I’m in the middle of a built-in record shelf project to house my vinyl collection, and, because I’ll finally be able to consolidate all of my various overflow shelves into one place, I’m getting pretty excited to go full Pepe Silvia on the organization. I mean, my albums are currently organized by genre (Heavy Metal/Death Metal/Black Metal…and that’s pretty much it for my collection) and then alphabetized by band name (with releases in order of release). But I think it’s finally time, for the black metal at least, to organize by country as well.
Sure, in broad terms, most black metal bands worldwide play some approximation of the Nordic style you might have heard in passing and thought “ah, so that’s black metal…I think that’s enough for me.” However, due to the insular nature of the scenes that support the music, each geographical region has often taken on a very distinct sound and presentation.
Not ALL countries of course, and for every band that “sounds kind of Greek,” there are 20 others that sound nothing like what I claim these scenes sound like. Additionally, most of these are just based on the output of very small incestuous inner circles standing in for an entire country. But, in very broad strokes, the following is what I imagine the most important black metal producing European countries sound like.
The second wave of black metal (the first wave being the bands that influenced black metal, but don’t really sound like it) largely started in Norway, but I went ahead and called it Scandinavia for this post. The Finnish black metal scene (which came after) is overall too similar to the Norwegian style to really stand on its own (aside from being much more explicitly racist), and while the Swedish scene is a bit more stylistically fragmented, overall it is still just mimicking the Norwegian second wave (along with their own Bathory, the wellspring from which all black metal flows).
The Scandinavian sound is what most people think of when they think black metal, and you see its DNA on pretty much all black metal after the early 1990s. High pitched shrieking, tremolo picked melodies, synths (sometimes), minor key tonality, generally poor production. It is the standard from which other countries diverge.
About as classic an example as you can get (and also the first every black metal song I ever heard at a used CD store) is Emperor’s “I am the Black Wizards”:
- Is it Racist? Actually, not really. I mean, except Finland, they are basically all borderline sketch. And people like to forget Darkthrone kind of single handedly started NSBM with the “Norwegian Aryan Black Metal” thing, but otherwise, the scene is not exactly an NSBM hotbed.
Russia was initially not a huge source of black metal music, but they happened to be home to one of the more influential inner circles: Blazebirth Hall. Of course, this is the biggest problem with grouping black metal by country–Blazebirth Hall wasn’t a collection of separate bands (only 7 or 8 total) so much as it was the many side projects of Kaldrad Branislav (along with a few of his friends from the same provincial small town–most notably Dagorath of Rundagor and Forest).
Do a bunch of murky recordings of dubious quality made by one guy really stand for some kind of a national “Russian” sound? Not really. Can I name a whole bunch of modern bands that are from Russia and influenced by Blazebirth Hall? Not really, or at least not any more than the many bands around the world that were also influenced by Blazebirth Hall.
But, Blazebirth Hall was undeniably important to black metal as a genre, and, whatever it means, the sounded absolutely Russian. Rawer than raw productions, atmospheric (code for “sounds like mid-period Burzum”), droney, folk-tinged, and ridiculously, darkly epic, the Blazebirth sound is the kind of thing you actually COULD build a national scene out of.
Branikald’s “By the Breath of the Murder” is a foundational song from the scene, and if overlong, under-recorded stuff like this is your cup of tea, you are in for a treat with Blazebirth Hall.
- Is it racist? Yeah, it’s real racist. The lyrics not so much, but you don’t want to start a Thanksgiving dinner discussion about immigration with these guys. Or maybe you could with Dagorath–rumor is it he disappeared and left the scene due to going woke…or was possibly killed as a race traitor as the apocryphal rumor goes.
A latecomer to the black metal world, Ukraine’s scene is the most active of the Soviet Bloc countries. Somewhat incestuous (though nothing as bad as the Blazebirth Hall scene), the bands generally have a better production, and a much heavier reliance on folk elements to the music. Some like Kroda are popular enough worldwide as to basically be considered, accessible, but you can find a bit of kvlt in the scene as well
Nokturnal Mortem’s “Unholy Orathania” is a good example of the general sound. Almost symphonic with all the synths, catchy, well-played, and quite folky.
