Beyond the North Waves: shifting the narrative of 90s black metal

Following on from the article ‘Death metal for the general listener’ – an attempt to recast death metal as an inherently experimental form of music – I wanted to write up a similar list for black metal. This proved more challenging than expected however, because – despite their closely knit histories – black metal is already widely regarded as a deeply experimental style.

Music lovers well beyond the metal community are forever returning to it with renewed fascination, and regularly cite it as one of the most exciting borders of extreme music (which also happens to be why those borders are so heavily guarded by incumbent fans). For this reason, a list re-affirming black metal as an avant-gardist endeavour is superfluous, just as trotting out another list filled with ‘Blood Fire Death’, ‘Transylvanian Hunger’, and ‘In the Nightside Eclipse’ would be.

Black metal has a very different issue with its heritage to death metal, the latter of which tends to forget just how exciting and unreal many of its formative albums were for the sake of ‘Left Hand Path’ reruns. No, as I was reminded recently after reading Daniel Lake’s book ‘USBM: A Revolution of Identity in American Black Metal’, black metal has a large, Norway shaped bee in its bonnet.

Norway was not the first or the only country to shape the musical direction of black metal in the 1990s. But thanks to high profile murders and arson, alongside some – let’s be honest – damn fine albums, Norway continues to be the dominant narrative that shapes black metal’s history.

This legacy may be notoriously stubborn, but this list is designed to recast black metal as a European and international movement within metal throughout the 1990s that had so much more going for it than a true crime story in one specific region. It was a broad and far-reaching attempt to reclaim metal’s validity as a medium able to articulate facets of the human condition beyond individualism, in ways that were simply not accessible to other forms of music.

Again, this list is aimed at general music fans who may already have a passing interest in black metal, but one that is largely mediated through a Norwegian perspective. For those already well versed in the genre there may be few surprises. I have also omitted Sweden and Finland because – despite their own weighty legacies – they have nearly as many cheerleaders and naysayers as Norway.

Root: Zjevení
Year: 1990
Origin: Czechia

Czech black metal could be read as a link between the otherworldly occultism of Finland and the more melodically minded Hellenic style. Root and Master’s Hammer are perhaps the best remembered names from this branch. And both married heavy metal with occultism and early extreme metal stylings. If we are charting evolution, what is perhaps most interesting about these artists is how they bypassed death metal’s rising hegemony almost completely. This fact is most true of Root. Their debut ‘Zjevení’ could be understood as a heavy metal band playing – or rather pre-empting – Mayhem’s ‘De Mysteriis Dom. Sathanas’. And it’s the quirkiness of Valter’s vocals (or Big Boss as he likes to be known) that solidifies this comparison. His voice ranges from deep, soulful chanting to distorted growls to rasps and overtone techniques that hint at Mongolian throat singing. It’s notable that this was one feature of early black metal that was not picked up on in the decades that followed. Although the hardest to imitate or perform in a manner that does not invite ridicule, it’s a wonder that black metal vocals became such a homogenous institution after these earlier examples of bizarre and colourful ejaculations.

Samael: Worship Him
Year: 1991
Origin Switzerland

Another graduate of the Celtic Frost school, Samael played at similar tempos to their forebears, sometimes even slipping below 80bpm. ‘Worship Him’ is a work of elegant simplicity, bridging the riff-based heavy metal stylings of old with the new appetite for immersive atmospheres. Indeed, on this album Samael sound more like a young Quorthon playing Celtic Frost than anything else. The aesthetic leans far more towards dark and menacing than it does epic, meaning that Samael rely on rhythmic unity between the guitars and the drums far more so than many of their contemporaries. This unity gives this brand of black metal its darker, ritualistic vibe. ‘Worship Him’ could also be read as a summation of old school black metal up to 1991. On later albums Samael were to build on this platform by adding more orchestral flourishes to their music.

Abigor: Verwüstung / Invoke the Dark Age
Year: 1994
Origin: Austria

In the 1990s Abigor released a string of frantic black metal albums so burdened with ideas that they seemed to fall over themselves to get the riffs out. Silenius of Summoning fame (another institution of Austrian metal) contributed vocals to these early works, and although his voice can only be described as standard black metal distortion, it has an unmistakable croak to it that immediately betrays his presence. The thing that strikes one on revisiting their debut ‘Verwüstung / Invoke the Dark Age’ is the sheer quantity of information Abigor manage to pack within such a tight space. The unique sense of melody still finds a prominent voice alongside the sharpened primitivism that the title of the album suggests. Keyboards are deployed as seasoning on this already complex superstructure, thus broadening the expressive and emotive range of this dense and bracing form of black metal.

