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October 6, 2010

Steff’s Five Favourite Black Metal Albums

Brutal Tunes

You asked. I said no. You asked again, I said “Sod Off”. You asked some more, and hinted, and cajoled, and I looked at my Google Rankings and thought … hmmmm. So now, after over a year of swearing this site wasn’t going to be about reviewing metal albums, I’ve decided to review a few metal albums.

The reasoning behind this decision is as follows:

a) People kept asking me to, and I’m all about keeping you guys happy
b) It might, perhaps, in hindsight, seem a lttle odd to start a blog about heavy meta and hardly ever talk about music
c) The few reviews I have done count for a whopping proportion of my website traffic, meaning all you metalheads are actually looking for more reviews about new music.

However, I’m still going to do reviews MY way, which means lots of theme posts, and also – you won’t read negative reviews here. It’s all too easy being pithy and original while rubbishing an album than it is when praising one. I will probably not be pithy and original even when praising an album, but I think every album has something to teach us. While it may be a struggle sometimes, I will not be giving ratings to albums, and I’ll be trying to find something positive to say about every album – even if it’s just about the naffness of the cover art.

Steff Metal will never be all about reviews, because I love writing articles too much, but you’ll be seeing a few more popping up on the site. You can find all past and future reviews under the brutal tunes category.

I’m going to start with this little collection of fairly well-known black metal albums. I’m not going to lie, my taste in BM is thoroughly mainstream – I would have done some more obscure black metal bands, but I was struggling to think of some I actually liked. If you can think of something along the lines of any of these albums, let me know in the comments, and feel free to add your own black metal favourites, too.

I am fascinated by black metal – how from such simple beginnings a musician can create something with more raw emotion than anything on mainstream radio. The overly simplistic, distorted frenzy of riffs and shrill blastbeats evoke the feeling of pagan rites, summoning ancient evils from the depths of human history. Here are my picks for my favourte black metal albums.

Satyricon – Dark Medieval Times

dark medieval times

Dark Medieval Times - Satyricon

In this album whose title reflects the exact nature of the music, Satyricon channel pre-renaissance Europe in all it’s bloody battles for gods and land and manage to compile one of their only memorable albums. Dark Medieval Times draws on themes of longing, battle and mourning to create an atmospheric experience with little attention to technical detailing or musicianly flourish.

No skipping in circles holding hands to this album, unless you’re intending to slice everyone’s hands off with your broadsword while you’re at it. Dark Medieval Times always stood out to me because of the dynamic compositions – you won’t find the plodding, droning pace of a Burzum or Darkthrone release. It’s not perfect – Frost and Satyr lack the genius of some of their contemporaries, and some passages seem ill-fitted. The drawn-back production keeps the ice-wind sound effects and occasional flute and keyboard augments from sounding hackneyed.

The songs drift from theme to theme and back again, and the experience of Dark Medieval Times is – unusual for a black metal album – overwhelmingly pleasant. I do not feel that permeating sense of hatred as I listen to this – rather, a peaceful longing for that which has been lost. Although Dark Medieval Times has it’s flaws, it flows with the dark magic that permeates all good black metal albums.

Necromantia – Scarlett Evil, Witching Black

scarlett evil, witching black

Scarlett Evil, Witching Black - Necromantia

My version of this album is different from the one above, and one of the reasons I love it is because the cover art is so godawful. It cracks me up – there’s this frightful haggish negro women with vampire teeth and veiny breasts snarling at you while a tanned Greek vampire howls at a skull-shaped moon. I brought Scarlett Evil, Witching Black in a tiny black metal store in Athens, Greece, on the recommendation of one of the members of Dark Funeral (I forget which one) who also happened to be browsing the darkened stacks.

From the onset, you know Necromantia will be unique. A quick glance at the linear notes reveals an interesting omission – the band don’t employ any guitars. An 8-string bass plays the role instead. You ever heard stunning, throbbing black metal riffs ripped from the bowels of an eight-string bass? You fucking got to hear this.

With the use of keyboards and a little orchestration, this album has been compared to another of my favourites – Therion’s Lepaca Kliffoth. I think Necromantia incorporate a upique interpretation of Greek-inspired black metal (Rotting Christ, et al) and stand on their own with a distinctive sound.

They’re also hugely influenced by early Manowar, a fact of which I cannot fault them, and I own the bonus disc of this album containing a cover of “Demon’s Whip”, which makes me smile.

Bathory – Blood Fire Death

blood fire death

Blood Fire Death - Bathory

One of the first to make three-random-word BM album titles trendy (perfected of course by Dimmu Borgir with elegant abominations of English such as Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia) Blood Fire Death is not just my favourite black metal album of all time; it’s one of my favourite pieces of music. You need to digest this album slowly, while lying on your bed with the linear notes spread in front of you and your mind firmly fixed at a point in history many years before your own.

