If I had to use one word to describe metal music as a whole, it would probably be “powerful.” Genres within the giant heavy-metal umbrella like power metal, thrash metal, death metal, etc. are all based around very simple questions like “how epic can we get,” “how fast can we go” or “how brutal can we be”- how many notes should go into a guitar solo and just how high should the vocals go are very important to consider when your band’s presentation relies on being as extreme as humanly possible. Though this might be the standard for most metal music, our topic for today subverts these stereotypes for a totally different kind of style and feel.
I’ve heard listening to black metal described as “walking through a snowstorm” or “entering another world” because of the effects that this droning type of sound has on the listener; it’s very easy to space out or get lost in the murk of the often-underproduced sound. Sure, black metal drums may be fast and the guitars may be blistering and tremolo picked straight to hell and back, but it would be wrong to label the whole genre “aggressive” as a result. It’s very easy to jump into black metal expecting to know what to get out of it based on what the listener knows about other types of metal and the prevailing stereotypes surrounding black metal, including the gross production sound, the reliance on seeming evil and the seemingly-sloppy recordings are enough to turn most new listeners off before they even give the sound a reasonable chance.
Forsaking that power expected of ordinary metal, black metal’s trick lies in immersing the listener in its droning sound; the fast guitars and atonal riffs offer an uneasy atmosphere while the drums, which almost never stop blasting, are doing so to keep up a consistent rumble throughout the length of the entire song. The vocals, sometimes not performed in English due to black metal’s immense popularity overseas, do not necessarily need to be understood during listening for their raspy drone that lies on top of the production (the prominence of these vocals is very important to the black metal sound) to make an impact on the recordings immersion quality, but when translated, it’s important to note that the “extreme” topics of most metal bands (including being extreme, kicking ass, destroying things, etc.) give way to more introspective, oftentimes subvertly political or social, themes.
Though these traits are recognizable in most standard black metal bands like Darkthrone, Burzum, Deathspell Omega and Emperor, for the new listener it’s easier to look to one of the many sub-genres of black metal to pick out these elements in a more recognizable fashion. Because of black metal’s preference of atmosphere over power, many musicians that might not be considered metal at all by people choose to label themselves black metal because of their reliance on guitar-driven immersion, leading to genres like depressive black metal, war metal, psychedelic black metal, atmospheric black metal and so on.
An easy example of this type of sound mixing would be the first track off of the album Bergtatt by former-black metal band Ulver, whose early black metal recordings gave way to a more ambient and avant-garde type of recording later on in their career. The song, called “I Troldskog Faren Vild,” utilizes a consistent double bass pattern and tremolo picked guitars, but these don’t necessarily sound all that aggressive; the drums are soft and the guitar has a nice, comforting fuzz that takes all edge off of the recording. The most noticeable feature of the song the vocals, utilizes an effect that makes them sound like a crooning church organ, giving a very lush, orchestral tone to the song. The track also makes use of a total acoustic breakdown where everything other instrument completely stops and gives dominance over to a classical sounding guitar track, slowing down the song as much as it can without actually changing its tempo. From this description it might sound like Ulver has more in common with My Bloody Valentine than it does with Mayhem or Burzum, and the overall effect is an alluring drone that loses the listener in a huge soundscape of tones.
A whole army of bands utilize the tricks of black metal while still adding their own softer touch to the genre in similar ways, like popular American black metal band Wolves in the Throne Room, whose instrument tones express a whole range of emotions rather than pure anger or force, and mega-popular psuedo-black metal band Deafheaven on their album Sunbather in particular, which uses these tricks of the trade to immerse the listener in ways that don’t rely on loud, evil guitars.
These tricks, including the fast-yet-not-aggressive instrumentation and the wailing, high-in-the-production vocals, present in these bands might seem like a far cry from the standard black metal bands mentioned above, but in actuality there is very little in ways of difference. After listening to the deconstructed Ulver track, a listener can go to any number of Darkthrone tracks and notice the same immersive tricks present: the guitars may be more distorted and the vocals may be way harsher, but they still chug on and wail in similar ways. The main difference lies in the choice of tones for the atmosphere that the musicians are trying to convey and the listener is bound to notice themselves falling into the music in the same kinds of ways. Enjoy the snowstorm, friends.