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Black metal is an extreme subgenre of heavy metal. It often employs fast tempos, shrieked vocals, highly distorted guitars played with tremolo picking, double-kick drumming, and unconventional song structure.

During the 1980s, certain thrash metal bands established a prototype for black metal. This so-called "first wave" included bands such as Venom, Bathory, Hellhammer and Celtic Frost. A "second wave" emerged in the early 1990s, which consisted primarily of Norwegianmarker bands such as Mayhem, Burzum, Darkthrone, Immortal and Emperor. This scene developed the black metal style into a distinct genre.

Black metal has been met with considerable hostility from mainstream culture, mainly due to the misanthropic and anti-Christian ideology of many artists. Additionally, some musicians have been associated with church burnings, murder or National Socialism. For these reasons and others, black metal is often viewed as an underground form of music.



Black metal guitarists usually favour high gain guitar tones and abundant distortion. Typically, the guitar is played with much usage of fast tremolo picking. When composing music, guitarists often use scales, intervals and chord progressions that produce the most dissonant, fearful and ominous sounds. Guitar solos and low guitar tunings are a rarity in black metal.

The bass guitar is rarely used to perform independent melodies. It is not uncommon for the bass guitar to be inaudible or to homophonically follow the bass lines of the electric guitar. Typically, drumming is fast-paced and performed using double-bass and/or blast beat techniques; however, it is not unusual for drummers to employ more simplistic techniques.

Black metal compositions commonly deviate from conventional song structure and are often devoid of clear verse-chorus sections. Instead, many black metal songs contain extended and repetitive instrumental sections.

Vocals and lyrics

Traditional black metal vocals are in the form of high-pitched shrieks, screams and snarls. This vocal style sharply contrasts with the low-pitched growls of death metal. The majority of black metal vocalists are male, although there are a few notable exceptions – for example Cadaveria and Astarte.

The most common and founding lyrical theme is opposition to Christianity and other organized religions (described by some as Right-Hand Path religions). As part of this, many artists write lyrics that could be seen to promote atheism, antitheism, paganism and Satanism. Other themes that are commonly explored include depression, nihilism, misanthropy and death. However, many black metal artists write lyrics that are inspired by winter, nature, mythology, folklore and fantasy narratives.


Low-cost production quality began as a must for pioneering black metal artists with low budgets. However, even when they were able to increase their production quality, many artists intentionally recorded in a low fidelity style. The reason for this was to remain true to the genre's underground roots and to make the music sound more "cold". One of the better-known examples of this production is the album Transilvanian Hunger by Darkthrone, a band who "represent the DIY aspect of black metal" according to Johnathan Selzer of Terrorizer magazine. Many have noted that, originally, black metal was not designed to attract listeners. Vocalist Gaahl claimed that during its early years, "black metal was never meant to reach an audience, it was purely for our own satisfaction".

Imagery and performances

Unlike artists of other genres, many black metal artists do not perform concerts. Bands that choose to perform concerts often make use of stage props and theatrics. Mayhem and Gorgoroth among other bands are noted for their controversial stage performances; which have featured impaled animal heads, mock crucifixions, medieval weaponry, and band members doused in animal blood.

Black metal artists typically appear dressed in black with combat boots, bullet belts, spiked wristbands, and inverted crosses/inverted pentagrams to reinforce their anti-Christian or anti-religious stance. However, they are most often identified by their usage of corpse paint – black and white makeup (sometimes detailed with real or fake blood), which is used to simulate a corpse-like appearance.

In the early 1990s, most pioneering black metal artists used very simplistic black-and-white imagery on their record covers. Some believe this was a reaction against death metal bands, who at that time had begun to use brightly coloured album artwork. Most underground black metal artists have continued this style. Bands that do not use this style usually have album covers that are either atmospheric or provocative; some feature natural or fantastical landscapes (for example Burzum's Filosofem and Emperor's In The Nightside Eclipse) while others are violent, perverted and iconoclastic (for example Marduk's Fuck Me Jesus).

