Sunday, September 4, 2011

History of BM as told through the eyes and ears of Mithy


This is something I've been wanting to do for a while now. As there is always constant debate whether Venom is or isn't BM and where BM really began and so forth. Stuff that I assumed everyone just sort of knew, but everyone and their blind uncle has their own version and opinion on this, so I might as well attempt to write up an impenetrable doctrine that I can show people any time this subject boils to the surface. Mind you this is all my perspective. There will be some facts, plenty of my own recollections, as well as my own blatantly arrogant opinions. All this in the hopes to come to some sort of balance, where I can get everyone to finally agree with "ME!"

A long time ago there was this little band called Venom. They were a Heavy Metal band from the UK that started out in the very late 70s and spewed forth many albums during the early/mid 80 (along with dozens of singles, EPs, live albums, etc.) One of those albums happened to be called "Black Metal." It wasn't uncommon for Metal bands to come up with these descriptors at the time. As the genre of Heavy Metal was changing and getting heavier and faster, these new descriptors were becoming a necessary evil. Therefor Black Metal, as well as Death Metal, Speed Metal, Thrash Metal, even Power Metal, all sort of came about around the same time without any real sound or style attached to them. You could just have easily called Kreator, Onslaught and even Slayer a BM band and no one would blink an eye at you. I also recall bands like Possessed, Metallica and Dark Angel, being referred to as Power Metal, and once again no one seemed to question this. Where do I get my information you might ask? Well for one I've been into Metal since the mid 80s and quickly gravitated towards the heavier and faster side of the spectrum. So I was constantly on the hunt for the most vicious and intense bands on the planet. I used to walk home from school, and on my way home I would stop by the Circle K, which had a news stand of dozens of Heavy Metal and Hardrock magazines. Metal Hammer, Metal Forces, Metal Mania, RIP, Thrash Metal Magazine, Power Metal, (not to mention MRR and Thrasher Skate Mag for the Punk side) etc...they were all there and I spent countless hours perusing through them, but seldom buying them (I was a kid, I didn't have much money.) Not to say this is the end all of historical perspective either, but it shaped me and much of what I know of the musical trends of the time I draw from the pages of those magazines and my own experience with the genre. I will also mention I have a healthy stack of fanzines dating back from the mid 80s to early 90s, some of which I purchased at the time or accumulated years later. No better place to witness the zeitgeist of the Underground during those days than looking through the pages of those fanzines. Many pages of these arcane tomes have been scanned and uploaded and archived on fine sites such as this:

Back to Venom, they weren't the first to come up with the term Black Metal, Holy Moses titled their first demo "Black Metal Masters (1980)" two years prior to the release of Venom's "Black Metal" album. So it goes to prove that the term, BM was being floated about even before Venom tagged themselves as such. I even recall Black Sabbath being refereed to as Black Metal a few times, due to the similarities in their name as well as rumored to be a Heavy Metal band of Satanists. Venom on the other hand really were the first Heavy Metal band to be so blatantly, Satanic (okay, maybe Death SS too.) Whether they themselves believed in all which they wrote and sang about at the time is questionable. Either way they created a huge ripple and became a huge target for mothers and church groups everywhere, not to mention the more conservative side of Metal who hated them from the start. At the same time Venom was spewing forth blasphemies and hate for god as easily as they drank down a bottle of Jack Daniels the music itself was played at a sonic level previously unheard in the world of Heavy Metal. You did have the vibrant Hardcore Punk scene that was just as loud and aggressive at the time (early 80s), but Venom was just as fast and twice as heavy, not to mention the scenes of Punk and Metal during the early 80s were oddly estranged from one another. So Venom, undoubtedly injected a new aggression into Metal that prompted people to take notice. Sure there were other bands that were playing speedy Heavy Metal, Motorhead (a big influence on Venom), Jaguar and Raven to name a few, but none were nearly as brash and savage as Venom were. Venom never set out to 'invent' anything so whether or not Venom 'invented' BM, Thrash Metal, or whatever can be left up in the air. But the fact remains that Venom's style of HM was faster and heavier (not to mention more blasphemous and evil) then any band previous, and they undoubtedly had an influence on key bands that were just about ready to make waves themselves: Slayer, Metallica, Possessed, Hellhammer, Sodom, Bathory, Death and so forth. All these bands (aside from the lies of Quorthon) have claimed Venom had some influence on them when they were starting out. If Venom's claim as the earliest Black Metal band is in question, I don't see how anyone can question the validity of Bathory and Hellhammer as being some of the earliest and most influential Black Metal bands on the planet. But we'll get into that later...

