Black Metal: Diversity and Popularity

Black Metal: Diversity and Popularity

Cover photo: Hoest, frontman of Norwegian black metal band TAAKE, photography by Adrian Nekro and Stig Pallesen, used on the 2014 EP “Kulde”.

Hello SKULL NEWS. Today we’re in for something different. Not a review, just a discussion about a theme I had in mind lately.
My thinking process comes along and as a continuation of an article recently published in the French Webzine METALORGIE, delving on the question of the popularity of the genre (French speakers: check out the article here).

As the aformentioned article stated, it’s true that when you search through the database Metal Archives, there’s more extreme metal than heavy metal. Let’s check again the numbers:

Heavy: 19,834 bands
Power: 8,027 bands
Thrash: 28,029 bands
Doom: 10,880 bands
Death: 46,060 bands
Black: 36,619 bands

A lot of bands may overlap in several genres and so could be counted among more than one category. But in any case, extreme metal does appear more common than what one may think.

Since my main interest here is black metal, I will keep my reflexion around this genre, but I think some of the points I’m going to make can also be discussed with death metal (or even thrash, to an extent).

My main question, then, is “Why are there so many more black metal bands than heavy bands?” I’m considering a few alternate facts to support this question:
-Heavy metal, having appeared between the late 60s and the 70s, is quite older than black metal, which appeared in its first forms in the 80s and really took shape in the early 90s. Considering that historical point, we may have thought there would be more bands of the original/traditional style.
-Black metal often aimed to stay underground, both by willing to be something rather for an “elite” people in its beginnings. It started to evolve in secrecy, also often as an art emphasizing loneliness, while heavy metal bands were there in the open, ready to party.

But the numbers speak for themselves. Black metal is now a dominant genre in the metal scene, so, no more elite, right?

First thing I want to do is focus on the boundaries of the genre. Extreme metal being an evolution of traditional heavy metal, per definition, it is thriving outside of the traditional genre’s boundaries.
Heavy metal has its own codes, it evolved into other more familiar genres, as in power metal and thrash, which all sum up where we were in the metal scene in the mid 80s. Death and black metal where then only infants, ready to take on the scene a few years later.
Heavy metal mostly kept within its own realm of epciness, answering to its own codes, often going a little power and thrash here and there, but generally kept its own touch for itself. It has its subgenres and peculiarities specific to some scenes (that’s basically how we may differentiate German style heavy metal like ACCEPT, the Brits in IRON MAIDEN and the Americans in MANILLA ROAD ; they’re all heavy metal, yet have their own regional specifics).

When black metal first appeared, it was an experiment made with all these preexisting ideas and the agressiveness and satanic imagery known in its beginnings. The first wave of this “something else” that was starting to move away from traditional heavy metal appeared with bands like VENOM, BATHORY, HELLHAMMER/CELTIC FROST. But we had to wait till we got to the early 90s to know about Norway’s black metal bands starting to come out of the shadows. That second wave, as we call it, created what is assumed now to be traditional black metal. It wasn’t only in Norway, the genre developed at the same time everywhere in the world. The French scene was just as thriving as that of our Norse friends. Bands like DARKTHRONE and MÜTIILATION cemented the genre into what it is: black metal.

Have a taste of the French:

Starting from this old-school black metal, I feel that the genre quite quickly tried to experiment into other realms. First, with the other subgenres that already existed, and also with flourishing new ideas. Atmospheric black metal was born out of stuff like BURZUM, symphonic black metal sproouted out of bands like EMPEROR and ARCTURUS. AURA NOIR and DARKTHRONE wanted to put back the heavy and thrash into black metal. And while all these bands are old Norwegian titans, younger bands keep the flame alive, like MIDNIGHT‘s black’n’roll/speed metal madness or HEXECUTOR‘s old-school maniac take on black/speed/thrash metal. New projects keep coming out of nowhere in any black metal subgenre.

I feel that black metal also quickly tried to move away from its origins and experiment with music far outside of extreme metal and often outside of rock music at all. My opinion may be biased since I’m well documented on the genre, as it’s my favorite and the one I listen to most. I think that black metal has fused its elements with everyhting that existed before and tried as well with everything that was to come in the metal world. It became in my opinion, the most varied subgenre of metal, because musicians themselves were curious to try very different things from their original works.