The First Wave

The first wave of black metal refers to those bands during the 1980s who influenced the black metal sound and formed a prototype for the genre. They were often speed metal or thrash metal bands.

The term "black metal" was coined by the Britishmarker band Venom with their sophomore album Black Metal (1982). Although considered thrash rather than black metal by modern standards, the album had lyrics and imagery that focused more on anti-Christian and Satanic themes than had any released before it. Their music was unpolished in production and featured raspy grunted vocals. Venom's members adopted pseudonyms, a practise that would become widespread among black metal musicians.

Another pioneer of black metal was the Swedishmarker band Bathory, led by Thomas Forsberg (under the pseudonym Quorthon). Not only did Bathory use low fidelity production and anti-Christian themes, but Quorthon was the first to use the "shrieked" vocals that came to define black metal. The band exhibited this style on their first four albums, beginning with Bathory (1984) and ending with Blood Fire Death (1988). At the beginning of the 1990s, Bathory pioneered the style that would become known as Viking metal.

Other artists usually considered part of this movement include Hellhammer and Celtic Frost (from Switzerlandmarker), Sodom and Destruction (from Germanymarker), Bulldozer and Death SS (from Italymarker), Tormentor (from Hungarymarker), Root (from Czech Republicmarker) , Mercyful Fate (from Denmarkmarker), Sarcófago (from Brazilmarker) and Blasphemy (from Canadamarker). Additionally, King Diamond and the members of Sarcófago were allegedly the first musicians to sport "true" corpsepaint.

The Second Wave

The Second Wave of black metal emerged in the early 1990s and was largely centred on the Norwegian black metal scene. During 1990–1994 a number of Norwegian artists began performing and releasing black metal music; this included Mayhem, Burzum, Immortal, Darkthrone, Satyricon, Enslaved, Emperor, Thorns, Ildjarn, Gorgoroth, Ulver and Carpathian Forest. As seen below, some of these artists would be responsible for a rash of criminal controversy, including church burnings and murder. Musically, these artists developed the style of their 1980s precursors as a distinct genre that was separate from thrash metal. Philosophically, an aggressive anti-Christian sentiment became a must for any artists to be finalized as "black metal". Ihsahn of Emperor believes that this trend may have developed simply from "an opposition to society, a confrontation to all the normal stuff." A dark, misanthropic mentality was complemented visually with the use of corpsepaint, which was also most prevalent during this period as a statement to separate black metal artists from other rock bands of the era.

A few bands in neighbouring Swedenmarker adopted a similar sound, usually with inspiration from the Norwegian scene. This included Marduk, Dissection, Lord Belial, Dark Funeral, Arckanum, Nifelheim and Abruptum. In Finlandmarker, the late 1980s saw the emergence of black metal bands who often included traits similar to those found in death metal such as Beherit, Archgoat and Impaled Nazarene. Black metal scenes also emerged on the European mainland during the early 1990s - again inspired in large part by the Norwegian scene. In Polandmarker, a scene was spearheaded by Graveland and Behemoth. In Francemarker, a close-knit group of musicians known as Les Légions Noires emerged; this included artists such as Mütiilation, Vlad Tepes, Belketre and Torgeist. Bands such as Von, Judas Iscariot, Demoncy and Profanatica emerged during this time in the United Statesmarker, where thrash metal and death metal were more predominant among extreme metal enthusiasts.

By the mid 1990s, the musical style of the Norwegian scene was being adopted by bands across the globe. Newer black metal bands also began raising their production quality and introducing additional instrumentation such as synthesizers and full-symphony orchestras. This expansion and diversification marked the end of the Second Wave.

Helvete and Deathlike Silence

During May–June 1991, Øystein Aarseth (aka 'Euronymous') of Mayhem opened an independent record store named Helvete (Norwegian for hell) in Oslomarker. Musicians from Mayhem, Burzum, Emperor and Thorns frequently met there, and it became a prime outlet for black metal records. In its basement, Aarseth founded an independent record label named Deathlike Silence Productions. With the rising popularity of his band and others like it, the underground success of Aarseth's label is often credited for encouraging other record labels –that previously refused black metal acts– to then reconsider and release their material.

