I was about 15 or 16 the first time I was fully aware of what black metal was. As I’ve mentioned in probably 89 other articles, I grew up in a religious household, so I really wasn’t exposed to extreme music of any kind. Up to my mid-teenage years, the extent of my heavy metal knowledge was pretty much just Metallica and Pantera, with a little light Slayer thrown in for good measure. A dude I went to school with introduced me to Cradle of Filth (who will come up again later) and I was like, “OK, I dig the vibe, but the sound isn’t really grabbing me.” So then he put on some Dimmu Borgir (who will also come up again later)… “Aaaaaand I’m in.” The very first black metal album I ever really liked was Dimmu’s “Stormblåst.” After that, I began digging into everything black metal had to offer and I’m excited to share it with you!
Now, to clarify, this isn’t a necessarily intended to be a primer or a history lesson on black metal. If you need more history on the genre, and it’s origins, you could check out the Black Metal Wikipedia page or pick up a book on the genre (there’s also a great documentary you can watch called Until The Light Takes Us). This is simply a list of black metal artists and albums that you should check out if your interested in the genre but not sure where to start. I will offer some minor background info as I see fit, but I do strongly encourage you to look more into any band that might catch your attention.
For those of you who are metal fans and are only looking at this to see who I chose and if I know what I’m talking about, I promise you I know the differences between black metal, death metal, grindcore, thrash, etc. You’ll find some bands on here that blend genres but still qualify in the black metal category. Also, if you notice me describe something is a very simplistic fashion, please understand that it’s just so the newbies can understand it better.
OK, now that all that is out of the way, let’s hail Satan and get started!
First you’ll want to go back to the beginning. Generally considered the Godfathers of Black Metal, Venom’s album “Black Metal” is a must listen, but you should also check out “Welcome to Hell” and “At War With Satan“.
There’s also, Mercyful Fate, and their lead vocalist King Diamond, who went on to solo career after the band separated. Check out “Abigail” by King Diamond , and “Melissa” by Mercyful Fate.
One of the greatest pioneers of black metal is Tom G. Warrior, who led both Hellhammer and Celtic Frost. The latter is important because they’ll actually pop up again later on as well, but for now, I’m going to recommend you check out their 1985 album, “To Mega Therion.”
Rounding out our 80’s black metal bands is none other than the almighty Bathory. I saved them for last because their self-titled debut album was a HUGE influence on the early 90’s black metal scene, but it was 1988’s Blood Fire Death that really solidified their place as juggernauts in black metal history.
The 90’s were… a weird time for everyone. Black metal however, experienced some incredibly defining moments during the first half of the decade. Probably the most notorious band of the 90’s black metal scene was Mayhem (seriously, read up on them). While founded in the mid 80’s it wasn’t until 1994 that they put out one of the most influential black metal albums of all time, “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas”.
Dropping the same year, and equally as influential, was Darkthrone’s “Transilvanian Hunger.” (The album cover is the featured image for this article.) The band had previously released two fantastic albums, 1992’s “A Blaze in the Northern Sky” and 1993’s “Under a Funeral Moon” which you should also hear.
Another very influential album from the early 90’s era is “In the Nightside Eclipse” by Emperor. For me, this is definitely my favorite of all their records. The first time I heard the track “I Am The Black Wizards” it blew me away.
Burzum (which is basically just notorious black metal musician Varg Vikernes), was another important black metal band from the early 90’s. I recommend you check out “Hvis lyset tar oss.” It’s more atmospheric than the Mayhem and Darkthrone albums, and honestly more than a lot of the other early 90’s black metal albums, so if that’s more your thing than blast beat drumming and thrash guitar riffs, I think you’ll dig it.
If you prefer your metal more epic than raw I suggest you check out Immortal. Their best 90’s album, by far, was “Pure Holocaust”.
The last band I’m including in the 90’s section is Cradle of Filth, but I’d like to explain why. See, CoF gained most of their popularity in the 2000’s with well received albums like “Nymphetamine” in 2004, and “Thornography” in 2006. But it was 1998’s Cruelty and the Beast that the majority black metal fans will point at as a genre essential.
Before we move into the 2000’s, I’d like to include some “honorable mentions”, as it were. These artists and albums are in no way inferior to the ones listed above, I just can’t specifically list every single one that I’d really like.
Gorgoroth – Pentagram, and Antichrist
Enslaved – Frost
Carpathian Forest – Black Shining Leather
Old Man’s Child – The Pagan Prosperity
The early 2000’s saw many black metal bands who actually started in the 90’s start to put out some incredible albums, which in turn began to see the genre gain more legitimacy in the mainstream. Cradle of Filth’s “Godspeed on the Devil’s Thunder” (2008) peaked at #48 on the Billboard 200, and Dimmu Borgir’s “Abrahadabra” (2010) peaked at #42. Just two years before that, however, Dimmu’s “In Sorte Diaboli”, which is easily one of the best epic black metal albums of all time, peaked at #43 on the Billboard charts.
I really want to mention another Dimmu album too, before I move on. As I said before, their album “Stormblåst” was what really got me interested in black metal, but not long after I heard that they put out “Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia” (2001). This is one that you have to listen to if you’re even a little bit curious about black metal.
In 2001, British black metal band Anaal Nathrakh put out their first album, “The Codex Necro.” They’ve released several great albums since (most recently, just this year, “The Whole of the Law“), but this is one band that you definitely wanna start at the beginning for.
