Black Metal, you’ve come a long way, baby. I remember when you were just a glimmer in Quarthon‘s eye. A thrash n’ glam amalgamation with a heavy bend towards the Satanic. Judas Priest worship, black leather, and tin-shed recording studios; the early days of DIY metal labels.
While Venom and Bathory both pioneered what would retroactively be named ‘first wave’ black metal, it’s the Norwegian ‘second wave’ that probably gets the most attention. Burzum, Immortal, Emperor, Mayhem, and Darkthrone were essentially the Big 5 of Norwegian BM during the early 90s. Taking mostly stylistic cues from their forerunners, Norwegian BM bands made their production as battered and decayed as possible. While technically proficient (lookin’ at you, Immortal), a lot of second wave sounded intentionally shitty. Heavy on the blast beats and with an ultra-boner for the tremolo knob.
From here, we get ‘third wave’ black metal, which was never really a thing. It was used as a placeholder sub-sub-genre to explain the burgeoning bedroom black metal scene gaining steam in the early 00s. One man bands living out corpse-paint dreams with nothing but a black Randy Rhodes and a MacBook.
Like I said, ‘third wave’ was never really a thing, but it sparked a movement of legitimate black metal bands with multiple members. The BM coming out of the northwest was informally labeled Cascadian Black Metal (much to the chagrin of older heshers, who fucking hated the term), which itself fell under the umbrella of the newly minted term, U.S. Black Metal. USBM was characterized by extremely lo-fi, buzzing production (imagine a wasp’s nest stuffed into the muffler of a Honda Civic); minor key plucking; a plodding tempo, pained vocals, and a sense of suffocation. There were actually a slew of decent USBM bands fitting this description, but the one you’ve probably heard of, and the one that definitely got the lion’s share of press was a one-man project called Xasthur.
Fast forward to 2013. I haven’t been on the metal train for a while; almost two years now. I was all about that shit for a long time, but it was keeping from broadening my tastes, so I set my Bathory first-presses aside, and took the huge Coffins back patch off my jacket. A friend of mine is a relative newcomer to black metal, and the shit he sends me now occasionally blows my mind; if only because it’s not where I would’ve ever expected the genre to go.
Enter Deafheaven, a San Francisco-based duo who play a seemingly oxymoronic blend of triumphant, uplifting black metal; dispelling the death-cult morbidity of their predecessors. In fact, as I listened to their latest album (an advance release stream over at Pitchfork), it kept reminding me of the post-hardcore screamo scenes of the 90s. A very emotive, complex, almost life-affirming sound. Not the shit I’d ever normally associate with black metal. It gets a little post-rockish at times with some noodling here and there, but overall, the album is a beautiful entry into the current state of USBM. I still think of black metal by way of what I got into when I first heard the term, but how cool is it that the genre as a whole has evolved so intricately in its relatively short existence?