To be able to understand Black Metal as a genre, we first need to examine the philosophy behind it.
Similar to Death Metal, Black is one of the most extreme Metal subgenres, but extreme doesn’t necessarily mean heavy. If you listen to Death Metal in public, around non-metalheads, people will probably give you disapproving looks, sure, but nothing more than that. Death Metal is arguably the heaviest Metal subgenre. However, if you listen to Black in public, you won’t just get weird looks, people might call the cops on you.
So why does that happen when Black isn’t even that heavy? The answer is simple: atmosphere.
Black Metal isn’t about the notes and harmony. They do play a very important role in the composition, naturally, but the most important ingredient is immersion. It’s more of the “how it sounds” or “how it feels” instead of “how it plays”.
The Black Metal subgenre’s lyrical theme will often revolve around the darkest aspects of religions, mainly Christian, and/or depressive philosophical themes.
The atmosphere is created with the frequent use of ambient sounds and effects, very rough and distorted guitar tones and the extensive use of reverb that makes you feel as if you have just entered an abandoned place you really shouldn’t have.
If Death Metal can be paralleled to a violent horror movie, Black is a psychological horror one that makes you think about it a week after you’ve watched it.
Because of the fact that Black relies mostly on the way it sounds, its fanbase is very dedicated and passionate about the genre, with bands that don’t follow the rules of the atmosphere often being frowned upon.
If you can actually make out the notes clearly, it’s not Black Metal enough!
I may be jokingly exaggerating a bit here, but it’s no coincidence that the Black subgenres alone take up almost half of the rest of the Metal genres. From “raw” Black to Symphonic Gothic Black to Atmospheric Suicidal Post Black Metal… the differences are great. There are even bands that don’t use traditional Metal instruments.
The more we dive into the core of Black Metal, the more confusing it seems to get, so let’s try to make it simple:
From a musical standpoint, the genre in question is heavily inspired by late Romanticism and modern orchestral soundtrack music. Just like in Romanticism, Black Metal utilizes the theory of classical music while “bending” the rules to make it fresher. A very common technique -it’s gonna get a bit theoretical but bear with me- is to change the major (happy sounding) chords of a scale into minor (sad sounding) which creates many openings in music that allow the composer to move and “jump” from scale to scale. Also, instead of adopting the idea of most Metal genres being fast and complicated, Black incorporates techniques that make use of fast playing, with guitar tremble picking and drums blast-beating, but the actual melody is not fast, just tense. This creates a sense of mystery, awe and woe. The vocals are mostly high-pitched screaming, with either harsh or growl vocal techniques, coated in reverb to make them sound distant.
To, once again, make a comparison to Death Metal and the use of growls, in Death, the vocalist will do their best to sound brutal and heavy, while in Black, the vocals are to represent grief, sorrow, agony, distress and other fun feelings. In a way, the Black Metal singer is more of an actor/actress instead of a vocalist. Which goes along with the band’s presentation and the use of corpse paint. A Black Metal band literally acts on stage. Yes, bands of other Metal genres may also have a certain theme, but this is way more frequent in the Black Metal scene.
Now, modern Black Metal has been allowed to evolve a bit. The very distorted and raw sound of the genre is now labelled “trve cvlt” or simply “Raw Black Metal” and it’s no longer a requirement for an album to be considered Black. Some examples of this would be Abigail Williams’ “In Death Comes The Great Silence”, Death Follows’ “Berēafian” and Mgła’s “Exercises In Futility”.
Abigail Williams is very generous to have provided the world with their music and its evolution to help us understand and examine Black Metal better. The first works of the band were in the late 2000s and it was a combination of Gothic Black but with heavy Deathlcore-ish influences (In the Shadow of a Thousand Suns). Their next work was more of a modern Black album (In the Absence of Light). It had a way more distorted tone and the sound was more.. well, distorted and dark.
Then, with their next release (Becoming), they went even deeper with it and wrote Atmospheric Black, with the album’s sound being even more immersive and less clear but the melodies were now even more melancholic. But they weren’t done. Their next album was actually Raw Black Metal (The Accuser). The sound, the writing, everything about it was as if it was performed as part of some ritual.
Every Metal band out there with more than two albums has a clear evolution of their tone and sound clarity, and that has to do with the band’s budget. So how come Abigail Williams keeps making their sound rougher and more distorted as if they go back in time? The answer is simple: atmosphere. This band alone proves that Black Metal’s “rawness” is a matter of perspective and composition choice rather than lack of resources.
There’s a reason why I haven’t used the word “quality” when talking about the sound because that would imply that one is better than the other when, in reality, it’s the artist telling you that not all standards are as objective as they seem.
Art is all about expression, and each and every one of us is different, as we should be. For me, personally, Black Metal is more of an influence rather than my main focus. I feel like it’s always somewhere in my music at the core but it doesn’t make itself apparent. But whenever I want to write Black Metal, I play with ideas in my head on how to make the experience of the listener as close to my own feelings as possible. I want to talk but I also want to be heard and understood.
I do that always, but with Black, it’s a bit more.
This is why, for me, this genre is a form of communication. It’s not about fan service or a “dope” guitar riff. It’s about pouring your soul into your music. If you like the song, you’ll call it beautiful instead of awesome or cool. That’s what Black Metal should be.
About the author:
Spiros is a greek accomplished multi-instrument musician and composer and you can find his work on YouTube and Instagram here: