Thursday, December 02, 2010

Metal Briefs: First Wave Black Metal

When most people think of the origins of black metal, they probably think of the so-called second wave bands, mostly out of Norway (Gorgoroth, Darkthrone, Immortal, etc.). Fewer take the time to consider the bands that formed the genre in the first place.

That's probably because the first wave is so confusingly ill-defined. Most of the bands cited as first wave black metal bands aren't really black metal at all: Venom, Celtic Frost, Mercyful Fate, Sodom, etc. But there are a few true black metal bands that made the scene before the second wave arrived.

Bathory: Under the Sign of the Black Mark (1987)

Under the Sign of the Black MarkSweden's Bathory is widely considered to be the first true black metal band. Their third album, Under the Sign of the Black Mark, still showed some evidence of the thrash/proto-black metal stylings of Venom ("13 Candles", "Woman of Dark Desires"), but in many places it was easy to see that this was something truly different. The tremolo-picked riffs and shrillness of "Equimanthorn" or "Chariots of Fire" are exactly what early black metal was about. Bathory also showed the style could be epic on "Enter the Eternal Fire". The album does have some serious missteps ("Call from the Grave" has a corny lead and "13 Candles" isn't really that great), but it also has some truly excellent moments, and its influence can't be denied--especially considering nearly every black metal album to this day has an intro. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Black Metal in Communist States

For whatever reason, many early black metal bands came from behind the Iron Curtain. You could write a doctoral dissertation on that observation in any number of fields. The next two bands are examples of the phenomenon.

Master's Hammer: Ritual (1991)

I decided to check out Master's Hammer after reading a post by Metallattorney. Formed in 1987 in former Czechoslovakia, they were one of many Eastern European bands in the first wave of black metal. Ritual is the band's first true album, after a series of five demos beginning in 1987. This debut has a sound similar to Bathory's epic black metal feel, but the influence from Mercyful Fate is undeniable as well. The vocals are extremely pained and awesome, and all lyrics are in Czech, so that's cool too. If you dropped the synths, this would sound surprisingly like the kings of the third wave, Watain. The songwriting and performances are superb, but the production is a bit uneven (especially the clean vocals on "Geniové"), so I give Ritual 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Tormentor: Anno Domini (1988)

Anno DominiTormentor was a band from Hungary, and you may know vocalist Attila Csihar from his work with Mayhem, Keep of Kalessin, Aborym, and Sunn O))) (among others). But Tormentor was his introduction to the world, and on Anno Domini they sound like black metal via Teutonic thrash (Kreator was originally called Tormentor). At times, they do the atmospheric keyboard thing for a more epic feel ("Elisabeth Bathory" or "Beyond") but most of the time this is straightforward black metal. And it's easily recognizable as such, although at times the solos are a bit more Maiden-esque--a positive touch, in my opinion. The production sounds awful, with the volume and balance randomly shifting and some parts just blown out from being too loud (although it was remastered later on), but despite that you can hear all the instruments throughout the album. The highlight of the album is "Tormentor I", which has an incredible riff to drive it forward. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.


  1. I love Bathory's early material, as well as Master's Hammer. Master's Hammer got a little weirdly experimental as they went on though. Tormentor is a band I have heard of many times, but never been able to check out.


  3. Narcofili Sancti12:05 AM, April 22, 2012

    I'm not sure if I agree having Sodom and Celtic Frost on the list of "not black metal at all." Sodom's In the Sign of Evil is black metal in the same way Bathory's first album is black metal - both are basically punky speed metal Venom-worship with shittier production and raspier vocals. And there are several songs from Persecution Mania/Expurse of Sodomy that fit within the first wave black metal/blackened thrash paradigm. Just listen to "Sodomy and Lust"!

    Celtic Frost is a trickier situation... perhaps they aren't black metal per se, but they are basically an extreme thrash metal band that heavily influenced both black metal and death metal. I guess I don't feel totally comfortable exiling from those genres because I WOULD say that Hellhammer was without a doubt early black metal (as well as speed metal/thrash) and Celtic Frost is not hugely removed from that sound, at least not on their first two albums that are foundational to later death and black metal.

    What Venom and Mercyful Fate have in common is that they both played earlier styles of heavy metal (speed metal and traditional heavy metal) and sound very removed from modern black metal, whereas I think the elements of second wave black metal in Celtic Frost and Sodom are quite apparent, even if neither band fits completely comfortably in black metal.

  4. "Not black metal at all" is a slight overstatement. Sure, Sodom had black metal elements, I agree, but not much more than Venom. I've always thought Celtic Frost sounded more like doom, at least in the Morbid Tales era. They had those heavy, stomping riffs, which is pretty much the polar opposite of early black metal's tremolo-picked assault. Hellhammer was basically the same, only sloppier.

    Thanks for reading!