A Beginner’s Guide to Black Metal

Anyone who is remotely familiar with the genre of black metal knows how difficult it can be to get into. With musicians of the genre focusing on creating music as far away from mainstream artists as possible (essentially “anti-music”), there are a lot of core elements of the genre that can be very hard on the ears to listeners. Musical techniques like shrieking/screaming, tremolo riffs, blast beats, dark lyrics, and very raw production can take some getting use to.

With this short list of great albums, I aim to help ease you in on these individual elements that make up black metal. Not every band on this list is going to fully represent the genre it self. In fact, most will not. If you decide you like most, or all, of the bands on this list, then I would recommend exploring the vast genre that is black metal on your own. Also note that this list is in an order from what I think is the least “black metal” to most, which is purely based on my opinion. Now, grab my hand and we shall take a small journey into the scary depths of music.


kvelertak

Kvelertak – Kvelertak

Now, upon first listen, you will quickly realize that this is not black metal. And, well, you’re right. The band Kvelertak is essentially just good rock ‘n roll with screamed vocals instead of traditional singing. On top of that, they introduce some harder elements into the formula, like sections in a song including blast beats and tremolo riffs (the beginning of the first song, “Ulvetid“, actually kicks off like this). Because of all of these quirks, Kvelertak is sometimes called “Black ‘n Roll”, and this album is about the most accessible album you can get that is related to black metal.



Alcest – Les Voyages De l’Âme

Alcest is a band that sits on the border of even being called black metal. Post-rock elements are so heavily used in their sound that it often outshines what little aggressiveness the band has, which is why this album is perfect for a beginner in the genre. Alcest create some truly beautiful songs here that are easy to sit back, relax, and enjoy. Expect a mix of harsh and cleans vocals (with the latter being more prominent) and very little aggression.

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deafheaven

Deafheaven – Sunbather

Continuing on with the post-rock/metal inspired musicians, we move to Sunbather by Deafheaven. Though this album is obviously a lot faster and harsher than Les Voyages De l’Âme, this album is still carries inspiration from black metal. With screaming vocals, a lot of tremolo guitar riffs that are in major keys (which gives these songs a certain grace), and plenty of blast beats, this album can really make black metal seem a lot easier to listen to. On top of that, Sunbather also includes some chill post-rock tracks in between the faster, more obviously black metal ones.



Clouds Collide – Until the Wind Stops Blowing…

Chris Pandolfo, AKA Clouds Collide, creates very melancholy, ambient/atmospheric music here while also including some elements of black metal (primarily blast beats and screamed vocals). Guitars and synths blend together to create a distant melody on top of very audible drums and Pandolfo’s tortured screams. You would almost think he was singing depressing lyrics, but in actually, this album is about the good times he shared with his mother, which gives the album a strangely feel-good vibe. Essentially a more calming version of Sunbather.

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murmurmurmur

Murmur – Murmur

Fans of prog-rock/jazz and the band King Crimson will really enjoy Murmur. The band seems to take song writing/structural influences from bands like KC,  add in the darkness of black metal, and combine the two seamlessly. With that combination, Murmur create a very diverse record that has sections anyone could enjoy, whether it be the more aggressive sections like the song “Water from Water” or more progressive fare like “Zeta II Reculi“.



Celtic Frost – Morbid Tales 

At this point on the list, these bands are starting to get very close to sounding like traditional black metal. Celtic Frost, part of the first wave of black metal, helped influence the path the genre has followed since. At the time, they played traditional/thrash metal that was faster and darker than the norm. They also used very low quality production, which is what black metal essentially strived for. Morbid Tales is a great record that gives you the atmosphere of a black metal record without the screamed vocals, blast beats, etc., thus making it a fairly easy listen.

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slayer

Slayer  – Hell Awaits         

Slayer, another part of the first wave of black metal, created this classic album that helped with the creation of traditional black metal. Like Celtic Frost, Slayer was playing faster and darker than metal bands of the time. The difference between Celtic Frost and Slayer? Even then, Slayer played a hell of a lot faster.

Hell Awaits is a thrash album that is arguably Slayer’s most sinister release to date. The frequent use of satanic/anti-religious lyrics, breakneck guitar riffs, and Tom Araya’s best vocal delivery to date all add a whole level of evil.



Fen – Dustwalker

Despair, an emotion infamously integral to black metal, is the first word that comes to mind when trying to describe Dustwalker. There is never a happy moment on this record; there is no light at the end of the tunnel, what with the wailing vocals and strict use of minor scales/chords. That said, there are some more mellow/atmospheric passages that the band includes, as well as clean vocals, which makes Dustwalker slightly more accessible than the normal black metal album.