For now I want to go back to the history of the terminology of Black Metal (as well as the other subgenres of Metal.) By the mid80s, those now familiar terms, Black Metal, Death Metal, Power Metal, Thrash Metal, Speed Metal, Doom Metal, etc were used quite liberally to describe a multitude of bands that were playing a Heavier, Faster and more Aggressive style of Metal. Once again, Black Metal wasn't an uncommon term, I can recall numerous times when bands as diverse as Slayer, Mercyful Fate and Possessed referred to as BM. There wasn't a group of internet nerds shaking their fists and saying "that's not REAL BM, real BM hasn't been invented yet by the emaciated Norwegians!" or "Venom isn't REAL BM, that's just Thrash!" It was all just sort of accepted, there wasn't a genre police out there micromanaging every single band into it's appropriate subgenre. Metal itself around the mid 80s was going through some fast changes, and it was hard to keep up with all the new Thrashing and Raging bands that were coming out at this time. Thrash Metal seemed to become the dominate descriptor for this new breed of fast, aggressive Metal. Although Speed Metal was frequently used and for the longest time Thrash Metal and Speed Metal were one in the same. The division and definition between these two is a retroactive maneuver that came about sometime later. I will say by about 1986, these genres started to take shape and certain bands just naturally fell into their appropriate slot; somehow they just seemed to 'sound' like the genre they were a part of. The more Satanic and Evil bands who had more demonic sounding vocals were labeled as Death or Black Metal: (Bathory, Possessed, Celtic Frost, Sodom, even Kreator to an extent.) Power Metal seemed to be more about fast melodic playing with sung high end vocals. And of course Thrash Metal, settled into its own stylistic trappings that continue to define the genre to this day. Even Doom Metal made its mark with burgeoning bands such as Trouble, Saint Vitus and especially Candlemass' album "Epicus Doomicus Metalicus." Anyhow there's no doubt that Thrash Metal became the dominate force in Metal approx 86-89. Bands that may have started out with more Blackened and Deathly sounds, started to veer towards the more proficient and polished Thrash Metal style that was being made popular at the time by Slayer and Metallica. Destruction, Sodom and Onslaught are perfect examples of bands who started off as sloppy and evil Black/Thrashing Metal in the mid80s and then shortly afterward cleaned up their sound, changed image-wise and lyrically, and dumped the "Black Metal" side to their music entirely. Only if you were around back then will you remember, but the whole Satanic, Occult, Evil Metal thing was frowned down upon by the mid/late 80s. Even within the scene the Metal establishment and press seemed to police itself and constantly bash any bands who presented themselves with Satanic imagery. They would say it was out of style and immature and of course Metal was all about 'talent, tightness and solos' back then so their dove-like ears just couldn't handle the all the primitive noise being created by the ancestors of early Black and Death Metal. Sure the PMRC sucked, but these Megadeth loving, god fearing twats were just as bad. Therefor as exampled above a lot of bands who may have started out with more of a harsh and blasphemous style they eventually floated into safer territories for commercial reasons. Lyrics and imagery become more about societal issues and mental breakdowns and so forth (I cant tell you how many stupid Thrash Metal songs are about 'insanity' :yawn:) Just my opinion but during this time Thrash Metal itself, became a very conservative/PC genre. I wanted some bloody evil shit, goddamnit! One of the reasons why I gravitated towards Metal to begin with was for offensive and merciless songs about Death and Satan. I started out with Venom and Slayer and I was constantly on the search for something faster and heavier with Evil, Satanic and Deathly leanings. The safe Thrash of Metallica, Testament and Exodus just didn't cut it for me.