Ohlin's suicide

On 8 April 1991, Mayhem vocalist Per Yngve "Pelle" Ohlin (aka 'Dead') committed suicide in a house shared by the band. Fellow musicians often described Ohlin as a quiet and introverted person. However, he was best known for his infamous performances – which involved cutting himself, carrying around a dead crow, and wearing clothes that had been buried weeks prior to the event.

He was found with slit wrists and a shotgun wound to the head, by Mayhem guitarist Øystein Aarseth (aka 'Euronymous'). Ohlin's suicide note read "Excuse all the blood" and included an apology for firing the weapon indoors. Before calling the police, Aarseth went to a nearby store and bought a disposable camera to photograph the corpse, after re-arranging some items. One of these photographs was later stolen and used as the cover of a bootleg live album entitled Dawn of the Black Hearts.

Eventually, rumours surfaced that Aarseth made a stew with pieces of Ohlin's brain, and made necklaces with fragments of Ohlin's skull. The band later denied the former rumour, but confirmed that the latter was true. Additionally, Aarseth claimed to have given these necklaces to musicians he deemed worthy. Mayhem bassist Jørn Stubberud (aka 'Necrobutcher') noted that "people became more aware of the [black metal] scene after Dead had shot himself ... I think it was Dead's suicide that really changed the scene."

Church burnings

The Fantoft stave church.

Members and fans of the black metal scene claimed responsibility for over 50 arsons directed at Christian churches in Norway from 1992 to 1996. Many of the buildings were hundreds of years old, and widely regarded as important historical landmarks. One of the first and most notable was Norway's Fantoft stave churchmarker, which the police believed was destroyed by Varg Vikernes of the one-man band Burzum. However, Vikernes would not be convicted of any arson offences, until his arrest for the murder of Øystein Aarseth, widely known as Euronymous, in 1993 (see below). The cover of Burzum's EP Aske (Norwegian for ash) portrays a photograph of the Fantoft stave church after the arson; however it is unconfirmed if Varg took this picture himself or not. The musicians Samoth, Faust, and Jørn Inge Tunsberg were also convicted for church arsons.

Today, opinions differ within the black metal community concerning the legitimacy of such actions. Guitarist Infernus and former vocalist Gaahl of the band Gorgoroth have praised the church burnings in interviews, with the latter also opining "there should have been more of them, and there will be more of them". However, Necrobutcher and Kjetil Manheim of Mayhem have disapproved of the church burnings, with the latter claiming "It was just people trying to gain acceptance within a strict group (the black metal scene) ... they wanted some sort of approval and status".

Aarseth's murder

On 10 August 1993, Varg Vikernes of Burzum murdered Mayhem guitarist Øystein Aarseth (aka 'Euronymous'). On that night, Vikernes and Snorre Ruch of Thorns travelled from Bergenmarker to Aarseth's apartment in Oslomarker. Upon their arrival a confrontation began, which ended when Vikernes fatally stabbed Aarseth. His body was found outside the apartment with twenty-three cut wounds – two to the head, five to the neck, and sixteen to the back.

It has been speculated that the murder was the result of a power struggle, a financial dispute over Burzum records, or an attempt at "out doing" a stabbing in Lillehammer committed the year before by another black metal musician, Bard Faust. Vikernes claims that Aarseth had plotted to torture him to death and videotape the event – using a meeting about an unsigned contract as a pretext. On the night of the murder, Vikernes claims he intended to hand Aarseth the signed contract and "tell him to fuck off", but that Aarseth attacked him first. Additionally, Vikernes has stated that most of Aarseth's cut wounds were caused by broken glass he had fallen on during the struggle.

