Hide your children, hide your spouse… this is the part of heavy metal history your parents warned you about.
During the mid-to-late- ‘80s, the sub-genre that is Black metal spawned around the ideologies of satanism and the occult—something many heavy metal / hard rock artists at the time, were accused of practicing.
Because of its rather extreme views on Christianity, the underground sub-genre has been met with heavy criticism in recent years, due to an influx of hate groups that are giving other, more reputable musicians a bad name.
Much like how Black Sabbath became the first “heavy metal” band, after reading a review of their music in Rolling Stone magazine, the English thrash metal band Venom, are often credited as the first “Black Metal” band, a name they so cleverly chose for their sophomore album.
Venom didn’t set out to create a new sub-genre, following in the footsteps of other British metal acts like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, yet their music seemed to be much darker than most of the metal that was coming out at the time.
Several other thrash metal acts at the time, including Slayer and Metallica, also adopted satanic imagery into their work, but lacked the kind of dedication that Venom had to their anti-religious message.
In an interview for the online publication, Lords of Metal, lead singer Cronos explained how, “in England we had the pagans and the druids and things like that. And then the Christians came along and fucked with that,” he said. “It’s one of the things when I first saw the Norwegian scene beginning in the early nineties. I thought: ‘ok, I know they said Venom are an influence, etcetera, etcetera; let’s see where these guys are coming from.’ And then when I started to read the lyrics, read the interviews and see they were kind of saying the same thing, but about their country, they had their religion, with all the Norse gods like Wodan and Thor. And then all of the sudden the Christians came in and they tried to destroy their religion. It’s great that they stayed within in their country’s beliefs for their lyrics as well. So, they’re not the exactly the same things as Venom, they invented something of their own, which I think is fucking great.”
As a misguided teen listening to Danzig and more industrial/hard-rock groups, such as Rammstein and Ministry, it was a quick progression into the music of King Diamond and his band Mercyful Fate.
Decked out in all black clothes, face paint, and a top hat, the Danish vocalist was one of the first heavy metal musicians to speak openly about his beliefs.
King Diamond made some metal fans uncomfortable by expressing his Satanic beliefs, but he had the type of legendary falsetto that only a seldom few possess. It was the kind of high pitched rock scream that heavy metal frontman in the mid-to-late ‘80s would lust after.
Nearly a decade later, the Black metal sub-genre began to grow across Norway and other Scandinavian countries.
One of most notorious bands to come out of the Norwegian Black metal movement, Mayhem, became rife with controversy after lead vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin committed suicide in 1991. If that wasn’t awful enough, former band member Varg Vikernes, creator of the one-man project, Burzum, was charged with the murder of Mayhem’s lead guitarist in 1994 and convicted for the burning of three churches. He was sentenced to 21 years in prison.
Since reformed, Vikernes now lives in France with his wife and children and has tried to disavow himself from his youthful beliefs but has become a symbol amongst Neo-Nazis for his past political and social views.
“As many people might know I have been condemned a lot because I have used a number of “political incorrect” terms to describe my own ideological foundation,” Vikernes says on his blog. “I have used terms such as Satanism, nationalism, racism or racialism, Paganism or Heathendom/Heathenism and even ‘nazism.’ Some of the terms I have used have been rather inaccurate, and I realize that people react to the different terms differently, depending on where they come from or who they are.”
Controversy continued to haunt the Black metal genre throughout the early-to-mid ‘90s, as waves of anti-Christian followers burned down more than 50 Norwegian churches in less than five years. For some the burnings were symbolic of the genre’s deviation from traditional Christian beliefs, while for others, it was a public display of annihilation and discord.
“It was just like an extreme statement, I would think” said Emperor drummer/guitarist Samoth, in an online interview back in 1999. “I didn’t think it would make any difference in society. It was a destructive act, both for me and everybody else in a way. Probably more for myself…”
Samoth was sentenced to 16 months for his role in burning down Skjold Church in Vindafjord, but is remorseful for his actions.
However, others such as Infernus and Gaahl of the band Gorgoroth, have praised the church burnings. According to the 2005 documentary, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, Gaahl states, “there should have more of them, and there will be more of them.”
In the wake of this movement a more controversial subculture was birthed, Christian Black metal, also known as “unblack metal,” which became prevalent among artists who were either opposed to the use of Satanic imagery or would promote Christian beliefs through their lyrics.
Notable “unblack metal” bands include the early ‘90s Norwegian group Antestor, Swedish metal band Crimson Moonlight, and the Australian metal band, Horde.
Satyricon was another majorly influential Black metal group from Norway that got its start in the early ‘90s, amid the controversy between Christianity and the occult. They were faster, louder and unlike others before them. The vocals were much more tonal, the lyrics were practically indecipherable, and half of the time, you couldn’t tell if frontman Sigurd “Satyr” Wongraven was speaking in English or not.