Xibalba: Ah Dzam Poop Ek
Year: 1994
Origin: Mexico

Mexico’s Xibalba (now known as Xibalba Itzaes) are a curious little beast. Their debut LP ‘Ah Dzam Poop Ek’ is similar in spirit to Graveland and Ungod of the same era. It’s a fun romp through energetic, bouncy black metal that offers little in the way of obvious thrills, but beneath the surface lies a cornucopia of delights. Some of the riffs hint at triumphalism thanks to some well-placed major chords, giving the music an almost euphoric quality that sits alongside elegantly ritualistic black metal. The components are basic, right down to the off-the-shelf shrieking of Marco Ek Balam’s vocals, but the end result has an undeniably alien quality to it. This is aided by the subtle use of samples very obviously designed to imbue the music with the otherworldly spirit of nocturnal woodlands filled with natural mysticism.

Necromass: Abyss Calls Life
Year: 1996
Origin: Italy

Alongside Mortuary Drape, Tuscany’s Necromass are as good a place to start as anywhere when it comes to Italian extreme metal. Their second LP ‘Abyss Calls Life’ (1996) slots very neatly into Southern European traditions of black metal in all their melodic hat tipping to classic metal of preceding decades. This album pivots on a relentless interplay of twin guitar leads and creative contrapuntal basslines. Although this is generally slower than Rotting Christ or Varathron, the music has a dynamism and drive to it that never lets up. This is achieved predominantly by the restless melodic purpose to the guitars. It seems that all the effort was put into making sure this instrument shines. From the melody and counterpoint, the delicately picked clean passages accompanied by subtle synth lines, to the gradual evolution of motifs via well placed shifts in tempo and key.

Agatus: Dawn of Martydom
Year: 1996
Origin: Greece

One curious feature of black metal’s evolution throughout the 1990s was the fact that many scenes outside of Norway were actually peddling something relatively accessible. Throughout Southern and Central Europe, old school heavy metal, infectious melodrama, and ambitious narrative structures were being married to surprisingly catchy riffs in the works of Rotting Christ, Varathron, and Necromantia. Alongside these household names were the projects of the Dorian brothers in Zemial and Agatus. Indeed, Agatus’s debut is an overlooked landmark of 90s metal. It aspires to the level of epic film scores both in the longform melodic framing of the riffs, but also in the mixing and mastering. Keyboard flourishes and theatrics are layered on top of highly structured works that see link riffs branch off from a rich tapestry of epic narration. A fascinating melting pot of styles harnessed into a masterwork of ambitious metal.

Forest: Заревом над прахом / Like a Blaze Above the Ashes
Year: 1997
Origin: Russia

Forest, fabled stalwarts of the Blazebirth Hall group of bands responsible for formative Russian black metal, had a good run of consistent LPs throughout the late 1990s. The second of which, 1997’s ‘Like a Blaze Above the Ashes’ is for my money the most interesting of these. Four lengthy pieces blend emotive variety with conceptual unity, dispalying an above average attention span for the style. Structurally this is similar to that other benchmark of maturity in black metal: Burzum’s ‘Hvis Lyset Tar Oss’. The tracks veer from lengthy ruminations to sonic intensity that, when taken together, give the album the flow of one standalone piece of epically minded music. This is cold, lonely, open music that excels at invoking its chosen moods with ease, don’t expect any flashy adornments, just a single minded devotion to the purest expression of solitude within the openness of the vast steppes of Russia.

Veles: Black Hateful Metal
Year: 1997
Origin: Poland

Polish black metal artists boasted some of the most obscure (and racist) interpretations of the style, rivalled only by the French for unbridled abrasion. Away from the glossy Disney music of Behemoth 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 the 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. This album 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.