Regardless of the circumstances, Vikernes was arrested within days, and a few months later was sentenced to 21 years in prison for both the murder and church arsons. In a controversial display, Vikernes actually smiled at the moment his verdict was read, an image that was widely reprinted in the news media. In May 1994, Mayhem finally released the album De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, which features Aarseth on electric guitar and Vikernes on bass guitar. While granted a brief leave in 2003, Vikernes attempted to escape his bonds in Tønsbergmarker, but shortly thereafter he was re-arrested driving a stolen vehicle and carrying various firearms.

Conflict between scenes

Many recall a strong rivalry between Norwegian black metal and Swedish death metal scenes. Fenriz and Tchort have noted that Norwegian black metal musicians were "fed up with the whole death metal scene" and that "death metal was very uncool in Oslo" at the time. On a number of occasions, Euronymous sent death threats to the more commercialized death metal groups in Europe. Allegedly, a group of Norwegian black metal fans plotted to kidnap and murder certain Swedish death metal musicians.

A brief "conflict" between Norwegian and Finnish scenes gained some media recognition during 1992 and 1993. Part of this was motivated by seemingly harmless pranks; Nuclear Holocausto of the Finnish band Beherit started to make prank calls in the middle of the night to Samoth of Emperor (in Norway) and Mika Luttinen of Impaled Nazarene (in Finland). The calls consisted of senseless babbling and playing of children's songs, although Luttinen believed them to be death threats from Norwegian bands.

Notably, the album cover of Impaled Nazarene's Tol Cormpt Norz Norz Norz contains texts like "No orders from Norway accepted" and "Kuolema Norjan kusipäille!" ("Death to the assholes of Norway!"). The Finnish band Black Crucifixion criticized Darkthrone as "trendies" due to the fact that Darkthrone began their career as a death metal band.

Stylistic divisions

Symphonic black metal

Symphonic black metal is a style of black metal that uses symphonic and orchestral elements. This may include the usage of instruments found in symphony orchestras (piano, violin, cello, flute and keyboards), 'clean' or operatic vocals and guitars with less distortion. Symphonic black metal is often confused with melodic black metal and gothic metal, as the styles overlap.

Folk and Viking black metal

Folk black metal and Viking black metal are terms used to describe black metal bands who incorporate various kinds of folk music. Viking black metal bands focus solely on Nordic folk music and mythology. These bands typically seek to create an epic or romanticized atmosphere. Their harsh black metal sound is "often augmented by sorrowful keyboard melodies," acoustic guitars and folk instruments. Vocals are typically a mixture of high-pitched shrieks and 'clean' choral singing. The origin of Viking metal can be traced to the albums Blood Fire Death (1988) and Hammerheart (1990) by the Swedish band Bathory. In the mid 1990s, Irishmarker bands such as Cruachan and Primordial began to combine black metal with Irish folk music, while the Jerusalemitemarker band Melechesh incorporated Middle Eastern music.

Ambient black metal

Ambient black metal is a style that combines elements of black metal and ambient/dark ambient music. Typically the electric guitar is played together with synthesizers and keyboards, or simply in an 'atmospheric' style with much use of reverb. The Norwegian band Burzum may be considered a pioneer of black ambient, as demonstrated on a few of his early songs and on the album Filosofem. Other prominent artists who have performed in this style include Velvet Cacoon (US), Wolves in the Throne Room (US), Xasthur (US), Leviathan (US), Darkspace (Switzerland), Manes (Norway), Summoning (Austria) and Striborg (Australia).

Black doom

Black doom (also known as blackened doom metal) is a style that combines elements of black metal and doom metal. Typically, vocals are in the form of high-pitched shrieks and guitars are played with much distortion, which is common in black metal. However, the music is played at a slow tempo with a much 'thicker' guitar sound, which is common in doom metal. The style was pioneered in the early work of Barathrum (Finland) and Bethlehem (Germany). Pure blackened doom bands are fairly rare, but Dolorian (Finland), Unholy (Finland), Ajattara (Finland), Forgotten Tomb (Italy), and Gallhammer (Japan) have performed in this style.