According to Satyr, to understand what Black metal is really about, you must understand that it is defined by a feeling.
“It’s not how the logo looks, not the production, although that can be an element, and not necessarily the speed,” Satyr said in an interview with crypticrock.com. “You can suggest that, in general, black metal tends to be more atmospheric than say death metal, but I think first and foremost black metal is about a certain feeling.”
Satyr goes on to explain the many misconceptions of black metal music and it’s message, “every time I reflect on the subject, more and more so, I come to the conclusion the most important factor why there are so many misconceptions, misunderstandings and wrongs out there is because there has been a change of generation,” he said.
“I was thinking about it today, I was at the gym looking out the window and some kid passed by, not sure how old, probably 18, and he was wearing some Mayhem t-shirt. I thought to myself, wow this guy was most likely not even born when we started playing together.”
Satyr was right. In just a few short years, following the rise of Black metal in Norway, the genre began to expand beyond the boundaries of Scandinavia, into such European countries as England, France and Poland.
Behemoth, a four-member black/death metal band from Gdansk, Poland, first formed in the early ‘90s, but didn’t really take off until the group’s lead singer, Adam “Nergal” Darski began to mix in occult and thelemic themes.
Behemoth toured the United States with several other heavy metal acts, including headliners, GWAR, during the 2006 Sounds of the Underground music festival.
They came on stage dressed in black robes, matching face-paint and upside-down crosses. Just by looking at them, you could tell they had an anti-religious message and were going to get real loud about it.
The band was determined to look and sound intimidating to the audience. The guttural growls, wailing guitar riffs, and fast-paced, double-bass drums were evidence of the band members’ individual talents, and their ability to play to each other’s strengths, solidified their calibur as a band.
Less than a year later, Behemoth decided to set aside its Black metal roots, for a more melodic death metal sound. Latter albums, including The Apostasy (2007), Evangelion (2009) and The Satanist (2014), would evidence just how savvy the band had become, incorporating piano, horns and other instrumentals into their repertoire.
While band members have stated that they do not like labels, their constant use of heathen imagery—such as “demigods” and “baphomet”—eventually led to the All-Polish Committee for Defense Against Sects to distribute a list of bands, which they alleged promote Satanism and murder. The list was distributed in 2007, but was never exercised until 2014, when the band was barred from a scheduled performance in Poznań, one of Poland’s biggest cities.
Critics felt the policy was a violation of free speech, denying the band the ability to perform due to their alleged ideological beliefs.
By the early 2000s, there had also been an increase in the number anti-Islamic black metal bands from the Middle East. Janaza, an all-female black metal group from Iraq, have been at the forefront of this movement since 2010.
Following the spread of Black metal, from the ‘90s to the early 2000s, the genre began to lend itself to other forms of music.
The six-member, Swedish “doom metal” band, Ghost, were one of the first to adopt the satanic culture and imagery into their music, without being labeled a Black metal band.
Adorned in black robes and matching masks, to conceal their identities, the band uses elements of traditional Black metal music to create an eccentric atmosphere on-stage. The band’s frontman, Tobias Forge, even adopted the stage-name “Papa Emeritus” for his portrayal of a Satanic priest.
The papal garb and symbolic nicknames paid off quite well for Ghost, in 2016, when they became the first Swedish band to take home the GRAMMY Award for Best Metal Performance with their hit single, “Cirice.”
In more recent years, Black metal has also started to meld with more experimental genres, including shoegaze, avant-garde, and ambient electronic music. As a result, we have started to see the rise of a new offshoot of Black metal in the U.S. and elsewhere.
The San Francisco-based “blackgaze” group, Deafheaven, have been one of the more popular bands at the helm of this new sub-genre, although they do not consider themselves a black metal band.
In an interview with Music Radar, Deafheaven songwriter / lead guitarist Kerry McCoy explained, “We’re influenced by it, but we don’t have the ethos, the aesthetic or really the sound of one at this point, because there are way too many other influences in our sound. And that’s not just from the post-rock thing either. We have influences from alternative rock, Slayer and early Metallica.”
Success blending Black metal with other forms of alternative and indie rock influence. Stephane Paut, better known as the French songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Neige, first created the “blackgaze” band Alcest in 2000.
His first full-length solo album, Souvenirs d’un Autre Monde, was released in 2007 and is generally regarded as the band’s introduction into the foray of “shoegaze” and “post-metal” music.
Their most recent album, Kodama, was inspired by Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s classic film, Princess Mononoke, and is highly regarded in both the Black metal and shoegaze communities for its dark themes and chilling ambience. It also went on to chart at no. 8 on Billboard’s Top Heatseekers Albums last year.