Folk metal, pagan metal, viking metal, these terms all share a common root in black metal, starting with Bathory’s stylistic transition in the late 80s. I decided to break the rest of this down into my top 20 straight up black metal songs and this, my top 25 songs that extend beyond the genre without breaking from it wholesale. I’ve obviously taken a lot of liberties in determining what goes where. Don’t regard this as any sort of ordering of favorites so much as the order I happened to settle on after a number of considerations.
I think black metal is one of the most diverse genres to be found, and rather than trying to divide up a dozen sub-genres, I’d like to highlight through twenty five songs the vast world lying beneath blast beats and tremolo picking.
25. Ceremonial Embrace – Mysterious Fate
I know very little about this band. They appeared out of Finland in 2000 to release one fairly average album and then disappear back into obscurity. The opening track however, Mysterious Fate, is an impressive take on a sound you might associate with Windir – staccato synth supported by sweeping slower moments that focus heavily on melody without ever really ceasing to be black metal.
24. Enslaved – Clouds
One of the original “second wave” black metal bands, Enslaved (along with ex-Emperor frontman Ihsahn) really pioneered the transition from the raw style into something much more complex. I like to think of this song, off their 2008 release Vertebrae, as one of the better tracks to exemplify what you might call “post-black”, a prefix that, as in all other genres, can suggest a dozen different things and might be better seen as an approach to music than a stylistic trait. You might alternatively call this progressive black metal, though I like to restrict my usage of that term.
23. Astrofaes – Path to Burning Space
If black metal in the 90s meant Norway, black metal in the 2000s meant Ukraine. This, one of Astrofaes’s earliest works, really shows both the all-encompassing guitar and the folk elements that have come to define a lot of what is Ukrainian black metal. They weren’t the first to really capitalize on these – that credit belongs to a band I’ll be showcasing frequently herein – but in exploiting them they really helped to make “Ukrainian black metal” something distinct and recognizable.
22. Hellveto – Warpicture
When Poland’s Hellveto first started to make their mark in the early 2000s I remember hearing them described as “war metal”, a term that has since fallen into disuse. While this music would today be called pagan metal, with maybe an “orchestral” additive, at the time it was something really unique, and it still stands apart as decidedly different from the Russian bands, like Arkona and Pagan Reign, that helped pioneer the genre.
21. Nokturnal Mortum – Perun’s Celestial Silver
Welcome to the first of many entries I’ve slotted for what I consider to be the greatest black metal band of all time: Nokturnal Mortum. To merely credit them with the explosion of black metal in Ukraine is to miss how completely unique their music still is. No one has managed this sound before or since – primitivism in its ideal. The shrill, lo-fi guitars, the violent brutality of Russian and Ukrainian that Germanic languages don’t quite encompass, a folk sound that is both beautiful and enraged… This isn’t just a statement about the past, it is a violent declaration of war on the present. It is unfortunate that the band has yet to get over their stance on white supremacy and their virulent antisemitism (this song appears as track 88, a neo-nazi symbol for “Heil Hitler”), but it is also a testament to the authenticity of their sound.
20. Drudkh – Ars Poetica
Drudkh have put out eight albums and one EP since 2003, making them one of the most prolific metal bands on the market. Were that not enough, almost every member has played a role in at least one other prominent Ukrainian black metal band during this time. They’ve had their ups and downs, and 2009’s Microcosmos received its fair share of criticism, but I struggle to find any fault in this track. Dark, intense, reverent, in Drudkh can be heard the same renunciation of the present and praise for a distant past that characterizes Nokturnal Mortum (although without the racist undertones, though a sort of guilt by association has still landed them on many a list of nsbm bands.)
19. Triglav (Триглав) – The Warrior of Honour
Like Nokturnal Mortum, Drudkh, and Astrofaes, Triglav hail from Kharkiv, Ukraine. A lesser known band of the scene, having only released one album, theirs is a pagan metal sound that owes much more to black metal than most.
18. Ihsahn – A Grave Inversed
Enough with Ukraine. I take you now to Ihsahn, former Emperor front-man and possibly the most talented musician to emerge from black metal. “Progressive” anything in metal terms conjures to my mind an obnoxious, pretentious focus on esteeming technical skill over song writing (maybe I just heard way too much Dream Theater when I was in high school), but Ihsahn’s “prog black” indulgence is a glorious and rare exception. His 2010 release, After, might be his best work to date, and this track somehow manages to incorporate a saxophone into black metal and still be fucking awesome. I have ridiculous respect for this man, and I hope upon hearing what he’s done here you will too.
17. Altar of Plagues – Through the Collapse: Watchers Restrained
A lot of what I’ve come to think of as post-black metal feels to be founded in the depressive/atmospheric styles that characterize usbm. (If I may digress, Xasthur provides guest vocals on Agalloch’s monumental Ashes Against the Grain.) Having only really taken form over the past few years, there may be much more to come. If you don’t like what follows the first two minutes of this song, don’t bother listening through it. It doesn’t return to the opening sound. White Tomb as a full album though, and especially the introduction of this track, qualify Ireland’s Altar of Plagues as one of many promising new bands in the sub-genre. This was released in 2009.
16. Nokturnal Mortum – Kolyada
This first track, on the other hand, was released much earlier. Nokturnal Mortum’s third album, Goat Horns, was released in 1997 and showcases the high point in their early sound. The band has gone through three major phases, roughly from 1995-1997, 1998-2003, and 2004 to the present. The band has even on occasion re-recorded earlier songs to fit their updated sound, Perun’s Celestial Silver being an example. (That track, of 1999’s NeChrist, originally appeared in 1995 on Lunar Poetry in a very different form.) Their middle period is my favorite and the one I’ll be primarily sticking too, but I’ve provided a second song here, their 2007 re-recording of Kolyada, in case you’re curious what they currently sound like.
15. Enslaved – As Fire Swept Clean the Earth
I here return to Enslaved for their 2003 album Below the Lights. I throw the term post-black metal around loosely, and while this song might have next to nothing in common with Altar of Plagues, such is the case in other genres where the post- tag comes into play. Enslaved are significant both in their music and in the fact that, having been around since the early 90s, a whole lot of current musicians grew up listening to them and stuck with them over the years. This song can be seen as an early example of what became more common later in the decade, and I don’t think it’s a mere coincidence that this particular band wrote it.
14. Windir – Dance of Mortal Lust
Windir are so unique that I had a hard time figuring out how to fit them in here. Valfar froze to death on a mountain in Norway in 2004, and a tragedy though it may be, I don’t think the creator of this music could have been fated a more fitting end. I chose this song for its accessibility, but I encourage you to seek out his entire brilliant discography.
13. Emperor – The Tongue of Fire
By the final Emperor album, in 2001, it becomes difficult to think of them as “mere” black metal, or anything else for that matter. At this point Ihsahn was writing their music fairly independently from the rest of the band as I understand it, and you can here hear the full amalgamation of his black metal days and his transition into something far more complex.
12. Drudkh – Eternity
Blood in Our Wells, released in 2006, is my favorite Drudkh album, and this my favorite track on it. Their earlier albums receive more praise, and I encourage you to listen to them, but for me this is the apex of their accomplishments.
11. Klabautamann – October
If you’re thinking “this isn’t black metal at all”, you’re probably right, but in the context of the album it concludes it ought to be regarded as such. Der Ort was released in 2005, two years after Enslaved’s Below the Lights, and whether there was any direct influence there or not, I think Germany’s Klabautamann accomplished in this song the most beautiful thing to yet emerge from that extension of black metal.
I’ll be posting the remainder of this list, along with a few others, throughout the month. Hope you enjoyed.