Perfect Sound Forever


Burzum Cradle of Filth Emperor

The Devil's Advocate
by T.K. McNeil
(December 2018)

From its roots in the hard blues of the 1960's, Blue Cheer generally agreed to be at least one of if not the first practitioners of the genre, but Heavy Metal has had a lot of misconceptions around it. One of the first bands to get in trouble for their image was the calculatingly provocative Black Sabbath. Things have only evolved from there, developing, dividing and splintering into interminable genres, styles, hybrids and sub-genres, each with their own set of crap flung at them, from ill-advised Nu Metal to self-contradictory Christian Metal to misunderstood Folk Metal, which also extends to individual bands like the insanely misunderstood Iron Maiden and the criminally-underrated Evanescence.

Despite the death and damnation imagery, the darker reaches of the Metal genre still have much to offer in terms of complexity, nuance and even beauty, even that most detested and decried spot on the map of Metal known as Black Metal. With the possible exception of Gorgoroth, there were never really any actual Satanists in the Black Metal scene. They thought that Church of Satan founder Anton LeVay was an idiot and most of them were either straight-up atheists or followers of Norse paganism. The Satanic imagery was simply used as a way to goad conservatives.

While much of Black Metal is intentionally off-putting, there were still some band even back in the day with a sense of nuance- one of these was Emperor. While other Black Metal mainstays such as Darkthrone and Mayhem were still making aggressively lo-fi affairs that would make regular folk run the other way, Emperor's debut album In the Nightside Eclipse, released in 1994, marked an evolution in terms of the genre. It is much more cleanly and clearly produced than much of their contemporaries and rather than being just a sort a wall of intimidating noise, the instrumentation is a lot more distinctive and there are clear melodies and harmonies present, not to mention some very lovely choral touches on tracks such as "I Am the Black Wizards."

As with other Metal sub-genres, there tends to be hybrids and sub-sub genres within Black Metal as well. One of the most accessible and beautiful of these is so-called "Ambient Black Metal."One of the strongest exemplars of what is possible in this mode in the current era is Burzum's 2011 album Fallen and of all the tracks, one would have to go with the transcendent "Jeg Faller" as being the best. Be warned though- the intro is still a bit heavy but get through the first two minutes or so and things clarify themselves exponentially. Unlike many Black Metal acts which tend to either sing in English or in such a hellish death scream that it is difficult to tell what language they are raging in, Burzum's vocals, especially later-career Burzum, tend to be clear, clean and in Norwegian.

Two other Black Metal spin-offs generally ignored are "Atmospheric" and "Symphonic."The first is best exemplified in my opinion by Eldamar, who also do a good deal of Ambient, filled with lush forest imagery (one of their albums is actually titled The Force of the Ancient Land). They have much less of the Satanic elements that can give Black Metal a bad name. Their guitar and drum sounds while recognizably Metal are never overbearing and are played in such a way that they blend nicely with the melodic choral, symphonic and piano elements dominant on every track.

For Symphonic Black Metal, it is difficult to do better than British band Cradle of Filth. While they occupy many spaces within the Metal world, two consistent elements of their sound are Black Metal style vocal delivery and strong symphonic and even operatic elements, to say nothing of the lyrical content. To say that frontman and lyricist Dani Filth is a poet of the first order is not to overstate things. Turn on the subtitles or check out the lyric version of one of their videos to see what I mean. It is impossible to do him justice with just a snippet.

While it can be seen as something of a joke, partly due to the swords and sorcery associations, Power Metal also has hidden depths. Sabaton, for example, have much of the trappings of other modern Power Metal acts such as GloryHammer, but none of the goofiness, covering subjects and themes that are not only serious but historically accurate. One of their most affecting tracks is "Night Witches." A fast and heavy lesson in WWII Soviet aviation, the song is about the all-female 588th night bomber regiment, who would fly daring nighttime bombing raids on Nazi targets in wood and canvas training aircraft. They would cut the engines as they approached so they could not be heard, swoop down, deliver their payload and then start up again before they crashed into the ground. This was a tactic that the lead German forces to call them ‘nachthexen’ because the sound of the planes swooping down out of the night sky, was like that of a witch swooping down on a broomstick.

Despite its still less-than-savoury aspects and characterizations, Heavy Metal is more than just crushing guitars, punishing drums and wailed or screamed vocals, being possessed of its own nuances, distinctions and a complicated sort of beauty.

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