TIBERIAN VOCALIZATIONS: ARTHUR VON NAGEL ON POST-BLACK METAL (AND BEING A SHAMELESS METAL NERD)
Black metal, in spite of its more purist fans, has undergone so many stylistic permutations since the Norwegian second wave’s arson-fueled media explosion that I’m hard-pressed to even define what black metal sounds like circa 2009. By frankensteining elements of Mayhem, Bathory, Burzum, Darkthrone, Celtic Frost, Emperor, Venom, Enslaved, Ulver and countless other classics with every unrelated style under the wintermoon, bands to follow spawned sub-sub-genres for all tastes: folk-black/Viking metal, symphonic black metal, war metal, suicidal black metal, atmospheric/ambient black metal, blackened post-rock, progressive black metal, black-thrash, blackened death metal, industrial black metal, national social black metal, black/doom, blackened crust, black n’ roll… and a peculiar little anti-style often referred to half-ironically as “post-black metal.”
I cite Celtic Frost’s love-it-or-hate-it 1987 experimental album Into The Pandemonium as the inspiration for post-black metal, as it employs nearly all its main building blocks, namely exotic instrumentation (violins, cellos, French horns, sampling), layered harsh and clean vocals (of particular note is the female operatic singer, belting it out in French no less) unconventional or seemingly non-existent song structures, flirtations with pop and dance music, and an overwhelmingly flippant disregard for the usual sensibilities of your average metalhead. Look no further than the Swiss first wave black metal legends dabbling in an instrumental rap-meets-industrial song about the moon landing, or their cover of New Wave group Wall of Voodoo’s 1983 pop hit “Mexican Radio” to open the album. Call it hubris, call it genius, but without Into The Pandemonium, I contend that bands as diverse in style and quality as Sigh, Therion, and Cradle of Filth simply would not exist in the same form.
Have a listen, and remember that this album came out in 1987. It has perhaps aged poorly to some, but at the time, this was the metal equivalent of Marty McFly’s shred guitar solo in the first Back to the Future. For comparison’s sake, here’s what Celtic Frost sounded like on their 1984 debut EP, Morbid Tales.
Celtic Frost – “Into The Crypts of Rays”
And now some tracks from Into the Pandemonium, three years later.
Celtic Frost – “Caress Into Oblivion (Jade Serpent II)”
Celtic Frost – “Tristesses De La Lune”
Celtic Frost – “One In Their Pride”
Depending on your views on the rampant fragmenting of metal genres, “post-black” can either mean absolutely nothing or refer to a select group of bands that would be otherwise uncategorizable. The term itself is highly contentious in Internet metal circles, much like “viking metal,” “avant-garde metal,” and “post-metal.” But for the sake of analysis, let’s assume the genre exists. To explain its sound, I like to think of black metal in terms of a coloring book. Some groups color closely within the lines with sober, realistic hues, others will decide their sky is orange and their trees purple, still others will squiggle outside the margins, but post-black metal bands rip out the pages and fashion them into paper airplanes and origami genitals. The molecular canvas of black metal, the coloring book, is still present, but it’s been turned into different shapes that share little aesthetically with its core genre. Prog rock, jazz, funk, classical, techno, opera, neo-folk, trip-hop, even disco and pop are all fair game for the post-black metal band. Like post-modernism in the art world, the coldly mocking deconstruction of the core genre can inspire either rapturous admiration for the artist’s daring, audacity, and self-awareness, or provoke critics to denounce the style as passionless masturbation, and ultimately, empty pretension.
Judge for yourself. Here are some choice tracks from some of my favorite bands often cited as post-black metal.
In The Woods…. – “Yearning the Seeds of a New Dimension” (1995)
My favorite song of all time. I’m very frustrated YouTube had to split the track at such a pensive moment, so do yourself a favor and buy/download the In The Woods masterpieces Heart of the Ages and Omnio to hear their work properly. I can’t bear the thought of metalheads not having at least heard of this criminally underrated Norwegian band (though many know of their follow-up group Green Carnation). In The Woods is likely my single greatest musical influence. The black metal screams are beyond torturous, the calm, blues sections so understated and beautiful, the classic rock flourishes of the guitars and bass so cleverly wrapped around the tremelo picking… I absolutely worship these guys (and gal), and it a huge regret of mine that will never get to see them live. This album was very daring for 1995, and you’ll notice the Pink Floyd-like synth use, the extreme dynamics, the multiple vocal layers, and non-traditional structures. Later songs on this album feature a fantastic female vocalist and some pronounced folk elements. Let me make this clear: LISTEN TO IN THE WOODS.
