Towards The Sepulchral City: The Urbanisation Of Black Metal
, July 4th, 2011 11:23
Black Metal is a genre traditionally associated with the dark woods and fjords of the Norse peninsula. But, argues Brad Sanders, a new breed of groups are looking to urban grit for inspiration
The first two waves of black metal – that is, Bathory, followed by the full gamut of the early 90s Norwegian scene – in many ways informed everything that has been produced in the genre since. Some would argue none have done anything profoundly new with black metal after the release of Under the Sign of the Black Mark, or at the latest, Filosofem. Even the undoubtedly crucial Les Légiones Noires movement centered in Brittany in the mid-90s is rarely credited with being a radical departure from the framework built by Quorthon.
What makes the Norwegian Second Wave so interesting is that every crucial band in it begat some distinct (and now overcrowded) sub-subgenre. Mayhem gave us the classic black metal blueprint; Burzum made it more atmospheric; Immortal made it rock harder; Darkthrone made it rawer; Enslaved added folk and paganism to the mix; Emperor made it symphonic. It isn't difficult to name a black metal band and break down, as a chemist would, their precise composition, split into percentages among those six endlessly influential bands. But for all the marked differences between those acts, they all oriented their music in similarly rural places. Despite using technologies made possible by the rise of industrialization to create and record their music – Burzum's Varg Vikernes, arguably the most primordially-obsessed member of the movement, even dabbled heavily in electronics – each band stood resolutely upon Mountains of Might or in Forests Unknown, too nervous to venture musically into the cities where most of them, in fact, actually lived.
Fast forward to 2001, where a mysterious Birmingham duo called Anaal Nathrakh has just released a debut LP entitled The Codex Necro. The album's sound is unmistakably black metal, but there are a lot of other things going on, things that are completely alien to the genre. There's blastbeats, but they're all programmed. The vocals are often distorted, but they don't sound anything like the fuzzed-out effects that Varg and the like put on their screaming. The guitars and bass buzz with life, almost boasting, unashamed of the amount of electronics that make them sound the way that they do. The production is gloriously lo-fi, burying everything and letting the important bits rise to the top of the grime – this in contrast to the lo-fi production of Darkthrone and Burzum that made their records sound like they were recorded from miles away. There's even samples, for God's sake, including one from 1997 cult sci-fi flick Event Horizon. The song titles, too, defy black metal convention; 'The Technogoat' seems to imply both 21st century progress and the more traditional black metal trope of primeval Satanism, and 'Human, All Too Fucking Human' channels Nietzsche while subtly nodding to the man-versus-machine tendencies of the band's sound.
There was no question that The Codex Necro was a landmark album, but it was uncertain at the time just how important it would become. Now, with a decade of hindsight, it feels safe to say without reservation that it's the most important black metal album since Filosofem. In 46 minutes of sonic irreverence, Anaal Nathrakh's Dave Hunt and Mick Kenney had successfully urbanized black metal. The floodgates weren't opened immediately for this new city-slicker sound, but a slow and steady stream began to emerge once bands realized that you could express the same misanthropy from a skyscraper that you could from a fjord. The resultant movement has been perhaps the first significant, widespread black metal offshoot since the subgenres spawned by the Second Wave.
Just as Anaal Nathrakh's industrial-informed fusion of black metal and grindcore so vividly evokes the ironworks and foundries of their native Birmingham, most of the bands who have taken up the urban black metal mantle orient themselves not merely in the city but in their city. The key bands propelling this movement forward hail from all over the world, and their respective sounds share as many points of tangency as they do complete departures from one another.
For all intents and purposes, there are seven bands (including one that has unfortunately broken up) who are shaping urban black metal in a significant way today; each with their own sound, each wholly suggestive of the city from which they hail, and each doing something to ensure that this once-fledgling movement – accidentally created, as so many of the best are – will survive past its 2001 inception and 2008 explosion. They are Black Anvil (New York, pop. 8,175,133), Lightning Swords of Death (Los Angeles, pop. 3,792,621), Nachtmystium (Chicago, pop. 2,695,598), Coffinworm (Indianapolis, pop. 829,718), Amesoeurs (Avignon, pop. 94,787), Heretoir (Augsburg, pop. 263,646), and Lantlôs (Rheda, pop. 46,988).
Perhaps the most logically urban band in this microgenre, Black Anvil arose from the ashes of recently defunct NYHC stalwarts Kill Your Idols with an ace 2008 debut LP entitled Time Insults the Mind and an equally furious follow-up in last year's Triumvirate. Not only is New York far and away the biggest city to play host to a major urban black metal band, the three members' backgrounds in hardcore serve to ground them in gritty reality – a stark contrast, of course, from those black metal bands whose version of reality involves Baphomet and/or Gandalf. The invocations uttered by Black Anvil are those of shit-talking New Yorkers, not Satan-hailing, corpse-painted specimens, and while the difference in intention is profound, the result tends to be comparably harrowing.