I’m going to use a few examples of famous bands that have explored way beyond their own dogmas. PRIMORDIAL, SOLEFALD, SIGH, EMPEROR and IHSAHN, IN THE WOODS…, ULVER, DEATHSPELL OMEGA, ENSLAVED, BETHLEHEM, A FOREST OF STARS…
All these bands have black metal in common, at least at some point in their career, some of theim are even instigators of the genre, starting from the True Norwegian scene, and yet, those bands may have, over the course of their careers, produced songs like these:

The eighth track on SIGH‘s ninth album, In Somniphobia, released in 2012.

Japanese avant-garde/black metallers SIGH can always make amazing albums that sound so very distinct from one another. They always mix everything with everything else, to an awesone result. And yet, they also are the cornerstone of traditional black metal in their country. Let’s not forget that they released also this on DEATHLIKE SILENCE PRODUCTIONS in 1993, with their first album, Scorn Defeat.

So many bands have gone out of their way for the sake of creation. Already in EMPEROR, Ihsahn, the composer, gave hints into classical music and electronic sounds, which would come later into his solo project, which oscillates between progressive black metal and progressive everything.

Prometheus was EMPEROR‘s last album before Ihsahn started his solo project. And even though he still releases songs sounding like black metal (check his Telemark EP released earlier this year), he also releases prog rock songs like “Spectre at the Feast“, from his upcoming EP, Pharos, which remind me of bands like KANSAS.

Enough with the YouTube links, I will let you check the other bands I mentioned on your own.

As I’ve said, I feel like black metal musicians can be very diverse. They also get more and more opportunities to have albums released and heard. Internet’s online culture provides for a huge amount of new music. Black metal is often created by solo artists. They can just release anything through Bandcamp or a similar online service to make their music accessible worldwide. That makes it easy to have new projects often, and some musicians even have several projects on their own (like Mories, from GNAW THEIR TONGUES, MYSTAGOGUE, DE MAGIA VETERUM, etc). Furthermore, even big labels which were not known for any interest in black metal have started signing bands like ENSLAVED and ORANSSI PAZUZU, at NUCLEAR BLAST, for example. NAPALM RECORDS as well have well-established black metal bands in their roster such as SATYRICON, THY ANTICHRIST and IMPERIUM DEKADENZ.

So, big labels show their interest in black metal. Good, right? And there’s more. A plethora of smaller labels dedicate their releases to one genre of music, and there are many dedicated solely to black metal. In France, for example, you have historical labels like SEASON OF MIST and OSMOSE PRODUCTIONS who have always had a certain focus on the black arts. While those two have been at it since the 90s and have nothing more to prove to anyone, there’s quite a number of smaller labels which focus on black metal. LES ACTEURS DE L’OMBRE have been putting out solid material for ten years, and other very small yet respectable entities have sprung out of the French underground, like ANTIQ LABEL, EPICTURAL PRODUCTION, DEBEMUR MORTI PRODUCTIONS or NORMA EVANGELIUM DIABOLI, to name a few.
This phenomenon can be observed all over the world, you can check TALHEIM RECORDS from Austria, TERRATUR POSSESSIONS from Norway, PEST PRODUCTIONS from China, ZERO DIMENSIONAL RECORDS from Japan, SATANIC RECORDS from Mexico or SHAYTAN PRODUCTIONS from Canada. And again, that’s just to name a few. There are hundreds of small labels everywhere, releasing local artists or trying to release foreign bands in their country.

Black metal bands or solo projects appear and release music in every continent. While you’re around, please check BARZAKH‘s new song, an experimental black metal project from Morocco.