Even before he started doing this “Viking” style black metal, Quorthorn “got” atmosphere.The destructive misanthropy of his earlier albums remains, amplified and augmented and rammed up you ass with a bludgeoning assault of impending war. One could say “Blood Fire Death ist krieg” without a hint of self-depreciating smirk, because this album IS war. You cannot listen to this album and conjure an image of anything other than a horde of Vikings storming across a desolute landscape. If I were to compile a soundtrack for the end of the world, every song on this album would be on it.

Blood Fire Death also happens to be one of very few albums where the into track – Odin’s Ride over Nordland – is an awesome song in its own right. And a that last haunting melody fades, you’re thrust – limbs flailing, screaming for mercy – into the hellish spectacle that is “A Fine Day to Die”.

Tracks like “Holucaust”, “Pace Til’ Death” and “Dies Irae” scorch you with Germanic speed/thrash – you could hear a strong Sodom influence if you could distract yourself from the sheer fucking mayhem long enough to listen for it. Quorthorn’s fascination with classical structures is also evident, long before that sort of thing became trendy. You can’t call it technical, you can’t call it “progressive” but you could call it every cliché’d metal word in the book – br00tal, grymm, nekrogasmic – and you still wouldn’t have a word to accuretly describle it’s fucking brilliance. You know I fucking love it when I swear, folks.

A masterpiece – pure, raw, evil and all the more brilliant because of it. Venom may have named black metal and given it some of its more ktitchy stereotypes, but Bathory made black metal worth a listen.

Also, I didn’t know this until I saw it on metal archives, but the first letters of each line of the song ‘The Golden Walls of Heaven’ form the word “SATAN”. Also the first letters of each line of the song ‘Dies Irae’ form the sentence: “CHRIST THE BASTARD SON OF HEAVEN”.

Burzum – Filosofern

Filosofern

Filosofern - Burzum

Burzum should sound absolutely awful. Filosofern should meet my ears and make me want to hurl my headphones across the room and wash out my eardrums with rusty coathangers. It’s essentially static – the guitar set to a high treble and played through an amplifier he threw down the stairs, and coated in a layer of fuzz so think you’re not certain if you’re hearing anything at all. It’s pure madness – an album made with no music at all.

And yet, Varg so precariously spits on that line between madness and genius that the music of Filosofern emerges as one of the most original of the modern age. Yes, he’s a hatred-filled racist who can’t keep a consistant idealology for more than thirteen minutes, but for the moment, we won’t let that detract from the magnificence of his musical accomplishment.

Although many will disagree, I think Filosofern is the best Burzum album – a near-perfect album, maybe a 98% or 99% diluted only by the fact I think Blood Fire Death is better, and giving it 101% totally defeats the point. Filosofern transitions from the older black metal style of Burzum’s first releases and the ambient synth albums of Varg’s prison days. No other Burzum album pulls together such a trance-like state as the arrangement on this album. It has the effect of Keat’s poetry on melancholy Victorians.

Beneath that fuzz are layers and layers of counter-melodies, so subtle and skillfully interwoven you could spend the rest of your life discovering them all. The album starts off at the usual black metal pace, tailing off into ambient tedium – for me, all three ambient tracks blend into one, and remind a little of water dribbling down a stone wall. During my pre-CDH days when I suffered from chronic insomnia I would listen to this album to get to sleep, and every time it put me into a dream-like, almost hypnotic state.

Sometimes, beauty isn’t the same as goodness. Sometimes, beauty is about what’s hidden beneath the layers.

Rotting Christ – Khronos

khronos

Khronos - Rotting Christ

The front-runners of the Hellenic black metal sound – that distinct classical leaning pressed atop pure, unholy black metal – Rotting Christ are considered by many the pinnacle of black metal brilliance. They’ve developed a more gothic sound of late, but 2000s Khronos spilled forth the symphonic black metal with a venomous bite. I’m tied in love with this album and A Dead Poem, but I chose Khronos because I think it’s more a melding of two of their distinct styles.

Probably the most melodious of all the albums I’ve reviewed, but that melody is driven by the guitars – giving it that satisfying metal heaviness. Keyboards augment, but they don’t overpower. Vocals use the distinct hellenic style – not quite the rasp or gargle of the Scandinavians, more a measured, high-pitched growl, as dynamic as the guitars. Not a typical black metal release, and that’s why it’s so bloody good.

You can tell from this list that I’m particularly drawn to albums with a strong connection to times forgotten. The archaeologist and anachronist in me feels a deeper connection to these forgotten worlds than the one I live in, and black metal resonates w. Black metal also has the unique abilitiy of conjuring place – of taking the reader to cold forlorn shores, through darkened forests and into the thick of battle. Varg often said his music was for transporting the listener, for meditation and dream-states – and I believe all these albums possess this quality.

Perhaps, they don’t conjure dreams, so much as nightmares.

