While it’s easy – and increasingly common – for marketers and other shills to slam adjectives such as “trve,” “kvlt,” “dark”, “evil” and what not to what’s essentially rock music masquerading as either black or death metal, depending on the target audience, in order to sell more albums labelled as something “true,” as they call it.
In the midst of all that, one can wonder what exactly is “true” black metal ? Or, phrased another way, what makes black metal unique as an art form ?
Black metal and death metal are often reduced to mere aesthetics (“corpsepaint”) and superficial musical technique (harsh vocals, blast beats, reverb, guitar distortion).
But taking note of aesthetics and technique alone is not only futile and poserish, it also tells us nothing about the true spirit of black metal lying underneath the more obvious musical traits. Indeed, both Rembrandt and a 5-year-old retard can use paint brushes… what they do differently is what matters, the rest is commentary.
Take note of these micro-symphonies:
Phantom – The Epilogue to Sanity
Neraines – Astral Colossus
Incantation – Devoured Death
Vermin – Endless Tears of a Shattered Hourglass
Burzum – My Journey to the Stars
Demonecromancy – As Sorrows Became Bloodlust
All six “match” the superficial descriptors of black metal: distortion, vocal technique, blast-beats, tremolo-picked riffs… but that’s not what’s important to notice, nor is it what makes these masterpieces unique (Rembrandt analogy again).
The reality is that true black metal works by creating an atmosphere – be it “evil,” contemplative, sorrowful or nostalgic in nature – and guiding the listener through a maze of demented madness.
The second part is crucial, all to often overlooked, and it is also what distinguishes the merely passable bands (Emperor, Enslaved, Immortal) from the truly great (Burzum, Phantom, Neraines, Mayhem, Darkthrone).
Take Neraines’ Astral Colossus as an example (from the Yggdrasil album).
This composition indeed carries a majestic atmosphere, and exemplifies the true black metal spirit of finding beauty within darkness (much like Burzum, Graveland and early Mayhem)… but that’s not enough to make the music exceptional.
Most “passable” black metal bands stop at “creating an atmosphere,” but what they forget is that non-metal music can have atmosphere too. James Blunt, The Cure, Ne-Yo, Skrillex and most Disney soundtracks also have atmosphere.
What makes black metal unique is that it builds upon this atmosphere and, via phrasal riff labyrinths and contrasting melodic sections, creating and resolving tension through the use of unconventional and – if done well – often surprising and unexpected song structures.
To make good black metal, the riffs have to be compelling… but the way these riffs are arranged matters just as much, perhaps even more.
This is, in my opinion, where “imitation bands” – be they Phantaclones, Incantaclones, or just your typical bedroom low-fi Hvis Lyset Tar Oss worship – fail to live up to their models… their songwriting is weak.
Sure, bands like Satanic Warmaster, Marduk, Emperor, Satyricon, Enslaved, Sarcasm and Dissection can write a “catchy” tune… but can they write Onward to Golgotha, Hvis Lyset Tar Oss or The Epilogue to Sanity ? The obvious answer is no, otherwise they would have already done so.
Modern, standardized and sanitized “black metal” is easy to do.
I know this sounds cliché, but I’ll state it again: true black metal is almost impossible to create without a vision, an idea, a philosophy, a concept to communicate, and most of all… the patience and determination to translate those qualities into artistic expression.
That’s how you create legendary work like that of Mayhem, Burzum and Darkthrone… not by aping their aesthetics or getting the same “guitar tone” and other bullshit.
Hail True Black Metal !