classifying music is a difficult, and in most cases a needless task. moreover, one has to decide whether the musical structure or the feeling that the music evokes should be the criterion. in terms of structure, the 80’s, which mark the birth of black metal, pioneering bands like the eponymous venom, sarcofago or bathory (slayer?) did much experimentation in thrash / speed / nwobhm and paved the way to the 90’s “true norwegian black metal”. this era, especially the peak ’94 / ’95 saw a consistent “classical black metal” structure. around the end of that decade though, as the novelty of the classical formula, perfected by darkthrone or marduk etc wore out, black metal bands sought to experiment new realms and integrate different (and at first, controversial) genres and structures into black metal, with varying success. now black metal is more of a general concept, including subgenres of industrial, like (the monumental) samael, drone, like sunn o))), prog/psych like oranssi pazuzu and so on.
here, the second criterion shines. even if the musical structure constantly progresses, it is possible to pinpoint an evident “black metal feeling”. and music is successful as long as it can evoke certain emotional states. and good black metal albums are good because these evoke that black metal feeling. it is also needless to try and describe that feeling.
in this list, i aimed to collect those exemplary songs that best reflect the black metal feeling depending solely on personal taste, rather than to collect pure black metal classics or showcase the wealth of subgenres. the songs on the list are the ones i had the chance to come across through my exploration. however, as these expeditions progressed the list grew in size. black metal is a dark and seemingly endless realm and the exploration goes on. enjoy.
- burzum – burzum / dunkelheit (filosofem, 1996, norway)
the essential black metal anthem. possibly the most precious black metal moments in one song. and a prime example of the early norwegian black metal. also the opening track of the album, which sets the mood. burzum, varg vikernes, the murder of euronymous, the ambient direction burzum took in prison are the best known stories of black metal. church arsons, lo-fi and low budget records, dirty sound, musical structures brought by varg vikernes, euronymous and snorre ruch, of course the corpse paint, chain mail, swords and mace shaped early black metal. and dunkelheit is the soundtrack.
- mayhem – freezing moon (de mysteriis dom sathanas, 1994, norway)
the second track of the only release of iconic band mayhem, holding the legendary line-up. this is due to the death and loss of sanity of members, technical difficulties and actual birth pain of black metal. what makes this line-up legendary is that it includes euronymous, his murderer varg vikernes, the accomplice snorre ruch (who served 8 years), the drum god hellhammer and a one of a kind vocalist attila csihar. amongst other songs, each black metal legends individually, freezing moon contains the mayhem cold we all know and love and lyrics of typical black metal fantasy.
- satyricon – mother north (nemesis divina, 1996, norway)
also a worthy black metal anthem, but there is burzum. the song that best reflects the black metal cult. you feel the black metal in all its glory. the song also embodies the frequently used nationalist theme. the one man (satyr) plus the drummer (frost) formula is probably the most successful in black metal, providing originality and cohesion in addition to insane drumming (this album includes kveldulv as the 2nd guitarist). after this album satyricon ventured to expand the limits of black metal and created rebel extravaganza, which is definitely one of the most important albums in all music history. through the industrial/punk/rock influenced way they paved, lots of old and new black metal bands are marching. definitely a cornerstone and a pioneer in black metal’s expansion. also one of my all-time favourites so i may not be all objective.
- emperor – into the infinity of thoughts (in the nightside eclipse, 1994, norway)
emperor is one of the most important bands in (norwegian black) metal. while immersing the listener in the black metal feeling throughout the album, the music has a demanding structure with complex and artful song writing, elaborate guitar and orchestration. emperor commands complete attention of the listener, as it should be. black metal is no background music. into the infinity of thoughts is the opening track of the band’s debut, sort of that blessed moment when everything started. emperor sadly disbanded after the avant-garde and highly controversial 3rd and 4th album, well beyond their time. the insanely talented ihsahn, faust and samoth continue their creativity in other projects. the reuniting of the band is one of a continuing black metal myths that never happens.
- samael – after the sepulture (blood ritual, 1992, switzerland)
samael is a curiously low-profile band, despite the incredible musical revolution they pioneered. after the first two extremely slow and raw doom/black albums they suddenly went rampant to invented industrial/cosmic black metal and kept ever evolving. i had the sheer blessing of witnessing two live acts and they present the characteristic military perfection and mathematical precision on stage as well. after the sepulture is the fourth song of the second album and is an important document of early era black metal structure and lyrical concept. the next album, ceremony of opposites is an important cornerstone in leaving classical black metal and setting the new direction and passage is the quintessential industrial black metal album.