All that being said, why does a genre that tends to be more willing to stay underground is so prevalent in the metal music industry?
I have a guess, related to a lot of problems we can picture while thinking about our modern age.
The emotions expressed in black metal are very grim, lyrical themes often comprise despair, darkness, depression, sadness, death and nature, seen through a Romantic-like perspective, which would then traditionally be associated with melancholy. This general negativity, expanding worldwide thanks to the Internet, is in my opinion the expression of reject and disgust to several aspects of the artists’ lives.
Our capitalistic world governed by finance shuns art and stresses people into the mold in which society wants to trap us. Creativity is maybe one of the few escape routes people have to try to evacuate the vicissitudes of life.
This extremely stressful and ugly world may explain the advent of ugly music. A Romantic longing for something else, something lost, channeled by the strife and conflict, the poverty and pain, the stress and fear, arranged into sound makes the soil for black metal.
The sufferings of our era are an unavoidable part of our days. The human era, that is to say, roughly the past 10,000 years in geologic time, is called the Holocene. As I’ve said before, nature is a key component of black metal, and our era, just like the end of the Cretaceous when dinosaurs disappeared, tolls the bell of extinction. Human activity and climate change continuously destroy what remains of forests, rivers and oceans, killing many species in the process. Because of us, scientists have coined the term “Holocene extinction” (also “Anthropocene extinction”, where the Anthropocene is post-WWII and present time), because the disappearing parameters seem quite similar to those the Earth has lived through before, except accelerated by our activites. Each main geological era has been terminated by a brief yet violent episode of mass extinction, and we may very well be on the beginning of the end of the Holocene. That would mean the end of humanity, if things develop in a similar way as it happened before.
In one word, we’re slowly moving towards the Apocalypse. Doesn’t that sound like extra fertile ground for black metal (or extreme metal in general)?

Political and economical unrest, social strife, racism, climate change, destruction of the environment are some of the main components of our self-destructive epoch.
Black metal, in my opinion, is just a manifestation of this self-destruction. The greatest, final criticism trying to say that everything is fucked up beyond recognition, with very small, or even, absolutely no hope of changing things back to the better.
Hence, black metal is popular. The times call for such a music to rise to the top of the music chain. It may resonate with our world better than other types of music.

I think I’ve reached the end of my trail of thoughts. Don’t hesitate to comment and give out your opinion about this subject.
Next time on SKULL NEWS, you’ll get a more normal article, I’m preparing a review about a very special band… Stay tuned!


I love black metal, and I love fish. That may seem unrelated to music, but you may sooner or later understand that there's a link between the two. I will write on Skull News review articles and other stuff, I hope you'll enjoy them. And by the way, I'm French !

4 thoughts on “Black Metal: Diversity and Popularity

  1. Hi going to read this more thorougly after posting, but had to mention Manes and Fleurety! Great to see In the Woods, their classic stuff is some of my favorite, from the folk to the prog. Also Green Carnation as well with Tchort, who basically started off as In the Woods.

    Black metal in the public eye has become a meme, as you stated, that is merely repeated in the public eye. With rare exception its the same bands, the same look, the same everything. But at the same time, I do think many people enjoy it. Who am I to say someone does not like something? But I can recognize that what they like is the regurgiation of what everyone else is liking, as well as how they look and think.

    I still think plenty of great artists exist, Nihtsinn is very unique, Manes came out with Manni, and Knokkelklang gave The WorkWhich Transforms God a run for its value, and maybe surpassed those true masters of the genre who themselves are branching out more towards the realm of Godflesh, who I deeply love as well.

    I think you make a great point about reflecting lonliness, and I think this is one of the things I find odd, because the popular black metal crowd is far from lonely, as Instagram likes prove. Again just observations.

    And no mention of Peccatum?

    I do think things like racism have some early human form, maybe not what we would call it today but the fear of the outsider is a prevalent thing the world over. This is not to be okay with it or accept it, just realize its part of our reality, just like violent psychos will be no matter what society does. To me, black metal is more the acceptance of the hatred and darkness within, which makes me wonder how it settles with some of the more left crowd. Black metal is also obviously very fantasy oriented, LotR is half of what the genre is about. But it is interesting how things have changed, I have many feelings about it and enjoyed reading your article!

    Oh also I’ve stuided a lot of ecology, and unfortunately human destruction towards the environment has always existed. Even well before colonization much of N.Africa cleared its trees, and theirs a book written specifically about the American Indigenous people and their negative interaction with the environment. Its importance to not romanticize the evils of our modern time, although no doubt they are very concerning, because it removes us from a perspective beyond our modern times and age. Just some thoughts, obviously all things I can dork out on all day! Again awesome article thanks.

    I really can go on forever, also the access to music is much easier, all you have to do is turn on youtube or spotify and find something great. Which is a good thing! But its also changed things in how we relate to the music.

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