Blackened death metal

Blackened death metal is a style that combines elements of black metal with death metal (and occasionally grindcore). When compared with 'traditional' black metal, there is more usage of down-tuned guitars, palm muting, and complex blast beats. Vocals are often a mixture of shrieks and death growls. Bands of this style often focus on themes common in black metal, such as anti-Christianity, Satanism and occultism. The style was influenced by bands such as Blasphemy (Canada), Beherit (Finland) and Impaled Nazarene (Finland). In the mid 1990s it was developed further by bands such as Belphegor (Austria), Behemoth (Poland), Akercocke (England), Angelcorpse (United States) and Zyklon (Norway).

Industrial black metal

Industrial black metal is a style that combines elements of black metal with industrial music. The first group to experiment with this style was Mysticum (Norway), which formed in 1991. Other artists who have performed in this style include Blut Aus Nord (France), The Axis of Perdition (England), Aborym (Italy), and ...And Oceans (Finland). Hecate, a musician from the breakcore scene, eventually delved into industrial black metal as well. In addition, The Kovenant, Mortiis and Ulver emerged from the Norwegian black metal scene, but later chose to experiment with industrial music.

Blackened crust

Blackened crust or blackened punk is a style that combines elements of black metal with crust punk. The earliest crust punk groups, such as Amebix, were also inspired by bands such as Venom and Celtic Frost, while Bathory was initially inspired by crust punk as well as metal. In the 1990s, some crust punk groups began to incorporate elements of "Norwegian black metal". Examples include Iskra, Gallhammer and Skitsystem. In addition, Norwegian band Darkthrone have incorporated crust punk traits in their more recent material. As Daniel Ekeroth described in 2008:
In a very ironic paradox, black metal and crust punk have recently started to embrace one another.
Members of Darkthrone and Satyricon have lately claimed that they love punk, while among crusties, black metal is the latest fashion.
In fact, the latest album by crust punk band Skitsystem sounds very black metal—while the latest black metal opus by Darkthrone sounds very punk!
This would have been unimaginable in the early 90's.


Any attempt to lay out the ideology of a musical genre is bound to generalize to the extent that some traits are unfairly emphasized, while others are laid out which do not apply to all. Nonetheless, black metal is generally opposed to Christianity and supportive of individualism. Arguably, this is the only coherent sentiment among black metal artists. In a Norwegian documentary, Fenriz stated that "black metal is individualism above all". Artists who oppose Christianity tend to promote atheism, antitheism, paganism, or Satanism. Some musicians – such as Euronymous, Infernus and Erik Danielsson – have insisted that Satanism should be first and foremost. Occasionally, artists write lyrics that appear to be nihilistic and misanthropic, although it is debatable whether this represents their mentality. In some cases, black metal artists have also espoused romantic nationalism, although the majority of those involved are not outspoken with regard to this. Nonetheless, many black metal artists seek to reflect their surroundings within their music. The documentarist Sam Dunn noted of the Norwegian scene that "unlike any other heavy metal scene, the culture and the place is incorporated into the music and imagery".

Regarding the sound of black metal, there are two conflicting groups within the genre – "those that stay true to the genre's roots, and those that introduce progressive elements". The former believe that the music should always be minimalist – performed only with the standard guitar-bass-drums setup and recorded in a low fidelity style. One supporter of this train of thought is Blake Judd of Nachtmystium, who has rejected labelling his band black metal for its departure from the genre's typical sound. A supporter of the latter is Snorre Ruch of Thorns, who stated that modern black metal is "too narrow" and believes that this was "not the idea at the beginning".

Some prominent black metal musicians believe that black metal does not need to hold any ideologies. For example, Jan Axel Blomberg said in an interview with Metal Library that "In my opinion, black metal today is just music." Likewise, Sigurd Wongraven stated in the Murder Music documentary that black metal "doesn't necessarily have to be all Satanic, as long as it's dark."