As Thrash Metal was a success commercially, and hundreds of bands were out there trying to carve out their own piece of the Metallica pie, the underground of Death/Black/Thrash Metal was vigorous and explosive! Approx 1985-1989 you had a huge growing network of demo bands, independent labels, zines, promoters, and tape traders, who were hungering for the fastest most viscous bands on the planet. The Underground was ripe and brimming with creativity and youthful exuberance. During these demo days you had tons of bands that fit somewhere in the triarchy of Black/Death/Thrash: Poison, Mefisto, Morbid, Slaughter Lord, Hatred, Necrofago, the list goes on and on hailing from all corners of the planet. So what terms were being used for these bands? Who could read 20 different zines reviewing these demos or talk to 20 different fans at the time and get one person saying, Thrash, another Black, and yet another Death Metal, still though I don't think anyone cared enough to argue whether it was Black, Death or Thrash, just that it was fucking raging!! Even Mayhem during the 80s I think fit into this Black/Death/Thrash quandary, as I'm pretty sure Euronymous didn't take the claim of Black Metal for his band until the early 90s. I will say, Death Metal, seemed to be the growing catchphrase for most of these underground bands that were forking away and becoming heavier and faster than basic Thrash. When Black Metal was used it started to lean towards bands in the vein of Venom's un-tight, blown-out out style and primitive Satanic imagery; many of these bands came from 3rd world countries producing some atrocious sounding demos (although you did have a few key bands starting to carve out their own BM path at this time Samael, Mortuary Drape, Tormentor and Master's Hammer to name a few...but still very obscure even by Underground standards.) I have tons of zines that I collected from this period (86-89) and indeed Death Metal as a style as well as the usage of the term was the growing trend. The Satanic/Goat/666, thing was becoming unfashionable, and once again seemed more associated with the crude sounds of Venom, Hellhammer and early Bathory. The early Underground Death Metal bands of the mid/late 80s were hugely inspired by Death, Kreator and Possessed, seemed geared more towards themes of Death and Dying and Suffering, also horror inspired lyrics, gore, creatures, and so forth... and maybe a few bands touched on some general occult themes as well. Bands like Morbid Angel and Necrovore seemed to convey their occult and demonic messages more eloquently then say Hellhammer and Venom. Signings and actual full-length albums of bonafide DM bands were almost unheard of during these years. Only a few bands like Death, Possessed, and maybe a few lesser known bands like Necrodeath, Messiah and Sepultura(and others once again from Brazil-Cogumelo Records) had actual full-length releases out, thus proving that DM (86-89) was still very much an Underground phenomena. At this time you also had the early Grindcore, Crust and UK Hardcore scene that sort of wove itself into the fabric of the Death Metal underground, and with this cross pollination you had the likes of Bolt Thrower, Carcass and Napalm Death making a huge undeniable impact in the worlds of both Metal and Hardcore Punk. By 1989 you also had people who new how to produce Death Metal and bring out it's true potential and power (as well as finally making it somewhat commercially accessible), therefor by 1989 and for certain 1990 you had an explosion of bonafide Death Metal classics that laid the ground work for all that was to come. I'm of the opinion that the golden years of Death Metal were 89-91, and DM was pretty much laying waste to everything in its path, no other scene of music in any genre at this time was as vital and groundbreaking as DM during its golden era.