Fleurety – “Fragmenter Av En Fortid” (1995)
We’ve received some criticism that the intro to our song “Salt of the Earth” seems massively influenced by Opeth. Now, I can’t speak for the other Cormorant band members, but I know who I was ripping off with my bass line, and it sure as hell wasn’t Opeth. It was these dudes! Fleurety are another insane Norwegian band that defy traditional characterizations, and for their debut album Min Tid Skal Komme, they dance around black metal and 70s progressive rock like no one else before them. Their follow-up album, Department of Apocalyptic Affairs, goes completely off the deep-end, and features guest appearances by members of Ulver, Mayhem, Winds, Arcturus, and the following band…
Ved Buens Ende – “Remembrance of Things Past” (1995)
I dig Nachtmystium, but their psychedelic black metal direction is nothing new. Ved Buens Ende was doing it fifteen years ago. It takes huge balls or a huger ego for a metal band to name a song after a work by early 20th century French novelist-to-the-gods Marcel Proust, so much respect due there. A lot of this album Written in Waters – sadly VBE’s only full-length – reminds me of late 80s punk/rock/math/weirdo band Slint. Be sure to check out main man Carl-Michael Eide’s other work in Aura Noir, Ulver, Virus, and Dødheimsgard.
….and Oceans – “Tears Have No Name” (2001)
I have no idea why these bands are so obsessed with ellipses in their names, but maybe it’s some kind of Spinal Tap punctuation joke. Brace for electronic influences. These Finns started out as straight-up symphonic black metal, and then dropped one too many tablets of Ecstasy. Pick up their album A.M.G.O.D. and break out the glow sticks, though I’m partial to their slightly more traditional record The Symmetry of I – The Circle of O.
Sigh – “Scarlet Dream”
These Japanese loonies (and MetalSucks contributors!) made up the only band from outside Scandinavia signed to Euronymous’s legendary Deathlike Silence record label, known for its releases from the likes of Mayhem, Burzum and Enslaved. While they once wore the spiked armbands and corpse paint, Sigh’s approach to black metal was completely different from their Norwegian counter-parts. Since Japan isn’t dominated by Judeo-Christian iconography, Sigh’s imagery took inspiration from the demons of their own country’s rich mythology. From their more straightforward black metal beginnings with Scorn Defeat, Sigh evolved through many different styles, including the crazy mish-mash of dub, new wave, classic rock and metal you hear on Imaginary Sonicscapes, the clever and subversive pop flirtations on Gallows Gallery, and the Wagnerian teutonic black-thrash of Hangman’s Hymn. I’ve loved every album of theirs, and I’m hoping that their new release, Scenes from Hell, lives up to their reputation.
Solefald – “Nutrisco et Extingo” (2003)
These dudes are bonkers. They speak a half million different languages and hold ridiculously high-level degrees in philosophy and literature. For just a duo, this sounds like a hundred different instruments playing at once. Some really wild vocal layers going on here, coupled with unique instrumentation and song structure. Yes, that is a saxophone solo. I recommend the Solefald albums Pills Against the Ageless Ills and In Harmonia Universali. Be sure to hunt down their members’ contributions to Borknagar, Age of Silence, Asmegin, Carpathian Forest and Sturmgeist.
So that’s my case for post-black metal, a genre that has inspired and influenced me greatly, though as I delve back into “pure” black metal, I can understand the distaste for it. So what do you folks think of the style? Pretentious nonsense or experimental genius? Both? Or is it even a genre at all? I purposely left out quite a few bigger bands that could be considered post-black (not to mention the entire French black metal scene) in the hope that MetalSucks readers would throw in their own two cents. I’d like to see some fans of the style offering album and band suggestions!
Hell, if you have weird music I absolutely NEED to hear, drop me a line on my Last FM account. If I like it, maybe I’ll write an article about it.
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