Black metal is notorious for its controversial theatrics and ideologies. The exploits of participants in the ‘90s second-wave of black metal brought a level of villainy to the genre that to this day forms a large part of its structure and allure. However, since the ‘90s it has indulged in endless stylistic experiments and appropriated and accommodated wildly varied concepts and ideals. There’s no doubt that the very best black metal still spits incendiary venom, but its gaze has been realigned. It now encompasses vistas far removed from those its progenitors envisioned.
Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness, the recently published contemporary reader from Black Dog Publishing, provides an overview of just such developments. Serving, in part, as a rejoinder to those who would misconstrue black metal, it’s illustrated with archival and recent photography, assorted ephemera, newly commissioned and previously published essays, and testimonials from scene insiders.
Before delving into the viscera of Black Metal, it must be said that, in purely visual terms, the book is stunning. From the ingeniously inverted cover to the immaculate layout within, black metal’s intrinsic savagery and complexity has been beautifully rendered via an austere composition. Stylish and highly effective, the book’s stark clean lines strengthen the imagery throughout. It easily ranks alongside Peter Beste’s striking photographic journal, True Norwegian Black Metal, and Jon Kristiansen’s Metalion: The Slayer Mag Diaries as a book that honors the imaginative artistic component of the genre.
Of course, Black Metal is not the first work to illuminate the shadowy underworld of black metal. Along with those aforementioned books, Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind explored the genre in comprehensive fashion with Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground. And Hideous Gnosis, edited by Nicola Masciandaro, is a celebrated work lending academic weight to the genre’s social, historical and cultural expressions.
Black Metal aims to uncloak black metal’s distorted stereotypes. Exploring the differences and commonalities of local and trans-national scenes, Nathan T. Birk’s insightful ‘South of Helvete’ explores black metal’s development in various European countries (outside of the usually covered Scandinavian locales). It serves as a great accompaniment to ‘A Blaze Across the North American Sky’, Brandon Stosuy’s expanding oral history, which comes with a magnificent introduction, and Pēteris Kvetovskis’ text, which recalls black metal’s breach of the Iron Curtain.
The personal accounts in Black Metal highlight a crucial characteristic about the scene—namely, that casual commitment to the genre is rare. Recollections from Norwegian band Ulver, and articles from Jon Jamsid, Neill Jameson and Jon Kristiansen show how black metal, though evolutionary in many ways, still provides enduring values for artists and fans—a Weltanschauung unique from the mainstream.
The distinct philosophies of black metal are explored time and again throughout the book. Academic essays from Nicola Masciandaro (‘Reflections from the Intoxological Crucible’) and Diarmuid Hester (‘Individualism above all: Black Metal in American Writing) expand on theoretical facets, looking at how black metal conceptualizes issues such as isolationism and elitism. Both articles are thought-provoking glimpses into the milieu of black metal’s beliefs.
Ridiculed, revered or reviled, Liturgy frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s infamous ‘Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism’ essay seeks to re-imagine black metal. Its inclusion is an astute decision, as it shows the battles of ideas that continue to rage within the black metal scene. Disagree all you like with Hunt-Hendrix’s conclusions, but no one who has read the piece can accuse black metal performers of slavishly following their forbears, or lacking artistic ambition.
Black metal’s relationship with the art world, zines and record labels is also covered. Louis Pattison’s ‘Nocturnal Transmissions’ features interviews with underground labels and distributors, making for a broad, multi-dimensional peek into the marketing of black metal—from its subterranean tiers, to boutique labels, indie record stores and high street commercialism.
Pattison’s piece intersects with features from Justin Stubbs, Christophe Szpajdel, and Kim Paulson and Trine Sølve, which all look at the art, design, presentation and aesthetics of black metal. Accordingly, there is a lot of impressive art to be appreciated, be it confronting or contemplative, negating the misconception that it’s all about inverted crucifixes and devilish beasties. Essays by Jérôme Lefèvre and Nick Richardson also expand on the imagery and symbolism of black metal, both in terms of its historical development and its intermingling with the contemporary art world.
In one important sense, black metal does not require or ask for any legitimization. Its metaphysical explorations are felt deeply and personally. Yet that same puissant impression that black metal leaves upon the listener makes it such an interesting scene to explore. In those intense actions and reactions, captivating thoughts and exploits are exhibited. Black Metal captures that spirit in a wonderfully poetic and visceral fashion.
For non-metal fans, the book’s broad illumination of aspects outside the purely sonic makes it an excellent primer—a truthful representation of where black metal resides these days, and an explanation of how it came to be there. For a genre so often criticized for being obsessed with nihilism and negativity, the book is filled with animated and progressive ideas and activities.
Black Metal presents a scene replete with intersecting and divergent pathways of musical and artistic expression. The book also articulates very clearly that the foundational theories and principles of black metal have not been forgotten or dismissed out of hand, merely transformed into ever more fascinating strains. Observations are made from a variety of engaging perspectives throughout, making it essential reading for metal fans, and for anyone open-minded enough to realize that the reality of black metal is far more fascinating than its misrepresentative myths. This is a classic piece of metal literature. A classic piece of literature, full stop.