- marduk – the black tormentor of satan (heaven shall burn… when we are gathered, 1996, sweden)
probably the best black metal act to come out of sweden, a country better known for death metal. the song is a hidden gem in their cult release. this may be due to the fact that the song stands between two very impressive tracks, namely darkness it shall be and dracul va domni din nou in transilvania. the song portrays marduk’s probably the most beautiful black metal moments. after this one they went on to produce the amazing nightwing, blast-beat-assault panzer division marduk and the odd one la grande danse macabre. the band went under massive change in line-up afterwards and went on to explore classical black metal. still a kick-ass band, one can’t but feel nostalgic about b.war’s bass solos, legion’s trademark shrieks and fredrik’s incessant left hand accompanied by his melodic cymbal work.
- darkthrone – transilvanian hunger (transilvanian hunger, 1994, norway)
the undisputed classic of early era norwegian lo-fi black metal, transilvanian hunger showcases some of the most precious moments of black metal legends fenriz and nocturno culto. probably their masterpiece, among the distinct early and later era darkthrone. the self-titled opener is a prime example of the simple “repetitive tremolo / passage” formula. and the lyrical concept is typically cold, satanic, thirst, mountains, vampires and such.
- ulver – hymne vi: of wolf and passion (nattens madrigal – aatte hymne til ulven i manden, 1997, norway)
ulver very probably have attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity. they seem to create a distinctly different album from the previous one. as they travelled through folk / black, folk, black, avant-garde, ambient, soundtrack, electronica… nattens madrigal is their “blackest” one, including classical black metal elements such as norwegian lyrics, constant tremolo, excessive (and intentional) lo-fi sound, generous treble (to the extent of ear bleeding) and monotonous blast beats. the album is so good, they may have thought they couldn’t top that and changed direction. the 6th track has an almost upbeat intro, reflecting animalistic desire and goes on to ruin the listener.
- morgul – black heart’s domain (parody of the mass, 1998, norway)
morgul is dark, inventive, progressive and intentionally weird. no 2 albums sound the same and one would find it hard to believe they bear the same name. their second full length parody of the mass was to be the last to include live drums and a dense black metal orchestration, before going on as a solo project with a definitive industrial sound. the opener black heart’s domain wanders where its name suggests. an amazing black metal epic with a haunting repetitive main theme.
- immortal – damned in black (damned in black, 2000, norway)
immortal must be mentioned in black metal, being one of the members of the early norwegian black metal scene. i chose the closing self-titled track of a later release, purely of personal reasons. because it is awesome. rather slower than classic immortal, a crunchy black metal epic. the slow passage towards the end includes some of the coldest moments in black metal. a masterpiece that transcends black metal into the new millennium.
- thorns – existence (thorns, 2001, norway)
the opening track of the only full-length album of snorre ruch, a founding member of black metal, shaping its structure through riffs in cornerstone releases. the album, including aldrahn (of dødheimsgard), satyr and hellhammer, has a industrial/electronic sound due to heavy use of synths/effects and production choice. ruch’s genius riffs lay the foundation of the album. although underneath the universe stands out, i chose existence out of respect for the insane drum work of hellhammer.
- nagelfar – sturm der katharsis (virus west, 2001, germany)
nagelfar is a sadly short-lived collaboration of well-known german black metal artists. their trademark precision, energy, heaviness and shifting structure in german engineering all the while maintaining the atmosphere result in classical black metal that wears the listener out. sturm der catharsis is a stand-out track from their latest release with a head banging opening riff that is kick-ass to epic proportions and continues for a good 8 minutes to ever shift the tone, tempo and theme to leave the listener in bruises.
- blut aus nord – odinist (odinist – the destruction of reason by illumination, 2007, france)
principally, when the french make extreme music, things turn out quite different. antaeus, archon infaustus and aosoth are just examples. blut aus nord boldly venture deep into the black metal abyss and present us the beauties they find. through their 20 year career bestowing us constantly shifting (atmospheric, avant-garde, industrial etc) gems, while maintaining the black metal feeling. despite producing a vast number of great songs from previous albums worthy of selection, the self-titled song of the rather controversial album profoundly carries the black metal feeling. black metal songs aren’t catchy. they haunt you. odinist is one such masterpiece.
- deathspell omega – apokatastasis pantôn (paracletus, 2010, france)
another gift of france to the humanity, deathspell omega is the quintessential avant-garde black metal band, influencing loads of new coming black metal acts by their sheer creativity and technical prowess. their compositions, while being highly complicated and demanding, awake heavy feelings of anguish and grandeur at the same time. apokatastasis pantôn is the closing track of their masterpiece paracletus and is a prime example of what deathspell omega is and what black metal can be.
