Tape Wyrm XVI – Seasons of Metal Tape Wyrm XVI – Seasons of Metal

Early United States Black Metal
 
Writing this black metal article presented a few issues and problems on how to approach the genre. On the large population scale, black metal is an obscure genre of metal with many different styles and thematic elements. Ask ten random people their thoughts on black metal and nine of them will give you incredulous stares. Within the metal community however, black metal is one of the most popular and overly discussed styles of music.  According to Encyclopaedia Metallum, black metal accounts for the largest selection of bands across the globe.  It is a style both hidden and incredibly recognized. Problems arise when trying to not only introduce black metal to novices but to also avoid boring the shit out of veterans. There can be no easy compromise.  If you are reading this and have no idea who Varg Vikernes is do yourself a favor and spend a weekend researching Wikipedia articles and listening to essential albums. For those who already know what corpse paint is and can distinguish between Darkthrone and Mayhem  — welcome. 
 
When discussing black metal, there are three hazy phases to consider. 
  
1. The relatively forgotten first wave developed during the mid 80’s across the greater span of Europe — dedicated to fire, speed and Satan. (Venom, Bathory, Hellhammer, Celtic Frost) 
 
2. The incredibly popular second wave concentrated in Norway but soon spread to surrounding countries which was dedicated to paganism, folklore and winter — also connected to arson, murder and vague accounts of cannibalism. (Emperor, Burzum, Darkthrone, Mayhem) 
 
3. The current trend which has yet to be called a third wave but is located in America — steeped in experimentation, transcendence, post rock and indie rock publications. (Agalloch, Wolves in the Throne Room, Nachtmystium, Krallice)

 
For this article, I will be not be discussing any of these waves but instead discuss another that came in the shadow of the third. Before the current trend in United States black metal (USBM), the style went through a rough and angry pubescent period during the 1990’s. United States black metal began as an amalgamation of the European trends liberally borrowing elements from its first two waves. With a healthy dose of speed, low fidelity, and corpse paint USBM in its formative years was raw and violent, screaming to an audience of ten. Some of these important recordings only exist in out of print cassette form.  Even in 2012, this period in metal history is still shrouded in darkness. Perhaps this is the charm. 
 
Within the mid to late 80’s metal landscape, thrash was inching closer to the mainstream while death metal was going through its violent underground birth. Traditional heavy metal’s well-dressed pop cousin, glam metal, was gearing up for its golden years while American power metal was making damn good albums despite no one caring.  During all of this, a few bands were inspired by the legends and rumors of a European style known as black metal. Black metal existed in America before the Norwegian explosion of violence and mayhem but it would be impossible not to acknowledge its growth after. When Norway and the rest of Europe was experiencing its black metal renaissance, America was still in its Dark Ages — burning witches and fearful of the plague.   
 
Four years ago, I wrote a primer on black metal discussing the Norwegian second wave. At the time, this was what defined black metal. For me now, things are different.  Black metal has a reputation of being standoffish to newcomers. For those who are still reading this and still interested in the style despite the lack of knowledge, I would recommend the Norwegian second wave as well as some much discussed literature on the topic — Lords of Chaos by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind. 
 
Despite its obscurity and general brash nature, early USBM represents an important period in metal history. Between appropriation and naivety exists a style of music genuine in its approach to be the most vile and evil music in history. The bands of this period existed much in the same way early settlers did compared to their European counterparts. By the time Emperor was incorporating orchestral elements into their music, American pioneers were huddled around fire desperate to survive the winter. USBM would eventually blossom and flourish in the next decade but for now it was unharnessed, ornery, and completely evil.     
 
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N.M.E – Unholy Death (1986)

To really embrace the roots of Early USBM, one has to be comfortable with thrash and speed. N.M.E predates the majority of USBM bands because their music sounded like a darker version of Moterhead. Back to the high days of thrash, bands in the United States began experimenting with darkness in lyrics and thematic elements. Slayer did this three years earlier with Hell Awaits which in all fairness is the impetus for this entire article. Unholy Death, however, had a raw edge similar to Bathroy or Venom but executed with an incredible fury. When played together, all the instruments blended in an evil alliance creating a wall of shrill noise. Unholy Death is still a fantastic black thrash album and stands as a last gulp of air before the style submerged itself for two decades. There are also hilarious music videos of N.M.E playing in warehouses which should be more than enough reason to investigate.
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Toten – Macabre(1988)

