How can one write a black metal column and not have a top list? He/she can’t. Sure, I published an essential black metal release list on HMHQ, but I felt a bit strained due to having to list the albums in chronological order. Because there were so many albums released during certain years, 1994 being the main one, I did not include many of my favorite albums, albums that should be on any list of top releases. So here we go…this is my list of top BM albums. I tried to find the ten best from all around the world. Sweden, U.S.A., Finland, Greece, Japan and of course, Norway are represented in the following list.
Many consider Mayhem’s debut full-length album De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas the G.O.A.T. album of black metal. Not just Norwegian black metal, which few will debate, but black metal overall.
Black metal is a form that has twisted and turned throughout its hellish existence. Sure, bands like Sodom, Mercyful Fate, Venom and Celtic Frost were early progenitors, but Mayhem took it to the next level. Raw, mysterious, fast, doomy — De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas has all the hallmarks as the greatest black metal album ever!
Emperor’s In The Nightside Eclipse and Mayhem’s De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas are my top two, not just because they’re damn good, but because they were my intro to Norwegian black metal. I read about Mayhem, Emperor and Burzum, the Lords of Chaos saga (before the book release) in a magazine. I believe it was Spin. A college dorm-hall mate knew I was into metal, so she let me borrow the article. I was amazed in its trueness. I knew about being true, not being a poser, long before black metal publicized this ideology.
A good friend of mine in college had promo copies of the two albums. I believe I listened to Emperor first. I wasn’t sold on the vocals, but the keys and atmosphere really turned me onto this album. Looking back at it now, I can truly see its epic brilliance. From the weird synth intro, to the dramatic rise and fall and epic choir keys on “Into The Infinity of Thoughts,” I feel is the greatest atmospheric song of any genre. It’s dark, it’s morbid, it’s thought provoking. I could say more about this album, but if the first two tracks don’t trip your trigger, this landmark album will never be your forte!
Masochist’s History is not a full-length album. It’s a two-disc history of the band’s short recordings. Born from the spawn of Mid-Michigan, Satan, the spirit of madness and a lust for heavy metal, Masochist proved their worth on these short-form recordings. Because there were many short-form recordings involved in this disc released by Moribund Records in 2007 (after the passing of band leader Jeff Elrod, the original Tchort), the discs play like one grindhouse feature. The formula, because they used intros in most recordings, mostly consists of intros and then one or two songs with vocals and the rest of black metal’s trimmings.
Why do I list this so high above so many legendary albums? Because it’s that good! It’s like a mix of Burzum and Mayhem. It’s very satanic and blasphemous. There are three vocalists who harmonize their agonizing cries (Chas, Seanie and Jeff). The guitar play is fantastic by Sean Peters, and Elrod’s bass playing is nearly as brilliant. The production values range from terrible to pristine. The production values are of pure brilliance. It’s dark, morbid, evil cult black metal from the greatest source of USBM — Mid Michigan!
I couldn’t write this list without listing the grimmest band of all time, Darkthrone! Transilvanian Hunger has much of the same trappings as Mayhem’s De Mysteriis Dom Sathanis, but it has a Norwegian sense to it that Mayhem rarely displays (“Pagan Fears” is the ultimate evil pagan song). This particular charm comes from some of their songs being sung in Norwegian.
In addition to the main duo of Darkthrone, Burzum’s Count Grisnakh provided lyrical support. Varg is an excellent songwriter and brilliant musician. His involvement only added to it’s legendary cult status. Other highlights include their raw, primal production values (one of the best recordings ever). The central theme of Transylvanian vampires is a very popular pop culture theme with films and books ranging from Ann Rice’s “Vampire Lestat” to Bram Stoker’s pioneering tale of Count Dracula. It’s the perfect theme for brutal, grim recordings. Phil Anselmo from Pantera was a huge fan, often sporting a T-shirt of this album. If it’s good enough for Phil, it’s good enough for most metal heads. Transilvanian Hunger will always go down as a top ten black metal release!
For this one, I decided to cover a short album, Marduk’s 1991 debut recording Fuck Me Jesus. Not only is the artwork depicting a girl sodomizing a cross, the album title alone is one of the most blasphemous titles ever. If you object to the tenets of Christianity, you’ll notice and explore this album title. However, make sure you listen to this demo. Don’t be lazy and just let the title and art mull inside your head, make sure to explore the greatness of Sweden’s greatest black metal band, Marduk.
The first thing that pops about the album is the opening intro clip from The Exorcist. This was clearly where these Swedes got their idea for the album title as Regan repeatedly says “Fuck Me Jesus, Fuck Me.” She smacks her mother and the track drops to “Departure From The Mortals.” Like a Masochist song, this track and the album are a mix of extreme tempos. From crawling, dungeon doom to brutal displays of speed, Marduk’s Fuck Me Jesus is without doubt a top-five BM release.
