Black metal is a European affair. Yes, Norway may boast the biggest sales, the most intriguing backstory, and a dearth of talented artists, but the Greek scene is just as old, the Austrian scene just as vital, the French just as extreme, and the Polish scene just as questionably racist. Let’s take a look at some choice artists from the latter two scenes for a taste of what European black metal was doing in the mid to late 1990s.
Just as for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, so it is that for every Dimmu Borgir, there was a step further towards obscurity almost beyond human comprehension, deep in the bowls of the underground.
France’s Mutiilation is the brainchild of one Meyhna’ch. He was a member of a small group of bands known as Les Legions Noires, France’s answer to the Norwegian black circle. But a heroin addiction saw him eventually ejected from this circle, and whatever benefits that entailed were suspended (I’m assuming some sort of points card that gives you money off fuel had to be handed in). Now, before I go on I must make one thing clear: French black metal is not entry level. Vlad Tepes, Belketre, Black Murder, these artists produced some of the most unlistenable music possible, even by black metal’s incredibly high bar. I tell you this, so that when I say that Mutiilation were one of the more accessible artists of Les Legions Noires, you understand that Mutiilation’s music is still kissing the edge of the sonic abyss.
After a series of demos and EPs came 1995’s LP ‘Vampires of Black Imperial Blood’, something of a cult classic among fans of lo-fi, obscure metal. Yet more EPs and demos followed, leaving fans of the long-form release to wait until 1999 for ‘Remains of a Ruined, Dead, Cursed Soul’. But the wait was well rewarded. There is something about this release that stands out in French black metal, and black metal in general. This is the dawn of depressive black metal. A much maligned subgenre, but if played with conviction it can offer much intrigue.
Drums sound like they are being played underwater, with very simple beats underpinning razor sharp distorted guitars and non-existent bass. The riffs are made up of simple minor scale runs, played either funereally slow or at a more galloping pace. Occasionally they are all but drowned out by vocals of such melodramatic despair that it simply engulfs the entire music in its pained screeches and howls. But this is more than just an over-the-top rumination on existence. The compositions unfold with more maturity than any other Mutiilation release.
They evolve like a simple symphony. Motifs are presented to the listener before the music meanders into a new set of simple but well thought out chord progressions, and then the music returns to the original motif. But the listener sees this original motif in a new light having lived through the whole composition. Context is not a myth. The music that has gone before sheds new light and meaning on the opening riff once it is revisited. This works like poetry. The beginning of a sentence changes meaning based on how it ends. And in a longer form this is how narrative structures work. ROARDCS may be a relatively simple example of this compositional method, but it is still exemplary at what sets out to achieve.
Simple solos or (as I prefer to call them) screeching leads, lend drama and tension to this music from the bowls of human despair. This is not the music of strength, nor of the boundlessness of nature. This is suicidal and depressive black metal at its best. Admittedly the competition in this subgenre is universally weak, but this album’s appeal as a piece of art in its own right should resonate well beyond the obscure rock under which Les Legions Noires resided. Of course, it’s not for everyone, and one could be forgiven for discarding it as worthless noise.
Polish black metal artists, although mildly less abrasive than their French counterparts, were still pretty obscure (and racist). Away from the polished behemoth that was Behemoth (chortle) lies the likes of Graveland and Veles, whose work in the mid-1990s was an infectious mix of lo-fi black metal, pagan aesthetics, synth and folk influences worthy of any epic film score. Indeed, Rob Darken of Graveland provided all keyboard sections for Veles on a session basis, and he simply cannot be bettered for his subtle use of this much maligned tool.
Their debut LP ‘Night on a Bare Mountain’ (1995) was an exercise in aggressive yet melodic pagan black metal, rich in dark atmosphere. Follow up, ‘Black Hateful Metal’ (1997), cranked up the aggressive aspects of Veles, but with a cleaner, thinner production. I cannot overstate just how thin this guitar tone is. The result is an album that sounds like the ghost of metal. The shrieks heard in the distant dark woods. The listener can tell that this music is ‘there’, but on the very edge of the psyche.
This is offset by tappy drums which are played with enthusiasm certainly, but really serve to prop up the flagging guitar tone. Vocals dominate the sound when present, which are an aggressive black metal rasping with minimal reverb that completely overpower the sound at times. Guitars are surprisingly varied. They work their way through a series of minimal but creative tremolo strummed riffs made up of simple minor chord progressions. As mentioned, greater depth to the sound is achieved through Darken’s flawless keyboard interludes that open this music to wider spaces than would otherwise be possible.
One must also mention the contrast of this minimalist aggressive black metal broken up by quite beautifully simple acoustic folk passages. Along with the keyboard interludes it really serves to open this music up. I would not go as far as to say that it makes the album, or holds up it, but it would certainly be a much harder work to get into without it. It makes it feel more like a dark celebration of nature, of the past, of trees, and sadly of so called ‘white European values’, but let’s ignore that bit (this is extreme metal in every sense of the word).
I would sincerely recommend both these albums. But with a few caveats. This ain’t entry level black metal. And not because it’s ‘heavier’. But because it is more abrasive in every way. The shitty production, the odd compositional choices, the overbearing vocals. It is not simply harder to get into, it is harder to take seriously. But if you look past this (and Veles being Nazis), you will be rewarded with two key players in black metal’s obscure underbelly. But Mutiilation is gonna take the crown this week, simply because it is less guilty of some of these sins as ‘Black Hateful Metal’ (And Veles were Nazis). ‘Remains of a Ruined, Dead, Cursed Soul’, is probably more recognisable as music with a distinctive style as opposed to a melting pot of ideas. But both can walk away with a recommendation this week. But make sure you pass through the likes of Mutiilation before moving on to other Les Legions Noires metal. Xasthur and Leviathan fans may be in for a shock otherwise.