National Socialist black metal

National Socialist black metal (NSBM) is a term used for black metal artists who promote National Socialist beliefs through their music and imagery. NSBM is not regarded as a distinct subgenre, as there is no method to play black metal in a National Socialist way. Some black metal bands have made references to Nazi Germany for shock value, causing them to be wrongly labelled as NSBM. Due to his writings, Varg Vikernes is regarded as the prime inspiration for the NSBM movement. NSBM artists are a small minority within black metal, according to Mattias Gardel. They have been rejected or strongly criticised by some prominent black metal musicians – including Jon Nödtveidt, Tormentor, King ov Hell, Infernus, Lord Ahriman, Emperor Magus Caligula,, Richard Lederer, Michael W. Ford and the members of Arkhon Infaustus. They categorize Nazism alongside Christianity as authoritarian, collectivist, and a "herd mentality".

Unblack metal

Unblack metal (also known as Christian black metal) is a term used in reference to black metal bands whose lyrics and imagery depict Christianity positively. Such bands are controversial, primarily because they contradict the anti-Christian and individualistic sentiment of most black metal. Like National Socialist black metal it is not regarded as a distinct subgenre, as there is no distinct method to play black metal in a Christian way. The first black metal albums to promote Christianity were Antestor's Martyrium (1994) and Horde's Hellig Usvart (1994) – the latter coined the term unblack metal. A number of such bands have emerged since then.


Documentaries on black metal:
  • Det Svarte Alvor (1994).
  • Satan Rides the Media (1998).
  • Norsk Black Metal (2003) was aired on Norwegian TV by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporationmarker (NRK).
  • Metal: A Headbanger's Journey (2005) touches on black metal in the early 1990s, and includes an extensive 25-minute feature on the DVD release.
  • True Norwegian Black Metal (2007) was aired as a five-part feature by the online broadcasting network It explores some of the aspects of the lifestyle, beliefs and controversies surrounding former Gorgoroth frontman Gaahl.
  • Until The Light Takes Us (2008) explores black metal's origins and subculture, including "exclusive interviews" and "rare, seldom seen footage from the Black Circle's earliest days".
  • Black Metal: A Documentary (2007), produced by Bill Zebub, explores the world of black metal from the point of view of the artists. There is no narrator and no one outside of black metal takes part in any interview or storytelling.
  • Murder Music: A History of Black Metal (2007).
  • Once Upon a Time in Norway (2008).

References in media:
  • The cartoon show Metalocalypse is about an extreme metal band called Dethklok, with many references to leading black metal artists on the names of various businesses such as Fintroll's convenience store, Dimmu Burger, Gorgoroth's electric wheelchair store, Carpathian Forest High School, Marduk's Putt & Stuff, Burzum's hot-dogs and Behemoth studios (as well as the man who owns Behemoth studios, whose name is Mr. Grishnackh). In the episode Dethdad they travel to Norway to visit Toki's dying father, and visit the original black metal record store.
  • A Norwegian commercial for a laundry detergent once depicted black metal musicians as part of the advertisement.
  • Black metal bands such as 1349, Emperor, Behemoth, Dimmu Borgir, Enslaved and Satyricon have had their videos make appearances on MTV's Headbangers Ball.
  • Comedian Brian Posehn made a visual reference to Norwegian black metal bands in the music video for his comedy song "Metal By Numbers".
  • A Canadian commercial by KFC in 2008 featured a fictional black metal band called Hellvetica. The band's vocalist engages in a fire-eating trick during a show (like Abbath from Immortal usually does). Once backstage he takes a bite of the spicy KFC chicken product and declares "Oh man, that is hot".
  • An episode of Bones featured the discovery of a human skeleton at a black metal concert in Norway. The episode was called "Mayhem on a Cross". It was the 20th episode of the 4th season.

See also


  • Ekeroth, Daniel (2008). Swedish Death Metal. Bazillion Points Books. ISBN 978-0-9796163-1-0
  • Moynihan, Michael. Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground. Venice: Feral House, 2006. ISBN 0-922915-48-2
  • Kahn-Harris, Keith. Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge. Oxford: Berg, 2006. ISBN 9781845203993
  • Christe, Ian. Sound of the Beast: the Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal. New York: Harper Collins, 2004.


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