So where does that leave Black Metal during the 80s? Well as we can see, Black Metal was a pretty nebulous term during the 80s. You had countless hybrid bands Black/Death/Thrash that could have been any of the three or all of the above. Some might say it was simply defined as Metal bands that had Satanic lyrics, thus you also have some evidence of Pile Driver, Death SS and early Running Wild being labeled as BM on occasion. And of course there's always been that divide whether Mercyful Fate should be considered an early purveyor of Black Metal as well. Venom and bands of similar ilk, Bulldozer, NME and Exorcist were frequently being referred to as BM back during the 80s and most people should at least think these bands as crude examples of early BM. And then you have Bathory and Hellhammer(early Celtic Frost.) Which to me, and I think most other right thinking people with ears, ought to acknowledge that these two key bands pretty much laid the groundwork for what was to be defined as "Black Metal" ever afterward. The riffs, the aesthetic, the vocals, the imagery, the general atmosphere, all BM that came after have a seedling of influence from these two prominent bands. With early Samael, Darkthrone and Burzum records you can hear those 2-note Hellhammer riffs are all over the fucking place, not to mention they are all cloaked heavily in that Bathory attire! I even hear a lot of Venom in a lot of the early 90s BM as well. Just check their epic "At War With Satan" and hear all kinds of soaring riffs that could easily be used in the standard BM canon. Not to mention the blown out crude production of Venom, which will always be synonymous with the raw BM aesthetic. Growing up with Venom and hearing that linage and the loose development of BM throughout the 80s and early 90s, those dots are easily connected on my end. But as we all know, whether we lived it or not, there wasn't a real Black Metal 'scene' or 'movement' during the 80s, nor even a defined sound. The term was loosely used and the examples of actual BM bands are scattered and not enough to say there was really any defined sound nor movement of BM. But you can say that about many genres during their formative and prototype stages: just check the earliest days of Punk, Prog and Industrial. The earliest bands in those movements were all radically different from one another carving out their own paths under the banner of their respective genres. After a while, the rules set in, bands start mimicking certain repeating patters and you eventually get a dominant and recognized structure that takes over and thus becomes the most defining sound of the genre. (I will get into this more in the early 90s BM segment.) I personally always loved the term Black Metal, to me it was the last frontier of darkness and evil in Metal so anything that was remotely called BM back then, I investigated and took note! And I confess to being pretty liberal when using the term Black Metal when I was young (and even now!) Even calling Slayer and Kreator Black Metal was common place with me, just to give them that extra gleam of evilness whenever I might have been discussing the music I liked with someone else.

Black Metal entering the 90s. Okay, I think everyone ought to know that Black Metal wasn't "invented" by the Norwegian's...that's just preposterous, yet I have run across some naive people who think this is true. Even early 90s BM, or as some people call it "Second Wave BM" didn't even start with Norway (aside from the Mayhem + Thorns component.) I personally don't mind the term: "Second Wave of BM." It's appropriate and at respectful towards the 80s era of early yet nebulous world of BM. Black Metal during the very early 90s was still pretty nebulous and thus wildly creative. While bands were starting to embrace the Black Metal term once again, you had bands all over the world creating some radically different sounds all under the banner of Black Metal. Samael, Blasphemy, Beherit, Master's Hammer, Mortuary Drape, Root, Necromantia, Rotting Christ, Varathron, Abruptum, Bestial Summoning, Treblinka, Sabbat(Jap), Ancient Rites, Tormentor, Profanatica, Von, Mystifier and of course Mayhem and Thorns. All of these bands were around before the BM boom in Norway. Many were on the outskirts of the Underground, with very little linking them together as an actual scene. They had a striking appeal though to the followers of the Underground Metal scene in that they were incredibly verbal about their Satanic and Occult beliefs and seemed to be more serious about it than the BM forefathers of the 80s. Seeing a band like Beherit, Samael or Blasphemy in a zine amongst their Death Metal counterparts in the early 90s had them sticking out like a sore thumb with the corpse paint, mystical and satanic symbols and Satanic ranting that went beyond the basic interview fodder. Their releases or demos were pretty hard to come by but when you finally heard something like Blasphemy or Master's Hammer or Rotting Christ for the first time, you could tell that these bands were tapping into something far deeper and darker than their dime-a-dozen Death Metal peers at the time. Death Metal was growing huge in popularity, Underground and Mainstream alike. And a lot of fans (count me among them) were irritated what used to be "our little DM scene" all of a sudden became "everyone's DM scene!" Bands also started to become slicker, less 'Deathly' in nature, and more normalized and conservative(or PC) leaving behind the more dangerous side of the genre. Therefor fans who still loved that evil and foreboding atmosphere in their Metal (count me among them) dug deeper and searched for alternatives. And seeing bands like, Blasphemy, Beherit and Samael, with their unashamed use of Pentagrams, Inverted Crosses and Goats, totally drew my attention. Listening to the music also brought back those same wicked and forbidding feelings that Venom, Bathory and Possessed did in years past. Bathory had always been one of my most cherished of bands so to witness a growing number of bands all of the sudden taking great influence from Bathory, (as well as early Sodom, Venom, and other 80s BM icons) brought great joy to my heart and I'm sure many other people who where getting stale of the current trends as well.

