Black Metal: Explained

Since its beginning, metal has been seen by many as “the Devil’s music.” Many metalheads carry this statement with pride, and none more so than the members of the black metal genre. But what is black metal, and where does it come from?

Black metal is one of the many genres of what is known as “extreme metal.” Extreme metal is an umbrella term for a number of metal subgenres that have developed since the early 1980s. The term applies to the genres with a harsher, more abrasive, underground, or non-commercialized sound associated with the genres of death metal, grindcore, speed metal, and, of course, black metal.

Black Metal
Venom’s Black Metal (1982)

In the 1980s, a number of death and thrash metal bands formed a prototype for what would become the black metal of today. Bands like Venom, Mercyful Fate, Bathory, Hellhammer and Celtic Frost have become known as “the First Wave of Black Metal.” The term “black metal” itself comes from the Venom album Black Metal. The second wave of black metal didn’t come around until the early 1990s, and was spearheaded by the Norwegian black metal scene. Bands in this scene include Darkthrone, Burzum, Gorgoroth, Immortal, and most importantly, Mayhem.

Mayhem, also called True Mayhem, are considered to be one of the pioneers of black metal, and are considered to have one of the most controversial careers. Formed in 1984 in Oslo, Norway, Mayhem was founded by guitarist Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth, bassist Jørn “Necrobutcher” Stubberud, and drummer Kjetil Manheim. Taking their name from the Venom song “Mayhem Without Mercy,” Mayhem started out playing covers of Motorhead, Venom and Bathory, before finally deciding to write their own material. Recruiting Eirik “Messiah” Norheim to replace Manheim on the drums, and Sven “Maniac” Kristiansen to do the vocals, the band released their first EP Deathcrush through Euronymous’ newly formed label Posercorpse Music.

Mayhem’s Live in Leipzig (1993)

When Maniac and Messiah left the band in 1988, they were replaced by Swedish vocalist Per Ohlin who went by the stage name “Dead,” and local drummer Jan “Hellhammer” Blomberg. With Dead, the bands live performances quickly became notorious. For concerts, Dead went through great lengths to achieve the image and atmosphere he wanted. From his careers beginning, he was known for donning “corpse paint”, which involved covering his face in black and white makeup to give him a corpse-like appearance. According to Necrobutcher, “it wasn’t anything to do with the way KISS and Alice Cooper used makeup. Dead actually wanted to look like a corpse.” Hellhammer claimed that Dead was the first black metal musician to use corpse paint. To complete this image, Dead would bury his clothes in the ground and dig them up again to wear them at the concert. During actual performances, Dead would cut his wrists with shards of glass or knives. The band would also put pig or sheep heads on stakes and place them at the front of the stage.

On April 8, 1991, Dead committed suicide in the house the band owned. He was found by Euronymous with his wrists slit and a shotgun wound to the head. The suicide note simply read “excuse all the blood. Cheers.” Instead of calling the police, Euronymous went to a nearby store and bought a disposable camera to photograph the corpse. One of the photos taken by Euronymous eventually became the cover of the live album Dawn of the Black Hearts. Deeply affected, Necrobutcher left Mayhem, leaving only Euronymous and Hellhammer as the remaining members of Mayhem.

Recruiting a number of session musicians, including Burzum’s Varg Vikernes on bass, and Tormentor’s Attila Csihar for vocals. Mayhem released their first album De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas on May 1994. However, Euronymous did not see its release. On August 10, 1993, Euronymous was fatally stabbed and killed by Varg in his apartment. Vikernes was arrested and declared guilty for murder and church arsons that he participated in. In his book, Confessions of a Heretic, Behemoth’s Adam “Nergal” Darski recalled the scene after Euronymous’ murder, “the scene was divided: one faction wanted to take revenge on ‘that traitor from Burzum’; the other thought that it was Mayhem’s leader [Euronymous] who was the traitor. Bluster and threats were commonplace. Anyone could get knifed.” Varg Vikernes was released from prison on parole in 2009, after serving 15 years of his 21 year sentence (21 years being the maximum penalty in Norway).

A Blaze in the Northern Sky
Darkthrone’s A Blaze in the Northern Sky

By the mid-1990s, the sound of the Norwegian black metal scene spread across the globe. Some of the scenes in Europe and North America have formed their own styles independent, but still influenced, by the work of the Norwegian black metal scene, like ambient
black metal, symphonic black metal, and blackened death metal are only a few. Some Swedish bands have risen to the front of the current black metal scene such as Marduk, Nifelheim, and Dark Funeral.

Black metal has been met with resistance and hostility from the mainstream, due to the Satanic and misanthropic ideals associated with it. While some bands may advocate Satanism, others may mention Pagan ideologies. While many bands preach Satanic ideologies, many artists do not actually adhere to the message. One exception is Mercyful Fate’s lead singer, King Diamond, who identifies as a LaVeyan Satanist. Fenriz of Darkthrone has stated many times that black metal also advocates “individualism above all”.


Despite the negative view given to it by society, black metal has created many great artists and songs. Despite being one of the more underground subgenres of metal, its contribution to the metal genre shouldn’t be disregarded.

David Gagnon

Born in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton, Dave has laid down his soul to the gods rock n' roll. He attended Columbia College Chicago as a major in Creative Writing. Some of his favorite things are heavy metal and pizza.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Back to top button