- oranssi pazuzu – andromeda (kosmonument, 2011, finland)
another black metal act bravely venturing deep in the abyss. the finnish band belongs to the so-called new / 3rd generation of black metal and they make the most unusual music. in what could be described as prog/pshc rock infused cosmic black metal, the band is a black metal grandiosity, transcending the listener beyond the material dimension. the astral beauty of andromeda is so heavily present for our ears to hear, and a fine trippy example of the awesomeness that is oranssi pazuzu.
- urfaust – der zauberer (der freiwillige bettler, 2010, the netherlands)
urfaust is an unorthodox black metal duo (one man + drummer) from the netherlands, using intentionally faulty german. venturing in the strangest of the black metal realm, the band makes ritual music, simply put. the closing track of their 3rd album, der zauberer is not your typical black metal song. but since black metal is a state of mind and mood, it is an excruciatingly delicious black metal experience.
- batushka – yekteniya ii (litourgiya, 2015, poland)
a (super)group we know nothing about, by choice. the album took me off-guard and smacked me in the face. batushka occupies a distinct place by masterfully combining black metal with orthodox chanting. out of the 8 amazing tracks, i chose the explosive and torturing second one. hopefully we will hear new information and music from the band.
- lunar aurora – der pakt (andacht, 2007, germany)
one can’t help but feel wonder towards lunar aurora. typically german and typically black metal, this is a lesser known and disbanded gem, leaning towards the desperate side. although there is an anguish-filled masterpiece in “sterna”, i opted to include der pakt in this list, simply due to its sheer brilliance and energy. the beat never lets go as passages shift, the nightmarish atmosphere glooms, chorus and keyboards linger through this 8-minute black metal feast.
- skáphe – i (skáphe², usa / iceland, 2016)
one of the best black metal releases in 2016 (and that’s saying something), skáphe’s second full-length album is one whole trip into the bowels of madness. he art performed here challenges the very definition of music. it’s hard to pick one song through all this chaos, but the opener “i” is a taster of what is to come. a song after which one says “phew!”
- wormlust – djöflasýra (the feral wisdom, 2013, iceland)
wormlust is just another icelandic gem, relentless, insane and chaotic. the album “the feral wisdom” is genius throughout and the second track is a journey through the unexplored. breaking down almost all conventional musical structures and scales, the song wanders directionless, delves into a completely psychedelic and nightmarish haze before finally exploding around the 8 minute mark. just the leading bass is a joy to behold. an exceptional classic.
- martröð – draumleysa (transmutation of wounds, 2016, international)
in 2016 we witnessed a blissful alignment of planets. naðra, skáphe, 〇, blut aus nord, fides inversa, wormlust, leviathan, ex-lurker of chalice, antaeus, aosoth (and a lot more) came together, released a mere 2 songs, and went on their individual orbits. completely free from any concerns towards conventional musical structures or human emotions, the ep contains the “angry” draumleiðsla and “sorrowful” draumleysa, the one i picked for the list.
- mgła – exercises in futility vi (exercises in futility, 2015, poland)
just the contribution to black metal is enough to love poland. the 3rd polish entry mgła is an ever-progressing later era black metal duo (one man + drummer). the closing track of their 3rd album crowns the hopeless, dark and cold atmosphere created through the album. an unusual arpeggio intro builds into the main theme to explode time and again. a strong hope towards the future of black metal.
- ultha – fear lights the path (close to our hearts) (converging sins, 2016, germany)
a very young band, a prime example of german excellence. ultha employ a novel, crisp sound, classical music approach and repetitive structures to create an immense and inescapable atmosphere of gloom, melancholy, sorrow and anguish. at 17 minutes, fear lights the path includes ample time for theme development, a recurring and haunting orchestral theme, wails of anguish and delicious double-bass drums. one just cannot but bow to the awe of ultha.
- taake – nordbundet (noregs vaapen, 2011, norway)
led by the extreme nationalist hoest, occasionally including guest / session musicians, take has a proud history of two decades. the lyrical concepts are typically about the mountains of bergen, nationalism, paganism, fog and cold. frequently in trouble, hoest has even been incarcerated. i was about to go for his amazing debut nattestid ser porten vid, but the punk/rock infused full throttle nordbundet from his later era is so awesome, i went with it.
- coldworld – this empty life (melancholie², 2008, germany)
coldworld (georg börner) is so impressively successful in combining suicidal depression with black metal beauty, it immediately commands attention and respect. this empty life is an amazing song in despair and well suited to close the list. extremely depressive, again in german perfection, the song is a prime example of low-mid tempo black metal. the use of major chords to create such a hopeless and dark atmosphere is simply genius. an extraordinary black metal masterpiece with its musical structure and atmosphere equivalent to chopin’s funeral march. and he blessed us with a new album, after a long wait.