From my recollections it really wasn't until Euronymous (and Dead before he died) started his rantings about Black Metal (circa 90-92) in various zines that things really started to take shape. Never before was anyone so militant about their beliefs in Metal, and how things should be, and calling out other bands/trends for being False and unoriginal (well, then there is Manowar...and not to mention the Venom/Mercyful Fate feuds, teehee!) There might have been some general shit talking done before in Metal (see above), but Euronymous really took his declarations to a whole new level of spitefulness. Sure looking back now it was silly and immature but it shook things up and thank goodness for that! Soon afterward other bands seemed to have started doing the same thing, talking up BM as being true and shouting down DM for being False and calling out many bands for being trendy and unoriginal and playing "Life Metal" instead of real Death Metal. Around this time many DM bands stopped being "Deathly" and they somewhat went the same route as Thrash did creating music that was lyrically and thematically more conservative and PC, dropping anything to do with Death or Horror for reasons of maturing?....who knows, either way for those wanting Darker atmosphere in their Metal went down the paths of Black fucking Metal1 So Euronymous had a three pronged attack for turning the focus of BM towards Norway. First: his band for one, Mayhem, already being a veteran band of the Underground with 'some' notoriety (Dead's suicide also helped bring even more notoriety to Mayhem.) Second: his eccentric and charismatic personality. Once again with those damned rantings and declarations of war on "the enemies of BM" giving the impression of "us against them" created something that many outsiders and misfits of the Underground wanted to be a part of. And of course last but not least; his label Deathlike Silence-putting his money where is mouth is by releasing/signing Unique Black Metal bands; as well as having the shop, Helvete: a central place for people around the world to write to as well as a location for young local musicians to gather. Many of those musicians being in key bands to the Norwegian Black Metal movement; Thorns, Darkthrone, Burzum, Emperor, to name a few. Many/most of these young musicians had already cut their teeth playing and being in Death Metal bands previous, but Euronymous' influence was strong as you can see with bands like Darkthrone who were already an established DM act, turning towards the new ways of BM. The members of these bands also took up the hateful shit talking campaign of Euronymous, and you saw folks like Varg, Fenriz and Sammoth spewing forth the same vitriol all over the Underground as Euronymous did. The naming of, The Black Circle of Norway, gave the impression to the outside world that there was an actual 'gang' or 'cult' of Black Metal taking shape and people all around the world wanted to be a part of it! It's debatable whether there was much organization to this and of course after the infamous church burnings and murders this supposed 'BM mafia' didn't last much longer. But the rumors were already set in motion and the church burnings and murders were the icing on the cake, thus Norwegian Black Metal made it's indisputable impact changing the world of Metal (and music in general) forever. Due to these infamous events people were forced to take notice of Norwegian BM, whether they liked the music or despised it. By the mid 90s, Black Metal really started breaking through the mainstream of Metal, and Norwegian BM was no doubt at its center. Helped ushered into the mainstream and a wider market by labels like Century Media albums by Mayhem, Emperor, Samael and Darkthrone were made much easy to get a hold of. Norway undoubtedly became the face of Black Metal, and also the Norwegian style became the dominant sound of BM as well. Practically redefining the genre which for the most part continues on to this day.