Celebrating a band’s demo is prevalent in black metal culture — well maybe to some extent in death metal as well. Black metal demos represent the primal and unfettered beginnings of a band and much like the philosophic ideas of Jean Dubuffet, possessed a pure nature before the corruption of culture. They also sounded like they recorded these in toolsheds. Toten is the work of Paul Ledney, a man who will be mentioned two more times before the close of this article. Before Profanatica and Havohej, Ledney tried his hand at making black metal in the spirit of the European first wave. It worked more than anyone could expect. In an earlier draft of this article, this space was reserved for Goatlord’s 1987 demo. While both demos are early USBM artifacts, Toten’s Macabre is ten times more advanced and more indicative of future developments. It is unrefined evil and sounds like the moment when a black mass becomes frightening. This is once again damning for Goatlord as they are yet again pushed back into obscurity. Next time Goatlord, next time.
 
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Profanatica – As Tears of Blood Stain The Altar Of Christ (1990)
 
United States black metal was championed by three pantless dudes in the woods. Alright once you are done crying your eyes out from laughter we will begin with the second mention of Paul Ledney. I usually date the beginning of USBM at Profanatica. True black metal existed beforehand but this New York based outfit crystallized the style and direction for later United States black metal. Profanatica never released a proper LP until 2006 with Profantitas De Domonatia. In fact, the entirety of their 16 year career is relegated to demos and splits from 1990 to 1992. Enemy Of Virtue collects all of Profanaticas demos without the inclusion of hilarious pantless album art. I would be more dismissive of Profanatica if it was not for the level of obscene commitment the band had for being the most blasphemous act in the history of music. This band represents an important milestone for early USBM in their anti-Christian imagery. While the Norwegian second wave was embracing traditional Paganism, American black metal was gearing up for a second round fight against the heavenly father. Taking low fidelity, violent lyrics, and topping it off with ridiculous promotional photography as seen with their early demos, Profanatica more than earns their rightful place in USBM history — pants or no pants. Paul Ledney continues to be an important figure in USBM history with contributions to various black metal bands including Havohej, the already mentioned Toten, and the hilariously named Crowned in Semen. I never said this wouldn’t come without giggles.  
 
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Acheron – Rites of the Black Mass (1992)
 
Acheron needs recognition. Seriously stop walking away from me. This is my house goddammit. First of all, this Florida based death metal band was experimenting with the dark arts while its historical style was exclusively involved with gore and violence. Rites of the Black Mass isn’t just an interesting black/death album, rather it is a fantastic metal album for its interludes. Preceding every song is a minute intro of ominous incantation ripped straight from comic pulp fiction. Acheron was really into Satan, to the point its lead singer became a reverend in Anton Levay’s Church of Satan. This level of involvement, from a seemingly death metal band, is fascinating. It’s as if one is listening to group of metalheads converted to the black wonders of the underworld. No pressure here, but if anyone wanted to hear death metal educated in the path of satanic enlightenment, one needs to look no further.  
 
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Von -Satanic Blood (1992)
 
In black metal history books, Von usually inhabits the first paragraph on USBM.  Von, relatively speaking, is huge. Perhaps, bigger than what they really are. This California band received minor publicity due to their shirt being worn by Varg Vikernes (Burzum) during his famed murder trial. In 1992, black metal was making its modest beginnings and Von pushed it even further. The Satanic and Satanic Blood demos both have an unearthly and inhuman sound quality which adds to their subsequent mystic. The drums seem to be playing from an alternate dimension while the processed vocals gurgles and echo throughout a purposed ghostly castle. The legacy and legend of Von pales in comparison to the actual output of the band which has amounted one EP since 1992 and compilations of earlier work. Amazing job guys. Regardless, Von’s influence on USBM is undeniable and its latent connection to the Norwegian second wave was all this budding style needed to finally bloom. I’m not saying that I dislike Von rather I seem to talk about them longer than actually listening to their records.  
 