Lightning Swords of Death
The least explicitly metropolitan band on this list is likely LA's Lightning Swords of Death. One gets the idea that they had no intentions of joining the urban black metal movement but their upbringing was so entrenched in city life that the influences couldn't help but seep out in the final mix. As such, the band's lyrics don't stray far from the vaguely philosophical nihilism and hellish imagery of more standard black metal fare. Where they deviate is in their sound, which is informed by the same sensibilities that set Anaal Nathrakh apart from the field back in 2001. The music is composed in a relatively straightforward manner, but it's in the execution and the production that the sounds of sidewalk steam and the excesses and emptiness of Hollywood can be heard – nay, can be felt.
The most fashionable and thus the most controversial band among these acts is Nachtmystium. Led by the polarizing and iconoclastic Blake Judd, the Chicago crew has moved from an early history (contemporary to the early history of Anaal Nathrakh, in fact) that saw them playing a traditional, raw brand of black metal and moving ever since into an increasingly weird niche, most recently characterized by a pair of psychedelic ruminations on Pink Floyd and drug addiction. What their stylistic shift has done, apart from alienate old fans and bring in new ones to replace them, has oriented them more firmly in the city of Chicago. Songs like 'High on Hate' and 'Addicts' conjure up arresting images of junkies sitting in dark alleyways shooting up heroin. Black metal was always repugnant, but latter-day Nachtmystium has given its ugliness a completely different face.
One shortcut to urbanizing black metal is to fuse it with another metal subgenre more traditionally associated with the city. With debut LP When All Became None, Coffinworm grabbed up all the claustrophobic, humidity-laden elements of EyeHateGod and Crowbar's New Orleans sludge, threw them in a blender with raw Darkthrone intensity, and put the revolting result in an Indianapolis office building for 40 hours a week, recording the mayhem (and Mayhem) that ensued. When frontman Dave Berkowitz bellows on lead track 'Blood Born Doom' that “from the cubicle to the casket, life is a mere lottery of loss," it becomes immediately evident which urban issues (think Falling Down, or better yet, American Psycho) Coffinworm is interested in addressing, and the abrasive music follows the lyrics at every turn. The Profound Lore act is also one of the most exciting live black metal bands now performing, an unpretentious, seething ball of energy, threatening to do anything at any time, leaving their devoted following both impressed and terrified in their wake.
The most prolific (and arguably the most interesting) figure in black metal today is Stéphane Pout, better known by his wintry pseudonym Neige. As a part of Forgotten Woods, Mortifera, Alcest, Peste Noire, and Phest, Neige has created some of the strangest as well as some of the most idyllic black metal in existence, but his work with Amesoeurs and Lantlôs has also put him at the forefront of the European urban black metal movement. Amesoeurs put out an EP called Ruines Humaines, a split with Valfunde, and a self-titled full-length before calling it quits in 2009, but those albums were an essential blueprint for their little corner of the genre. Despite hailing from relatively small Avignon in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, one of the most aurally intense experiences of my life was playing through the Amesoeurs LP at the base of the Eiffel Tower, drinking in all the post-punk, shoegaze, and industrial music that they attach to the backbone of their pastoral black metal sound. Though separated by 700 kilometers, it somehow doesn't feel inaccurate to label Amesoeurs as Paris metal. The hallmarks are all there.
Like so many German cities, Augsburg carries with it a checkered history. The Bavarian municipality has been strategically crucial since its 15 BC founding by Drusus and Tiberius and eventually became a stronghold for the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe (as well as the location of a Dachau subcamp) during World War II. This history doesn't escape one-man urban black metal band Heretoir, whose self-titled debut came out earlier this year on Northern Silence Productions. Each strangled rasp and Burzum-like drumbeat from mainman Eklatanz contains the anguish of a shameful legacy and the onomatopoeic clash and bang of the US Air Force and RAF bombing raids that eventually led to Augsburg's occupation by American forces throughout the Cold War. Eklatanz doesn't shy away from the history that made Augsburg what it is, managing instead to use black metal to reflect the horror of what has happened there across the centuries as only a local could.
The strangest band of all on this list is Lantlôs, an urban black metal act hailing from the small German town of Rheda. Black metal is fused with one of the most urban genres of all – pure American jazz of the Miles Davis variety, despite multi-instrumentalist Herbst's protestations that none is present in the band's sound – to create a sound that is at once highly evocative of the city but wholly irrelevant to the city the band actually calls home. Take 'Pulse/Surreal', the highlight of 2010's excellent .neon album: Over a loose, jazzy bassline, Neige croons in a longing voice, “These are the streets I call my home," a sentiment that is followed by a shimmering, entrancing black metal riff and a hauntingly screamed verse, which seamlessly bleeds into more jazz, which seamlessly bleeds into tremolo picking and blastbeats, which seamlessly bleeds into industrial manhole-cover sounds, et cetera. Without even hailing from a big city, hardly any band understands the relationship between the desolation of urban centers and that of the great wilderness and beyond better than Lantlôs.