Bands like Samael, Rotting Christ, Profanatica and Blasphemy, were just as important to the solidification of Black Metal in early 90s as Mayhem and Burzum. Many and most, of the non-Norwegian BM bands from this time period somehow became of lesser consequence. The disposition of Norwegian BM became the model that most bands/artists that later started playing BM emulated ever afterward, pretty much setting into stone the 'definition' of BM, at least what most people associate it with to this day. There is no doubt that early on Norway had a wealth of creativity going on, with bands as diverse as the primitive screech of Ildjarn to the synth heavy sounds of Limbonic Art, (and of course all the others and more, that have been mentioned already). So there is no doubt in my mind that the Norwegian scene deserves most the praise they ever got due to the volume of quality BM artists that they put forth. But for me Black Metal was defined during the early 90s, when it was more nebulous and there really wasn't any set definition, giving the impression that ANYTHING was possible within this revolutionary genre. Even Euronymous himself used to rave about the need for originality, he never said anything about how everyone should play the same kind of Black Metal forever. Just taking a look at the few bands he signed to his label, each band unique and diverse yet all fall under the banner of Black Metal (aside from maybe Merciless.) Of course Euronymous brought in his own set of Black Metal rules to the game thus being a contradictory soul, but that's par for the course in the world of BM and so goes... Being a part of that burgeoning BM scene of the early 90s pretty much set the stage for how I appreciate Black Metal to this day. Not only was it liberating and empowering but it also opened up my mind to the possibilities of music as a whole. With bands like Abruptum, Necromantia, Master's Hammer, they were doing stuff with their music that was very 'progressive' to these ears and blowing my mind, breaking rules left and right, proving that BM can be more than what was invented by Venom, Hellhammer and Bathory. I'd also point out that even with all the early 90s Black Metal bands, no members of these bands ever questioned whether Venom was BM or not, it was just sort of common knowledge. It really wasn't until maybe the very late 90s, or the 2000s, with the onset of the internet kids who came into BM late in the game and had no historical perspective nor first hand knowledge (nor did they really seem to care to learn really), that I started seeing this idea of Venom not being Black Metal floated about. So once again, during that nebulous and unrestrained period of early 90s BM, not only was Venom, and other now questionable 80s bands considered BM (or at the least hugely influential on BM)but you also had this crude experimental side coming out of these bands I've mentioned above setting the stage for the most radical side of Black Metal taking the music to the utter fringe! So during that 92-94ish period you could have bands as wide and diverse and Venom, Abruptum, Blasphemy and Burzum all living together in perfect harmony under the shady branches of the Black Metal family tree. But for me I've always been pretty liberal with the BM descriptor anyhow. The funny thing is you probably come across other people who have been into BM as long as I have and have a completely different opinion. Some who like to lay out the rules and make bold claims as to what BM is and isn't. Some saying it should only be bands who closely follow the primitive sounds of the 80s bands. It all becomes very personal and part of what I always liked about Black Metal, almost as a spiritual movement, is I see it as a realm in which you sprout wings and fly... and lord over on your own terms, your own rules. Even though there are certain genre specifics that make a genre what it is, Black Metal has always been the most malleable of all the Metal subgenres. And that pliability proceeded through the 90s (despite the dominance of Norwegian Black Metal) and continues on to this day.

still to come: the growth of BM through the 90s and post-9/11 BM...


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