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Havohej – Dethrone the Son of God (1993)
 
No, I swear to Christ, I did not make up this album cover as a subtle jab at black metal design. Goddamnit, what is this person doing? Is this some from of satanic posturing? Is he picking up an invisible dog by the hind legs? We are back with the last mention of Paul Ledney. Havohej was the solo project of Ledney which ran along side of Profantica and eventually took over once the latter stopped making recordings. If one would like to think about it, Havohej and Profantcia are basically the same band just with one being more refined. For Dethone the Son of God being the only full length LP released in the 1990’s, it is now legendary despite it’s silly album art. While still retaining a rough recording atmosphere, Havohej’s balance in mixing is beautifully impressive. The buzzsaw guitar riffs bounce cleanly against the drums while still making enough room for the inhuman banshee rasp. Ledney was a messiah for the USBM scene and should be revered as an artist despite his tendency for wearing a nun’s costume. Perhaps this is what makes him an artist. 
 
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Order From Chaos – Still Birth Machine (1993)
 
Holy shit. If USBM needed any help in the department of “fucking off the wall,” Order From Chaos is right there willing to help. Order From Chaos is a blip in the larger black metal radar. I do not know why this band has not received more recognition but I can hazard a few guesses. Still Birth Machine begins with a clip from 2001 A Space Odyssey. György Ligeti’s “Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Five-Voice Chorus and Orchestra,” in the film, is used to build tension and texture being paired against the astronauts’ discovery of the Monolith. Order From Chaos used this clip as a springboard into a pool of hornets. Run for your lives if you ever escape.  From the second track, this Missouri band assaults every aspect of human fiber with little remorse.  With a helpful hand of classic death metal, Order From Chaos creates the perfect dark record which emanates putrid defilement. Still Birth Machine would be the first of three great records made during the 1990’s. Despite the consistency and outer dimensional anxiety, Order From Chaos would take a backseat in underground recognition. It is as if “a pool of hornets” is not welcoming.  

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Black Funeral – Journey Into Horizons Lost (1994)

Approaching Black Funeral comes with a bit of commitment. First of all, their demos and first two LPs are amazing with a consistent output which is still relevant today. Second of all they are really into vampires. Black Funeral, for me, usually marks the second wind for USBM. Releases began to get more refined without losing their raw edge which had defined their inception. Additionally, black metal bands were taking cues and inspiration from their European counterparts. Black Funeral could have existed in Norway or Sweden but they lay claim to Indianapolis, Indiana. While Indiana does not retain as much darkness as a Norwegian forest, Black Funeral continues anyway with an album full of chaotic and folkloric evil. Vampyr – Throne of the Beast is the first chapter in a 15 year period of solid releases ending with 2010’s Vukolak. After one gets comfortable with their weekend of Norwegian black metal, spend a Saturday with Black Funeral while watching Nosferatu on repeat.

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December Wolves – Til Ten Years (1996)

Its not that I do not love the album cover…its just so bright. This is one of my favorite back metal albums regardless of geographic location. It is not just the cover which makes Til Ten Years , rather its boldness in its clean black production almost free of the raw elements which mark its past. Running throughout Til Ten Years are folk guitar leads and lyrical themes revolving around history, mythology and magic. “Lycanthropy: Yonder Through Ice Storms” has a rousing viking riff which calls to our ancient werewolf ancenstors. I fucking love fantasy. Til Ten Years is an anomaly as the band followed this record with the industrial clusterbombs Completely Dehumanized and Blasterpiece Theater. Til Ten Years now stands as the bands only foray into the world of black wizards. Bravo gentlemen, you know how to please me.

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Grand Belials Key – Mocking The Philanthropist (1997)
 
Haha what the fuck is this shit?!? Virginia based black metal group Grand Belial’s Key had everything going for them until they let a girl in the band. No, seriously, this album is amazing. The mysterious entity of “Lilith,” the new female member was not the only reason Grand Belial’s Key differed from the rest of USBM.  This fact can be directly ascribed to their flagrant love for traditional heavy metal. Deep within the recess of black metal lies the desire to write catchy melodies for imaginary Vikings. Mocking The Philanthropist, while possessing a harsh exterior, is really just a goddamn cuddly teddy bear when experienced. Soaring guitar melodies and melodic keyboard passages drives this record, which is both caustic and lovable at the same time. However, these hooks are hidden deep within a shell of black metal. Around the third quarter of every song, Grand Belial’s Key slows down and emerges from their black metal cocoon to become the butterfly I have come to enjoy.  Somewhere on the border of excitement and evil lies an album which is well worth anyone’s time. Come be confused with me.  
 
