My introduction to black metal happened over time. I had a room mate that was a very passionate Mayhem fan and between watching and listening to older Mayhem albums and bootleg VHS tapes, I think it actually pushed me away from the genre entirely for a while. I found the production and performances were just too poor for me to enjoy but the notoriety surrounding the band at least gave me the curiosity to learn more about them. He moved out and I sort of just forgot black metal existed for a while.
I will be honest by saying that I have a very difficult time listening to the early black metal. I am not saying an album needs all kinds of shred, bells and whistles and a million dollar production to be good but I think having a drummer that’s in time and instruments that are in tune is a fairly reasonable set of expectations when listening to an album. I see Venom as being pioneers in black metal, thrash, death metal, crust punk and a lot of other genres. Those guys were shocking at the time and their recordings didn’t sound great but they were in tune and in time as recordings should be.
The atmosphere many of these bands were trying to create was based on cold and raw productions but when those bands started sharpening their skills, it became a lot more listenable for me personally, though some would likely disagree. Marduk are a fine example of a band that only got better and better as they gained experience. The drumming got faster and cleaner, the songwriting improved and the guitar work got more ferocious. I guess it’s easier for a band to grow when the members aren’t stabbing each other, burning down churches and the other such shenanigans those bands were up to in the early days.
My real interest in black metal started with symphonic bands but above all, I really got onboard when the performances firmed up a bit and more effort was put into at least the mixing of the recordings, even if they were lower budget recordings. The real catalyst for me however was the addition of death metal elements like more serious drumming, faster blast beats, much better guitar tones and in general just more power to the sound. The new sub-genres may have been welcomed by many but traditional black metal fans… not so much. You can test this theory by saying something like “Cradle of filth is the best black metal band ever” around fans of the older style. I will say however, the loyalty “true” black metal fans have for their favorite bands is quite impressive.
Where I really fell in love was when blackened death metal bands like Behemoth, Belphegor, Vesania, Immortal, Naglfar, Akercocke, Goatwhore and others started showing up. To me, black metal mixed with thrash or death metal is honestly my happy place and the perfect combination. It gives death metal more character and atmosphere while making black metal more punchy and powerful while adding a harrowing pinch of melody. Everyone has their preferences and when it comes to black metal, my preferences are proper production and performance above all else.
There’s something to be said however for bands like 1349, Nordjevel, Marduk and Dark Funeral that keep things raw, brutal, cold, unforgiving and still have the element of quality musicianship. I don’t care how bad the recording might sound, if a band can play well and craft good songs, it shows through regardless. I can always appreciate a well written song by a musician that has at very least good feel for their instrument.
Black metal guitar tone depends on the type of black metal we are talking about. For early black metal, you could use pretty much anything with a thin distortion and lots of mids. The older tones really vary because I am pretty sure most of those guys used whatever amps they could get their hands on. It’s likely that the settings just involved all knobs turned to 10.
Whenever I have researched it, the intel I came out with was basically that like the early days of punk, everyone used crap and just turned knobs until it sounded manageable. Marshall Amps became a thing later on in the early days and I will say that they are great amps for black metal tones. The solid state Marshall valvestate was a very popular amp with black metal guitarists as it was with thrash and death metal guitarists of the same time frame. The early days also featured dump trucks full of reverb on pretty well everything which I won’t advise for too many reasons to get into now.
For symphonic and blackened death metal tones, I would reach for the same gear I would use for thrash, death metal, metalcore and other aggressive genres. Stuff like EVH, Peavey, Soldano, Blackstar and generally tight amps with punch and lots of gain would be my go to. For that slightly more industrial sound, you can find ways to use fuzz, saturation, compression and EQ to give you that more “Puritania” type sound. Lead work in these styles will usually have a bunch of delay to add to the size of the part but you need to watch this if your guitar is competing with keyboards in a symphonic setting.
Playing wise, black metal utilizes a lot of minor chords and the more you know, the more tools you will have. The barred minor chord can go a long way with a blast beat or two. The real good black metal guitarists seem to have a ton of minor chords, drone notes and inverted power chords to keep things lively. It’s a fun style to play when you get into it and if done right, black metal and it’s various sub-genres can provide everything from cold and dark misery to brilliant string filled choruses, light speed blast beats and vocals that be design can usually peel paint.
Research Albums – Black Metal / Blackened Death / Symphonic Black
- Venom – “Black metal”
- Darkthrone – “Panzerfaust”
- Dissection – “Storm of the light’s bane”
- Bathory – “Under the sign of the black mark”
- Immortal – “Sons of northern darkness”
- Immortal – “Damned in black”
- Dimmu Borgir – “Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia”
- Dimmu Borgir – “Death cult armageddon”
- Marduk – “Serpent sermon”
- Dark Funeral – “Diabolis interium”
- Behemoth – “Demigod”
- Behemoth – “Evangelion”
- Vesania – “God the lux”
- Emperor – “Anthems to the Welkin at dusk”
- Cradle of filth – “Cruelty and the beast”
- 1349 – “Hellfire”
- Agalloch – “The mantle”