While it would very easy to list all Norwegian albums, the rest of the world should be praised, too. One of the fountains of black metal in the world is also from the Scandinavian country of Finland. It boasts some of the greatest BM ever, but due to space constraints I will only talk about Beherit’s second album Drawing Down The Moon.
When I purchased a copy of Drawing Down the Moon from JLA America at Milwaukee Metal Fest 1998, I was drawn to the imagery and atmosphere of the album art. The cover is a simple close up of the moon. It has a power of lunacy that draws one in. At first I didn’t like the short songs. I couldn’t quite get into the rawness of the production, too. But still, all the trappings of this album, from moonlit ambience to primal black metal marauding, Drawing Down The Moon is another hybrid album like Burzum and Masochist. It has many intros and then short black metal songs. Beherit are one of the founders, if not the founder of Finnish black metal. They deserve praise in this column. All hail Beherit!
Even though Facebook won’t allow one to mention the name Varg, Burzum, Count Grishnakh or any other appellation Varg goes by, the historic and artistic value of Burzum cannot be scrubbed from black metal fans, or even movie fans’, minds. His 1994 album Hvis lyset tar oss is a personal favorite.
The atmosphere conveyed by the skeleton in the middle of a forest in winter is displayed brilliantly with the opening intro and first song “Det som en gang var.” I grew up in Michigan and bought this album in the darkness of winter, so this theme is well-known to me, and the Count really nailed this theme. Besides being a murderer and arsonist, Varg is a brilliant musician, one of metal’s best. He has visions which appear and mesmerize. The fuzzy production, ambience, riffs and Varg’s tortured cries make this album legendary.
Much like Michigan black metal, other than Rotting Christ, Greek black metal does not get enough credit. Varathron are such a cult band, one that not many people in America know of. Many times I educate people on the Greek black metal scene, and I always start with this album. Sure, their scene brothers Rotting Christ have put out exceptional albums, but if you want the blueprint to Greek black metal, start with Varthron’s His Majesty At the Swamp.
Released in 1993, the same time as Rotting Christ’s Thy Mighty Contract. It was not only influential on a national scale, the cult underground knew this album well. 1993 was a busy year for black metal. Mayhem founder Euronymous was still alive and pushing his label, Deathlike Silence Productions. Varg and him were busy working together. Behind the scenes in Greece there was an explosion of talent with bands like Necromantia, Zemial and of course Rotting Christ. His Majesty At the Swamp definitely conveys an overwhelming sense of majesty and Greek mythology. Anyone who hears their classic tune “Flowers of my Youth” with it’s hammering speed, palm-muted chords and Mount Olympic keyboards know the greatness of Varathron. Hail Zeus!
Darkthrone’s A Blaze In The Northern Sky has to be mentioned. Fans will argue over what the best Darkthrone album is, from early death metal routes to punk to doom to Iron Maiden-inspired trad metal sounds. Darkthrone have realized their value as an artist with a diverse portfolio. While bands like Emperor and Mayhem may be great, Darkthrone are the greatest black metal band. A Blaze In The Northern Sky, again, has all the works of a great black metal album. The rawness, the grimness, the psychotic echo of Nocturno Culto and the riffing and drum play from Fenriz is ultra-catchy, making for black metal perfection.
Not only is it a tremendous sounding record, it’s the father of the Norwegian black metal sound. Released in the early year of 1992 when the second wave was still in its infancy, A Blaze In The Northern Sky’s influence just can’t be determined. While I feel Transilvanian Hunger is a slightly better album, I can’t dispute the wide-ranging influence of A Blaze in the Northern Sky.
Norway, Sweden, and Finland seem to get the most international love from black metal fans, but few know about the value of Japan and Sigh. While I’m sure there is a cool scene there, I’m not familiar with many bands other than Sigh and Abigail. Sigh were the first true black metal band in Japan. While their brethren to the northwest continually showed battle imagery from their ancestry, Sigh too documented the warring mindset of their people in Japan. Donning corpse paint, the group did a promo photo for the album with traditional Japanese weaponry on display. This imagery brings to minds their ancient traditions such as Ninjitsu, Samarai combat and Bushido ideology.
Like Burzum and Emperor, Sigh’s debut album features much symphonic orchestration. It is a morbid album with songs such as “At My Funeral” which with organ sounds, sounds as if you were attending the funeral of the speaker. Hailing from a great tradition of Eastern philosophy, Sigh have a reputation of putting out cerebral songs. While much simpler, rawer and diverse when compared to later offerings, Scorn Defeat is arguably their best album. It’s their first, their intro. First albums must always be explored because this is where the band establishes their sound and their identity. If you don’t believe how good this album is, if you’ve never heard of the band Sigh, Euronymous’ love for the band should suffice for checking them out. He was a big fan and this album was one of his first releases on Deathlike Silence Productions.