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Judas Iscariot – Distant In Solitary Night (1998)
 
And here lies the memorial for the Midwestern black metal folk hero which would inspire the building of great future cities. Before Chicago became known for its experimental black metal, there was one guy in DeKalb, with corpse paint, making all these albums. From 1996 to 1999, Akhenaten would write and perform all the musical pieces for five Judas Iscariot albums. Distant In The Solitary Night is the fourth of these records. Judas Iscariots 1996 debut, The Cold Earth Slept Below is solid with its dismal bedroom aesthetics and true Norwegian reverence. The same goes for the second and third albums.  Distant In Solitary Night, however, is phenomenal and, for me, stands at the peak of Akhenaten’s recordings. The sound and structure of Distant in the Solitary Night comes together to allow the weight of sadness and dismay to penetrate through every note.  “Where The Winter Beats Incessant” is perhaps Judas Iscariot’s finest hour expertly crafting the haunting chill of a snowless winter. The albums closer, “Portions of Eternity too Great For Man,” while not black metal in any sense, is frightening in the levels one artist can reach in their descent into darkness. Judas Iscariot would dismantle his projects in 2003 after the release of his last album. Its creator fled to Germany and has not been heard from since. My only hope is that he found a fresh start and is doing landscape watercolors in his free time.  
 
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I Shalt Become – Wanderings (1998)
 
Where was I when Wanderings was released on cassette? Ohh yeah that’s right, I was listening to Slipknot and Tool. I Shalt Become became legendary in the small sub style of DSBM (depressive suicidal black metal). As if black metal needed to become more despondent, DSBM focused on mortal woe and deep interpersonal struggle. The style would be championed in the 2000’s by Xasthur, Funeral Mourning, and a host of one man bedroom projects.  Wanderings, to this day, is still emotionally tolling. This album pulls back from the speed seen in other albums, slowing the black metal tempo to staggered guitar riffs looming high in the air while the shrieking vocals act like ghosts. Wanderings is believed to have been released in 1996 or 1998 on various formats and to this day retains a legendary status. Eventually, the album was reissued in 2006 with the renewed interest in DSBM. It is a record that still posesses a dark aura of mystery to compliment its eternal misery. “The Funeral Rain” still brings light mist to my eyes making me question my existence and purpose in this mortal coil. Thanks, now I need to listen to Grand Belial’s Key to feel better. 
 
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Demoncy – Within The Sylvan Realms Of Frost (1999)
 
Demoncy is difficult. At this point in history, black metal had already been established across the North American landscape and the darkness and evil of black metal had given way to new forms of metal fusion. Throughout these underground developments, black metal was still evolving. While the Demoncy project began in the late 80’s, it was not until 1998 when the first of two debut albums were released. Within the Sylvan Realms of Frost and Joined in Darkness were released months apart. Both are amazing and I am fighting with myself to choose one. In fact, it’s hilarious to debate which obscure United States black metal record deserves the most amount of praise. From the few scraps of history which still remain, Joined in Darkness has been crowned the victor and champion of United States black metal. I disagree. Allowing atmospheric effects to structure the album, Demoncy becomes truly inspired on Within the Sylvan Realms of Frost. This album holds a much cleaner and evil tone and is triumphant in their higher pitched low fidelity compared to the subterranean low fidelity of Joined in Darkness.  The album has recently been repackaged with Demoncy’s somehow popular demo Faustian Dawn. Honestly, their logical choice is clear, Joined in Darkness can not hold a black candle to Within the Sylvan Realms of Frost. Ask two black metal fans who know what you are talking about and see. No contest.     
 
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Absu – Tara (2001)
 
I believe I will end here. Black metal in the United States, by the dawn of the new century, had come a long way. In Europe, the style had receded to the shadows save for a few outstanding releases. Absu’s Tara was released at a time when a new Northwestern style was beginning to take shape. In Texas, however, Absu’s fourth release would act as USBM’s graduation party and become a triumph in a long history of struggle. It is important to note that Absu’s previous three records are as phenomenal as Tara. Barathrum: V.I.T.R.I.O.L. was released in 1993 and still stands out from its contemporaries in terms of production. Why Tara then? Absu’s legendary work in USBM would end at Tara giving this record a profound sense of closure. Following Tara the band would not be heard from again until 2009 with the release of Absu — the first of three proposed records. Tara would crack the ceiling of USBM with a fantastic record not only in performance but conceptual greatness. The record continues Absu’s love for mythology with an album of Celtic folklore based in both dramatic history and metaphysical magic. It is also set to the thundering pace of blast beats. Behind Tara, and the rest of Absu, is drummer and vocalist Proscriptor McGovern. McGovern, who also played on Melechesh’s Sphinx, makes percussion the center of this record with a convincing argument of unchained blasting insanity.  USBM had crowned a champion. And while the rest of history would ebb and flow through styles, Tara is a fitting end to a period governed by darkness — which could rival any European counterpart. 