Also in 2001, US black metal band Averse Sefira dropped their sophomore album, “Battle’s Clarion.” It’s kind of hard to find but if you can you should jam it. Check out their final album, from 2008, “Advent Parallax.”
This next band is the one I’ve been eagerly waiting to tell you about. They are my absolute favorite black metal band in the whole f—ing world. BEHEMOTH. They the total black metal package. Blast beat drumming, but still melodic. They’re symphonic and dramatic, but never lose an ounce of raw, honest aggression. They make you feel their pure, unadulterated hatred without sacrificing the quality of their music. They ARE black metal. They started way back in the 90’s, however, while I think you should go back and listen to it all so that you can better understand how much they’ve evolved, I’m going to recommend, first, my favorite album, from 2004, Demigod, and, second, their most recent album, from 2014, The Satanist.
Again, I can’t list EVERY album and artist I really want to, or this article would never end. But here’s a couple more honorable mentions from between 2000 and 2010:
Celtic Frost – Monotheist. Most people will say that this 2006 album is closer to doom metal than black metal, and they’re not entirely wrong, but there’s still plenty of black for this to qualify.
Immortal – Sons of Northern Darkness. I mentioned Immortal previously, but I’m including this album from 2002 because it’s my personal favorite of theirs.
Belphegor – Pestapokalypse VI. I got to see Belphegor play live last year and it was incredible. This is their 2006 album, which was their third release with Nuclear Blast records.
Leviathan – Tentacles of Whorror. This 2004 album was one of the first ambient black metal albums I ever remember listening to. I feel like it’s best consumed by listening through headphones.
The past several years have been interesting for black metal. The lines have definitely been more blurred on what most people constitute “black metal” to be. Still though, it’s not like every era has been *exactly* like the one before it. It started pretty theatrical, then got MORE theatrical while also getting more serious and intense, then the serious theatrics took a turn toward epic but with a focus on the sentiment instilled in the 90’s, and now we find ourselves in a place where it’s started mostly being about homage, and an unadulterated love of the genre. Maybe not *the first* but definitely leading the pack is Deafheaven, form San Francisco. While they are inherently very different bands, I love Deafheaven just as much as I love Behemoth. I’ve seen them three times in the past few years. Like a lot of other black metal bands these days, Deafheaven evenly blends shoegaze into their style. If you’re not familiar with shoegaze, it’s often described as “a wall of sound.” So… blackgaze…? Anyway, you HAVE to listen to their 2013 album Sunbather.
Pre-dating Deafheaven, another great modern black metal band you need to check out is Krallice. Their 2009 album Dimensional Bleedthrough is phenomenal, but you should also hear their newest project, 2015’s Ygg huur.
Up in NY, around 2008, emerged Liturgy. They push the boundaries of transcendental black metal in ways that no normal mind can fully fathom, and believe me, I’ve tried. Their 2011 album Aesthethica is an absolute masterpiece, and coincidentally was produced by Colin Marston, the guitarist for Krallice.
Probably one of the most unique and distinctive artists in black metal right now is Myrkur. Danish musician Amalie Bruun is the mind and voice behind this one-woman black metal project. It’s epic, it’s dark, and it’s absolutely beautiful. Listen to the 2015 album, M.
Next up is Washington’s Wolves In The Throne Room. These dudes have been around since 2003 and have had a huge impact on the most recent wave of black metal bands. Every single one of their albums is fantastic, especially their first, Diadem of 12 Stars, but for this I’m recommending their 2001 album, Celestial Lineage.
Full-disclosure… I actually have been periodically working on this piece for a few months and originally had ended this section with WITTR, but then I heard about Zeal & Ardor and a whole new world opened up to me. So, there’s quite a story behind this band, and I strongly encourage to read it here, but suffice to say, Zeal & Ardor blend black metal with old negro spirituals and blues, among other genres. When I heard it I was instantly hooked. It’s maybe the most brilliant genre-bending I’ve heard since… hell, it may be the best genre-bending I’ve EVER heard. Listen to/download the entire album here (I highly recommend “Blood in the River” and “Come On Down”), and check out the music video for “Devil is Fine” below.
Ghost Bath – Moonlover. This band is also often considered “blackgaze.”
Coldworld – Autumn. Amazing new black metal band from Germany.
Svart Crown – Profane. Hailing from France, Svart Crown is a little closer to death metal than black, but that’s why they call it “blackened death metal.”
Young And In The Way – When Life Comes To Death. YAITW blend black metal and crust punk. They’re one of the most poetically bleak bands I’ve ever listened to. I saw them live and it was probably the only time I’ve ever felt genuine uneasiness while watching a band perform. I can’t really explain it well enough. You just have to see it for yourself. Trust me.
OK, so… I know there’s a lot here to consume and digest, but I sincerely hope that, if you are someone who wants to get into black metal, you feel like I’ve given you some adequate options on where to start. I know there’s a whole lot of bands here but, just like any genre, each one has nuances that set it apart from other black metal bands so maybe this will at least help you narrow down your interests to which style and era is most intriguing to you.
Finally, I want to say one more thing to those of you who are long-time, committed, and possible “purists” of the genre. I know I left of a shit ton of great bands, like Satyricon, and Watain, and Dark Funeral (there, I found a way to include them). It wasn’t necessarily on purpose. There’s just so many great ones that it’s damn near impossible to list them all. But also, part of the fun of becoming a fan of new music is discovering bands yourself, so my hope is that new fans will stumble upon bands we’ve all loved for years and be invigorated by their discovery. We all have to start somewhere. Like, perhaps, with Marduk…?