Essential Black Metal Albums

The purpose of this list is to inform listeners new to the black metal genre, a genre that has even gone so far as to garner mainstream attention from the conventional art world and media (to the chagrin of many fans). What are the essential albums in black metal that would be recommended to curious new listeners? 

Like death metal, perhaps even more so, black metal sparks an intense devotion amongst its listeners, a devotion taken to such a degree that intense arguments and discussion ensue amongst genre fans as to what is black metal and what is not. For my money, the phrase, “I know it when I see it,” is an apt description for recognizing black metal. Here are 11 essential black metal albums, listed chronologically.

Genre purists will argue that Venom are a not so serious cliché mostly based upon NWOBHM, punk, and a churlish desire to offend everyone. They're correct. But, this album, and the Venom albums Welcome To Hell and At War With Satan, had such an influence upon the impressionable youths that would soon follow and go on to found the genre of black metal as it is recognized today, that the inclusion of Black Metal on this list is warranted.

Primitive, dirty sounding thrash with an atmosphere that scared the hell out of me when I was 14 years old, Black Metal brought overt Satanism out of the closet and into the light as an influence in extreme metal.

The Return... is probably the first album with virtually all of the aesthetics and musical hallmarks of the black metal genre. Dripping with atmosphere and with a muddy production, The Return… was conceived and performed by one man, the mysterious Quorthon, still a teenager at the time. It is noteworthy for a haunting guitar sound, a low rasp that would soon become a genre staple for vocals in black metal, and themes of primeval nature intertwined with Satanism.

About the only genre aesthetic missing from the equation on The Return..., perhaps the first "true" black metal album, is the corpsepaint. Quorthon would go on to have a huge impact upon Viking metal with later albums from Bathory.

Another band from the second wave of Norwegian black metal, Immortal would also remove themselves from the violent acts of their peers and concentrate upon releasing one quality album after another in rapid succession. Pure Holocaust is the best of the band’s early albums, exemplified by a very fast pace, a cold atmosphere, and rapid fire riffing from noted guitarist Abbath.

Later albums from Immortal would move very far away from Satanic themes, never strong to begin with within Immortal, and more towards a fascination with Northern myths. The band’s musical style would change a bit as well, becoming more mainstream oriented with clean production, flirtations with less extreme genres, a sense of grandeur and, admittedly, some pomposity.

A close call between this live album and Mayhem's first proper studio full-length, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas from 1994, Live In Leipzig (recorded in 1990) encapsulates the true sense of dread and unease surrounding the early days of the Norwegian black metal scene like a fetid miasma.

The story of that scene has been told over and over, so, suffice to say, Live In Leipzig, the only official Mayhem recording to feature Dead on vocals, has all of the rancid atmosphere and genre aesthetics of the halcyon days of what is generally referred to as the founding of the second wave of black metal.

Closely intertwined with the fate of Mayhem is that of Burzum, the project of the infamous Varg Vikernes. Vikernes' story has been told and re-told, so, without further comment, this album, Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, sees Burzum at its best.

Undoubtedly a heavy metal album first and foremost with great riffs, Hvis Lyset Tar Oss also sees Vikernes incorporate droning atmosphere and, more importantly, softer ambient tones and sounds into black metal, an inclusion that would have a huge effect on many artists to follow. The inclusion of softer tones lends beauty to black metal, a word usually not associated with most genres of heavy metal.

Emperor approached black metal from a slightly different direction. Ihsahn, a near musical prodigy on guitar and keyboards, would take Emperor in a direction laid down earlier by Mercyful Fate, an important NWOBHM band from Denmark that, like Venom, helped lay the groundwork for all that followed.

Emperor added a certain amount of orchestral theatrics to black metal with the heavy use of soaring, high pitched vocals and synthesizer keyboards, all still combined with an uneasy atmosphere and a rather primitive production. Although mostly made up of teenagers at the time, Emperor’s In The Nightside Eclipse is a near perfect example of what would later be termed symphonic black metal.

Although part of the same scene as Burzum and others, Darkthrone were smart to eschew criminal behavior and just concentrate upon the music. On this album, Darkthrone perfect a minimalist approach with very low-fi guitars, a nearly nonexistent bass, greasily rasped vocals, and, most importantly, absolutely horrid atmosphere generated by the primitive production.

Transilvanian Hunger would spawn an unbelievable number of imitators over the years, and drummer Fenriz continues to be a major influence in metal with a reputation of being a serious collector and connoisseur of nearly all genres.

Satyricon - Nemesis Divina (1996)

Satyricon - Nemesis Divina
Satyricon - Nemesis Divina.

Nemesis Divina is the perfect compromise between the symphonic and harsher forms of black metal. Genre giant Satyricon’s best album, Nemesis Divina has baroque songs built around a fast and raw approach combined with the appropriate, limited application of synthesizer and orchestral elements.

After Nemesis Divina, Satyricon would begin to switch styles and strip down their music, ultimately resulting in a more rock oriented approach over the Norwegian band's last few albums. Drummer Frost, an odd personality, would go on to appear in many other bands, most notably 1349.

The symphonic black metal subgenre jump started by Emperor was given a big mainstream boost by this album, the third from Dimmu Borgir.  They would make heavy use of synthesizers and other orchestral elements on Enthrone Darkness Triumphant, but would still adhere to a fast, black metal base.

However, this album is obviously geared towards mainstream acceptance with a clean production and traditional, rock oriented song structures. If nothing else, Enthrone Darkness Triumphant is an album that could easily be used in getting the new listener’s feet wet in black metal.  Dimmu Borgir would go on to become the best selling black metal band of all time, but have also garnered their fair share of criticism from genre purists.

Today, the French black metal scene is one of the most dynamic, and Blut Aus Nord are a very mysterious avant garde band at the forefront of the scene. The Work Which Transforms God is a combination of low-fi black metal with weird, ambient twists and variation, hints of industrial noise, and a skewed sense of tempo and timing.

Blut Aus Nord are also a very prolific band, with a triumvirate of thematically linked albums released in 2011 alone.

Xasthur - Subliminal Genocide (2006)

Xasthur - Subliminal Genocide
Xasthur - Subliminal Genocide.

Black metal has splintered into different subgenres and regional sounds over the years. Virtually unique to America is the subgenre sometimes called “suicidal black metal,”  usually performed by one musician. The best that suicidal black metal has to offer is Xasthur, a project from, of all places,  suburban Los Angeles.

Xasthur is exemplified by an extremely murky sound with seemingly minimalist music played at a generally slow pace. Percussion is usually very simple, but Xasthur’s hallmark is a very depressing atmosphere with surprisingly complex songs very nearly buried underneath a nearly impenetrable layer of murk. Like Darkthrone, but probably one step further for most listeners, Xasthur takes some getting used to and is a challenging listen, to say the least.