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I wish I could give you a complete playsit of all the albums discussed. The nature of these records has led to a fragmentary playist not even close to halfway complete. Spotify needs to address their early USBM collection and offer it to more interested parties. While many albums were discussed, these bands and releases do not represent the entire scope of early USBM. These releases were strung together to form a narrative throughout the 80’s and 90’s fitting for a medium length article. Black metal is a style which begs for deeper understanding and discovery of buried demos. Perhaps this is why so much attention is focused on the undiscovered or unheard. Maybe it is not pretension holding this style together. If the reader is interested in a starter playlist below is a meager offering. Perhaps one day, this era of music will be recognized until then it will remain on tapes and poorly produced Youtube videos.

Tape Wyrm: Early USBM (1986-2001)



6 Responses about “Tape Wyrm XVI – Seasons of Metal”

  • Sweet article! Never thought about black metal in the united states, only heard of Agalloch, which is new.

  • ZeagleFiend says:

    Did you deliberately miss out the European 3rd wave in your laying-out of the 3 phases of BM? I know they are irrelevant to you article, but they’re worth considering when looking at BM from a wide perspective.

  • Ha three “hazy” phases. But to be honest, Black metal in Europe during the early 00’s is a bit hazy for me save for Drudkh, Marduk, Taake, Darkspace and a handful of contemporary releases. These “waves” are somewhat misleading as black metal albums were and are still constantly coming out. These “waves” are applied retroactively to describe a collection of bands and albums that share some sort of new thematic or stylistic element. I do not think European black metal in the 00’s had that consistency or uniqueness to be considered. But then again I could be wrong. in fact, I probably am. I would be interested to hear 5-10 bands you think are worth checking out that you think warrants a European third wave.

  • ZeagleFiend says:

    Well, I’ll struggle to come up with that many bands that I can vouch for. My use of the term “European 3rd wave” was pretty disingenuous. I was really just referring to the noticeable increase of European bands which draw heavily on folk and nationalistic traditions. Whilst I realize this has always been prevalent in BM, these bands have made it their entire focus, doing away with a lot of the evil/misanthropic/anti-religious themes.

    The Ukrainian scene springs to mind: Drudkh (and associates like Hate Forest, Blood of Kingu etc), Kroda, Nokturnal Mortum, Kladovest, etc.

    Similar bands exist all throughout Europe. Walknut (Russia), Skogen (Sweden), Wodensthrone (UK) are examples.

    These bands don’t necessarily share a *sound*, per se (although many do, and Drudkh’s influence in the field is huge), but they share an idealogy and a thematic sense of cohesion.

    I agree, it’s really too early to start calling this kind of thing a “wave” of BM (not least because I wouldn’t go so far as to call it the prevalent strain of European BM at the moment, although I think it is the most fresh and interesting one), but I certainly think it’s a Europe-wide scene that should be recognised.

    So, as you can see, I’m backtracking slightly on my original comment: I would substitute the word “wave” for “prevailing attitude”.

    Hopefully this comment isn’t too rambling and incoherent!

  • I think Drudkh is incredibly important not only to eastern European black metal but to the American northwestern “third wave,” — specifically their elongated structure. I have always wanted to investigate the European scene after the fall of the Norwegian scene. I am also interested in folk/nationalist/neo-pagan influenced black metal and its association (or unfair grouping) with the dark and volatile undercurrent of NSBM — which seems to run sporadically through modern European (and some US) black metal. Regardless, Europe’s continuation in the style they created should certainly not be ignored. Though America is experiencing its 15 minutes, there are great releases still being made in Scandinavia and the whole of Europe.

  • ZeagleFiend says:

    Agreed. Drudkh is an important band. I’m looking forward to Eternal Turn of the Wheel, and hoping that it’s less post-rockish than Handful of Stars.

    I really suggest you listen to Wodensthrone and Skogen, if you haven’t already. They are two very recent European bands that exemplify everything I was talking about in my post.