burpy groaning is a way I would describe some of the vocalists in the early days. The musical technicality of the genre at first was not exactly existent when it first started, really just beating in people’s ears the presence of an evil sounding yet furiously paced track. It seems as groups diverge from this new styles are being created, such as the currently trendy ‘black-gaze’ metal, but should we even call that a relative of the superior satan genre?

Why is it that the elite members of the genre refuse to let the light in? Anyone familiar with Ulver knows that Black Metal has been fusing other genres, in Ulver’s case folk, since the early 90s. Why is it now that people can become repulsed of the ‘hipster’ metal (as it is called)? Did the same out lash happen to Myrkur in 2014? I think not. As polarizing as it may be to say this, there are parts of Deafheaven’s newest release New Bermuda that feel ever so raunch as the 90s second wave of black metal: I said parts mind you. So while they add major key progressions and gazing instrumentals, ‘An Elegy Of Icaros’ almost has a post-rock vibe in their bridge, and that’s a song by Emperor. Are we going to look over Botanist’s experimental use of hammered dulcimers? They create some of the eeriest music, it is actually creepy as hell itself to listen to. Yet somehow, they are able to discuss plants and their eventual wrath while slaughtering humans, fucking brutal.

If the ideology is what really bothers people, then I guess we can keep throwing alternative labels to these guys writing black metal style sounding music. To myself, the music has always had a very specific sound that is set up by a band’s ability to create an atmosphere that SOUNDS very grim, ominous and I guess you could argue satanic. Burzum doesn’t even dive deep into the devil, rather instead doing what I guess the one lady act Myrkur does by focusing on nature. By that argument, wouldn’t Burzum sit well with these ‘hipster’ bands that don’t want to hang goat heads on their wall? It’s like saying (am I really going here?) Blessthefall is not metalcore because they worship a god.

Then there is the face paint character creation. Yes, iconic and contextual to the roots of black metal is the idea of really becoming a new or different character. Certain bands still pull that off today, but then what does that mean for Gwar (evil characters), Avenged Sevenfold (trolled + alternate names), or even a guy known as David Bowie (face paint); can they be black metal too?

It’s kind of ironic actually. For a genre that has been notorious for simplistic chord progressions, the fanbase seems to be very complex in the way they allow diversity among their peers. Being able to take a listener on a dark path full of decrepit visuals and torturous melodies is not exactly the ideal way to spend a day, but for fans of black metal it can be something that keeps their life trudging along. Continue listening long enough and you may just find me strapped to a torture device and enjoying every minute of candle lit hymns about the one true presence of evil. No, you’re right, we need to continue having the ability to discern black hearts from hipster hearts and black metal from hipster metal. Regardless, I’m still waiting for a black metal song to be made from the line ‘Jesus wept’ from the movie Hellraiser.

P.S. this is how I learn. Follow Sean on Twitter @seanthecaptain

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