Black metal, a Small History

Among the subgenres of metal, black metal may be the most distinct. Many bands are reclusive, reluctant to play live shows, meet media or do photo shoots. Some “bands” like Burzum are really a one man show. There’s a prominent DIY culture in the black metal community (particularly in Norway) which echoes back to the early punk scene. In fact, one could argue that while other subgenres like doom and power have their roots in bands like Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden, these bands are more influenced by Venom and Hellhammer, both very punk influenced bands.

But what really separates black metal from the rest? Without a doubt, it has to be the culture of active rejection mainstream and acceptable cultural values. Just look at this guy’s blog for a second. He’s basically promoting racism, hate and propaganda for white supremacy. Varg Vikernes, known for murdering one of his bandmates and his outrageous views on life, is a prime example of this subculture. Though not representative of all black metal bands, many other bands in the genre have ties to anti-Christian organizations.

Black metal is characterized by lo-fi records and screamed vocals

This is not to say, however, that all black metal bands are satanic, pagan, or anti-Christian. In fact, Bathory, one of the progenitors of black metal was none of these. The black metal scene attracted many hardcore right-wing activists in Norway in the 90’s. Many of these people called for Norwegians to return to pagan ways, and used the black metal scene to perpetuate their identity and cause. Over 50 churches in the early 90’s were either burned, or attempted to be burned. Many of these were centuries old staff churches.

Black metal was created to reject. Everything about it is made to be inaccessible to the general public. From the poor quality recording to the dissonant tones used. Yet, today it is still a thriving scene. People are still listening to the music and making social commentary.

Modern black metal at its finest


The Modern Metalhead Dilemma

Metal has come quite a ways in the past 45 years of its controversial existence. From Black Sabbath’s Paranoid to Children of Bodom’s Halo of Blood, there have been no shortage of uproars from concerned parents, condemnations from mainstream critics and ridicule from ignorant outsiders. Starting with Black Sabbath, the heavy metal scene has always come under scrutiny, targeted by religious organizations and labeled as evil, demon worshiping cultists. The negative hype was especially high during the ’90s, Norwegian church burnings, perpetuated by members of black metal bands.

Though not under the scrutiny previously experienced during the ’90s, there is still a clear divide between the mainstream and the underground metal scene. People are more accepting of the genre, and as the years go by the following continues to grow. It’s no secret that the internet has had a significant impact on the sub-genre, and many bands can lay their claims to fame on their bandcamp profile.

A commercial sound

There’s a problem with this, one that many older metal heads may understand. The heavy metal scene thrives on its own exclusivity. For better or for worse, the internet has dissolved the fences that kept bands underground. A black metal band that would have struggled to get its name beyond a small community in the 80’s would be able to show the world its demo EP to thousands over Bandcamp, YouTube and other music uploading services in minutes today. The exclusivity that kept metal a small members only club no longer exists in 2015.

To some extent, this breaking down of the barrier was a good thing. Essentially it created a wider following in the sub-genre as a whole, which allowed bands to be influenced by others that may be unknown without a cassette tape. In other ways it was a detriment. Selling out is a problem in the heavy metal scene. If a band gets popular, that makes it commercialized and that is just something not metal (I’m just kidding, but maybe not). Commercialization is by and all an unwelcome presence in metal.

Here’s an example of commercialization at its best. In Flames was a progenitor of the melodic death metal genre. Slowly throughout the 2000’s they adapted their sound to fit the ‘mallcore’ niche. I’m not trying to bash people who like the music, I’m bashing the people who call it metal.

When a band exchanges their artistic creativity for money, they have lost.

The technology of the internet has broadened and narrowed the horizons of metal on two planes, the broadened fan base plane and the selling out plane. It’s impossible to empirically quantify either of these, but the effects can be clearly seen with every In Flames album release. Metal heads are picky and attentive. Most fans are able to hear if a band is evolving toward mainstream pandering. The modern heavy metal fan’s dilemma winds down to this: will today’s metal overcome the dangers of commercialization and regain its former glory? Or will it succumb to the ultra smooth production and soulless sold out tone that it has been moving towards  for the past decade?