I Shalt Become: Wanderings
Year: 1998
Origin: USA

Released at a time when black metal was falling into self-parody after the true crime stories that gave it an international name had run their course. The turn of the century saw a brief reprieve, before the explosion of web 2.0, the indie/post metal turn, post 9/11 culture and a scary new millennium of thrilling chaos. But into this calm before the storm came I Shalt Become’s debut ‘Wanderings’, the beginnings of something new, or the graceful end of something old depending on your perspective. This is the real origin story of American ambient black metal and its very obvious debt to Burzum. The guitar tone dominates all with slow, lumbering riffs, deliberately crafted to be played below the 80bpm mark. Whether it’s simple arpeggios, ponderous chord progressions, or just out and out droning, S. Holliman’s mastery of this tool to achieve the archetypal guitar tone for this stripe of black metal is a pleasure to listen to.

Frozen Shadows: Dans Les Bras Des Immortels
Year: 1999
Origin: Canada

Of all the distinctive black metal scenes to emerge in the 1990s, the Quebecoise probably had the most loosely defined style. Although broadly speaking it was melodic, epic, flirting with symphonic, and inspired by the cold climates from whence it came, the key artists to emerge from this part of the world were grouped more by general traits than a deeper sonic philosophy. In the late 1990s, Canadian artists found new and unique ways to add to well established European traditions, prior to forging a path of their own. And that’s precisely what Frozen Shadows did. Their debut album is an aggressive reimagining of early Immortal with some Emperor symphonics layered in for good measure. The genius of this album lies not so much in the epic scope and near flawless execution (although both warrant examination), but in harnessing a broad range of elements that offer an album of varied emotions, a journey through towering sonic cathedrals, that are all nevertheless drawn together into a work of unity and oneness that only the best of European black metal have managed to match in terms of ambition and execution.

Isegrim: Dominus Inferus Ushanas
Year: 2000
Origin: Germany

Germany is something of an enigma in metal circles. An argument could be made for it being the capital of the metal world, yet despite its status as a cultural hub, outside of thrash/speed metal it has never led the world in a particular style or unique regional flavour in the same way as their European neighbours. By the end of the Cold War, industrial music experienced an odd marriage with American alt rock in the form of NIN et al, and for Germany, that meant the rise of Rammstein and the Neue Deutsche Härte which monopolised the attention of mainstream critics. In terms of underground metal, there’s no shortage of artists to delve into, but they all too often feel like disconnected also-rans; the small discography of Ungod, the short-lived Torchure, the iconoclastic Absurd, the patchy legacy of Nargaroth, the atypical Nagelfar. And beneath these household names lies Isegrim, whose sole LP is an interesting rendering of sweeping Swedish metal in the tradition of Necrophic or early Marduk slammed together with the undeniable occultism of Demoncy from the US. A rare diamond in the rough at a time when black metal was entering a period of stagnation and self-recrimination.

Antaeus: Cut Your Flesh and Worhsip Satan
Year: 2000
Origin: France

The 00s were not a decade best known for a quality crop of black metal. The initial creative well had run dry, and newer generations were yet to formulate a meaningful response to the brave new century that greeted them. There were clues however. The trends and motives that now move like tides at the mercy of the celestial body of Web 2.0 were still in their infancy in the early 2000s. France’s legacy (one maintained to this day) in this regard is an important one, proudly maintaining the very periphery of what black metal is capable of as an exercise in the limits of sound. Antaeus may be worlds away from the obsurantist ethos of Les Légions Noires artists such as Mutiilation or Vlad Tepes, but they were in keeping with the French philosophy of pushing black metal beyond the tastes of even the most hardened of fans. By stripping black metal of all but its rawest rudiments, and building up a new, nihilistic aesthetic core tempered by an esoteric conceptual framework, Antaeus hint at a novel form of exhilarating and ambitious extreme metal. Their ability to marshal the chaos of war metal into formal, sophisticated structures, and render all that aggression into a uniquely oppressive atmosphere was something not heard before. The resulting declaration of war is part call to arms, part incantation, and part shot of adrenaline. By tempering chaos with order they give context to the lawless aspects of this music, and have thus produced works more extreme than art that delves into the structureless netherworld of the avant-garde, but more importantly one with a spirit that resonates to this day beyond its own nihilism. In this album’s fluid, homogenous qualities we find life’s denial. But it disciplines this entropy into the means to overcome this nihilism, and here we find life’s affirmation.

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