Also note that if you are a fan of this depressing sound, depressive black metal might be up your alley.

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altarofplagues

Altar of Plagues – Teethed Glory and Injury

I bet by now you’re sick of me mentioning post-black metal, so here’s another! Teethed Glory and Injury has a very similar sound to the first three bands on this list. Or, it would if you took out any sort of happiness and used only minor tones. This album actually does a good job of staying away from the traditional blast beats, tremolo guitars, and low quality production synonymous with black metal while still maintaining the feeling that you are listening to something heavily inspired by the genre.



Dimmu Borgir – Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia 

For many listeners (including myself), Dimmu Borgir is one of those bands that serves as an essential introduction. With their fair use of melody, synths/orchestras, and good production style, it’s easy to see why. This album is chock full of heavy black metal that might turn off some listeners, but it is not without moments where the band focuses on creating truly epic moments that differentiate Dimmu Borgir from your normal black metal band.

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taraabsu

Absu – Tara

Tara is an absolute masterpiece. For many reasons it’s my favorite album of all time, which makes it hard to describe it in brief. In terms of black metal, this album is fast (and I mean FAST). After the introductory track is done and the second song hits, you will instantly understand.

What makes Absu different from the everyday black metal band is their heavy use of thrash metal elements. This album does feature some of the core elements of black metal, like the shrieking vocals and frequent tremolo guitars, but for the most part, Absu frequently relies more on thrash than black metal. This may make it easy for anyone who already likes more traditional metal to get into this band (if you liked Slayer and Celtic Frost on this list, you will love this). Also, anyone who can appreciate drumming is in for a treat, because this album has the best display yet by Sir Proscriptor McGovern (who also, amazingly enough, is the lead vocalist).



Murmuüre – Murmuüre

Not to be mistaken for Murmur by Murmur, although the names are very, very similar. Murmuüre is very odd, in that they sound like they occupy the exact border of ambient, noise, and very traditional black metal. Half of the time, I cannot tell which sound the band is going for, but most of the time black metal is not the center of attention. Because of this mix, Murmuüre may be a great stepping stone for you into the genre. However: do not go in thinking that this is going to be an easy listen. The music here is very dissonant and will be “out there” for people not accustomed to genres like harsh noise and ambient. That said, it’s also more musically centered than most black metal.

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finask

Fanisk – Insularum 

To me, this album sounds more like a take on neoclassical orchestra music, just with black metal guitars, plenty of blast beats, bass, screaming and rare clean vocals, and spacey synths. With a run time of about 50 minutes and only three songs, each track is beautifully structured to keep the listener engaged for the long run times (shortest song is 14 minutes), using plenty of atmospheric interludes and epic climaxes. This album is the apex of beauty as it’s found in the black metal genre (and maybe even metal as a whole).



Burzum – Filosofem

This album is in the same vein as Murmuüre, but with way more focus on black metal ideas rather than ambiance (it should be noted that Filosofem came way before Murmuüre). Filosofem is actually one of the most well-known black metal albums to date (it was a huge influence on the second wave of black metal). You can tell right away this is a black metal album by the quality alone. It literally sounds like Varg Vikernes found a $15 microphone and used that for everything, and this is absolutely not a bad thing. This wall of sound filled with grainy goodness courtesy of the guitars and Vikernes’s distant screams in the background creates a sort of atmosphere that is hard to describe. It is almost tranquil, and the use of synths furthers that calm feeling.

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cultes

Cultes Des Ghoules – Henbane

Now that we are at the end of the list, throwing an album at you that almost perfectly does the black metal formula without being too generic seemed fitting. Henbane has all the black metal tropes you’d expect, including things like blast beats, tremolo picked guitar riffs, raw production, and the typically hoarse black metal vocals, but they take it all to new heights.

Vocally, you will get almost every single style of black metal singing techniques from one singer. He has no fear sticking to one style as he branches out to around 5 or 6 different styles (shrieking, screaming, chanting, inhales, etc.), which is enough to make the album interesting itself. On top of that, most lyrics are about witchcraft, which gives the album a very eerie feeling.

As for the instruments, “colossal” is the first word that comes to mind. Most of the drumming and guitar riffs are absolutely crushing, making the album reach a whole new level of sinister. There is never a moment on Henbane that feels at all upbeat or happy; it’s just pure evil, which is what black metal should be.


thom