14 Comments on “Steff’s Five Favourite Black Metal Albums

JBThazard
April 14, 2011 at 6:43 pm

“If I were to compile a soundtrack for the end of the world, every song on this album would be on it.”

It’s not black metal, though I would choose Immolation’s Close to a World Below. Just felt like I had to say that.

JBThazard
April 14, 2011 at 6:08 pm

I’m going to definitely give all these albums a listen soon, even the couple I’ve already heard.

Now it’s already been done by some previous posters, but I’m also going to go ahead and give you some of my favorite BM albums as well. I could choose some sorta obvious examples like Emperor’s Anthems (which I fucking love, by the way), but there are a few Black Metal bands that are fairly obscure that you may really like, Steff.

Il Était une Foret – Gris
Darkspace I – Darkspace
Moon in the Scorpio – Limbonic Art

LA isn’t nearly as uncommon as the other two but they’re one of my favorite symphonic BM bands and I think you’d really like that album if you’re not already familiar with it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=42FonSFvP6c
Darkspace is one of my favorite BM bands ever, dark ambient / atmospheric BM. They try to create a noir metal soundtrack of the sound effects of outer space and dark matter.
Gris is a fairly new Canadian band I recently discovered and in my opinion, their latest album is excellent. If you are only going to choose one of the three albums I recommended, let it be Il Etait une Foret… (French for “It Was a Forest…)

If you check any of them out, I’d love to hear your impressions on them.

Chris Provencher
October 10, 2010 at 2:53 am

Dimmu Borgir = Awful without I.C Vortex on vocals
Enslaved, Gorgoroth, and Wolves in the Throne Room are among my well-known black metal favorites. From there, one must delve into the depths of the underground music world to discover an endless wealth of bands (often one-man projects) which produce material more reminiscent of “True” raw, unglorified, unknown black metal. In my opinion, the only black metal artists remaining true to the ancient ideologies are the ones which stay out of the spotlight. Dimmu Borgir and many of the original groups (mayhem) have bastardized their style to such an extent that one can perhaps truthfully say the traditional genre has died.

steff
October 9, 2010 at 2:20 pm

I always forget Enslaved for some reason. Crazy. I love “Frost”. Such an atmospheric album. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Dawn – will have to check it out.w

Rob
October 8, 2010 at 7:44 pm

Im surprised no early Enslaved albums made your list…their album “Frost” is real high on my personal favorites. Also anything by Dawn, but “Slaughtersun” is in my top five (its more a blackend death album if that matters). Most of my black metal tends to flow into the viking side of things

steff
October 8, 2010 at 12:06 pm

I don’t think I’ve ever … done it … to Filosferm. But all the others, yes. *embarrassed* We’re all mature here :)

Emily Bleak
October 8, 2010 at 7:58 am

Haha, I’m actually listening to Dark Medieval Times right now as I read this. :D

Good taste woman! I haven’t given Rotting Christ a spin in a long time. Filosofem is one of my favorite albums to uh…do it to. (I’m so mature.) It just works so well.

Islander
October 6, 2010 at 11:25 am

I’m probably one of those people you were thinking of who cajoled and nagged for more Steff Metal album reviews, so it goes without saying that I’m happier than a pig in shit to see that you’ll be making this more of a regular thing. And I’m SO glad you did this post. I’ve been very curious about which albums you’d put in your Top 5. Knew you were a fan of “Blood Fire Death” (and now I am too), but it’s nice to see the rest of the list. I will now have to track down these albums for myself. I’m particularly intrigued to hear that Necromantia album — no guitars!

steff
October 6, 2010 at 9:44 pm

Thanks everyone – I am very worried about this feature, because I think my taste in metal is rather “mainstream”, but I’m hoping it’ll be fun :)

Tarah – I have to give Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia a chance. I brought it because I heard Puritania and thought that was the most awesome thing ever, and when I got the album I really couldn’t get into it, and I just kept skipping to Puritania and playing it 7 times over. I haven’t heard it in awhile, so will dig it out and give it a chance :)

~Lily
October 6, 2010 at 9:44 am

my man is the one who got me into black metal, so i’m still a relative noob. i haven’t listened to all the albums of each of my fave artists. BUt. i would say my fave artists/albums are xasthur (xasthur/leviathan split), satyricon (dark medieval times and now diabolical), forgotten tomb (songs to leave), rotting christ (theogonia). i really like SDBM, as well as the folky/worldy stuff.
i’m going to go give your albums a listen, as i will probably like them quite a bit :)
thanks for the suggestions, steff.

v
October 6, 2010 at 3:28 am

Really good choices! That Satyricon album is on the top of my list for BM as well.

Tarah
October 6, 2010 at 12:45 am

Nice choices steff but you forgot my fav black metal album ever, Dimmu Borgir:puritanical euphoric misanthropia such a masterpiece

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