- Is it racist? Yeah, the majority of the bands are pretty racist, though usually not explicitly so in the lyrics. Mostly due to the usual story of youth in a newly independent country being ripe targets for nationalism, Ukraine has become an epicenter for the NSBM underground.
Greece, out of all the European regional scenes has one of the most distinct national sounds. A focus on almost heavy metal riffing instead of tremolo picking, thin synths, and just a kind of unusual way of approaching melodic phrasing, it’s often quite easy to place a band as Hellenic black metal at a blind listen. Even the modern viking era Bathory clones sound kind of greek to my ears.
Varathron and Rotting Christ were two of the most influential bands, and a song like the latter’s “Transform All Sufferings into Plagues” is the blueprint for Hundreds of sound alike bands in the decades to come:
- Is it racist? Greece the country has its problems with right wing sympathizers, but the black metal scene is largely not all that racist. There are exceptions like Legion of Doom, but in a continent of largely racist black metal (in case you are sensing a pattern for these countries), Greece is not necessarily all that racist as a black metal scene.
Another example of a country that started with a small incestuous inner circle (The Temple of the Fullmoon), that went on to influence a legion of imitators. Rob Darken (and his ubiquitous style of synth intro) had a heavy hand in the scene, but there were a lot more early creators in the mid 90s that shaped the sound.
The Polish sound was very dark, almostly overbearingly so. The riffs sound like wailing spirits with grim synths and grimmer vocals bringing the whole moray down into a pit of vile darkness. It’s brilliant, albiet simple stuff, and songs like Veles’ “A Dark Dream” show how nailing the atmosphere is as important to black metal as posturing on your liner notes with medieval weapons.
- Is it racist? Well, the Temple of the Fullmoon stuff was real racist…but the current scene…is also real racist.
Germany doesn’t really have a regional sound. There is the early Saarland scene (led by the ridiculously interesting Grausamkeit) that sounded like the Norwegian stuff played by insane teenagers, as well as the undeniably influential stamp of Absurd (both in its early RAC incarnation and later Folkier version), but it’s not exactly easy to say “ah yes, this band must be German.
And yet, there is a certain deadly serious, almost clinical (in the rawest way) approach to German black metal that just feels, well, German. Not that I would call a guy like BSOD from Grausamkeit humorless considering his dong-out witch hat wearing ass is about the goofiest dude this side of Abbath, but there really is something rather German about a band calling themselves Moonblood and not even thinking it had anything to do with menses. Their song “Under the Cold Fullmoon” doesn’t sound like Absurd or the Saarland scene, but it definitely sounds “German”:
- Is it Racist? Yeah, pretty much, which is surprising for Germany, a country that doesn’t fuck around with racism after WW2. The early Saarland scene was fairly explicitly racist, Absurd drops the “fairly,” and while Moonblood isn’t explicitly racist, they are way too focused on non-menstrual blood to get a pass.
France has had two very influential black metal scenes, both of which feel quintessentially French. First was the legendary Black Legions inner circle, which established a kind of extremely raw and grim style of black metal, played with what can only be described as a “jaunty delivery.” Just check out the fruity little number that is Mutiilation’s “To the Memory of the Dark Countess”:
Then Peste Noire expanded on this sound with an even more explicitly French sound and with more folk elements, as can be seen in the title tracl from Folkfuck Folie:
That almost Avant Garde (and slightly unhinged) Peste Noire sound is all over the current French underground, and I must admit it is a good one. Probably played out at this point, but either way Peste Noire singlehandedly left a hell of a stamp on the French scene.
- Is it racist? You will be shocked to hear that…yes, the French scene is pretty racist. Early Black Legions stuff didn’t take any kind of stand, but Famine from Peste Noire absolutely does. And his many imitators have followed suit.