black metal mainstream american gothic

When Black Metal Hit the Mainstream

Four years ago this month, Jonas Åkerlund’s film, Lords of Chaos, made a brief but loud noise in cinemas. Inspired by the book of the same name, which chronicled the rise of the infamous Norwegian black metal scene of the 1990s, the film particularly focused mainly on the crimes of the band, Mayhem, and evoked polarized reactions from the metal world. But it did remind us that, for a time, that particular group of dark souls was the most dangerous musical movement on the planet.

At the dawn of the 21st century, black metal pierced the heart of mainstream music when Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir landed on OzzFest, got music video airplay, and overall sales of the genre spiked. It’s hard to imagine one of metal’s most extreme subgenres hitting that level, but for a short but glorious time it managed to do so, and in its wake that global underground gained greater momentum and thrives to this day.

For those new to the black metal world, here’s a quick recap.

The genre was born during the 1980s when groups including Venom (who coined the term with their album of the same name), Hellhammer (who became Celtic Frost), Possessed, and Bathory created a raw, aggressive, guitar-based sound that focused on sinister guitars, Satanic lyrics, and fast tempos. Decidedly less melodic than much of the speed or thrash metal of the time, black metal was relegated to underground status which certainly was not a problem for its core fanbase. The progressive gothic metal band Mercyful Fate also exerted strong influence over this burgeoning scene with their ominous riffs and King Diamond’s Satanic lyrics. Things evolved from there.

Video: Dimmu Borgir interview on Norwegian talk show NRK1 in 2004. 

“The memories and influence [of the ‘80s music] remained, and the next generation of black metal bands rose from its prominence,” says Marco Barbieri, President of Salem Rose Music, who was General Manager/President of Century Media Records between 1996 and 2008. “The intention was obviously not for commercial ambitions and purely the raw emotion and rebellious spirit. You saw bands come to prominence namely in Scandinavia, but also in remote regions like Greece, Japan, and South America. It all seemed to transpire at a similar time. It was fresh and extreme, as well as a nod to a sound many of us cut our teeth on a few years earlier. I started to see some fanzines covering some of these bands, and it seemed so out of place at first, yet somehow intriguing. A few smaller labels were developing that embraced the style like Osmose, Necropolis, and Deathlike Silence.”

“Ten years is a long time in any revolutionary musical style or niche, but black metal continues to have success and fans,” says Marco Barbieri. “A lot of black metal groups began to expand upon the basics of the genre and the breadth of the black metal style is now quite diverse.”

By the early 1990s, death metal and grindcore made inroads to a larger audience which set the stage for other forms of extreme metal to follow. The second wave of black metal (within Norway, in particular) took their early influences and absorbed them. Shrieking vocals, rapid-fire riffs, blast beats, and distorted lo-fi recordings became de rigueur within this belligerent metal underground that frequently espoused a misanthropic, Satanic philosophy and favored a uniform heavy on leather, corpse paint, and excess spikes.

There were a few Norwegian headbangers, however, who took things to the extreme through church arson and murder.

“The real game changer was the death of Euronymous, the arrest of Grishnackh [Varg Vikernes], and the church burnings in Norway, especially when covered by a mainstream rock magazine like Kerrang!” says Barbieri. “Then it seemed the whole world knew. It was sensationalized and out of the underground. Labels sought out these bands for greater distribution and commercial gain, and many musicians shifted musical direction.”

Video: Emperor playing live in 1999.

Leading the charge were Mayhem, Burzum, Darkthrone, Enslaved, Emperor, and Immortal. Emperor were the predecessors of the aggressive symphonic black metal to follow. Barbieri points out that these bands “quickly adopted the attitude of selling records rather than the non-commercial counterculture of most of the original bands,” he says. “The approach was completely different in terms of marketing, presentation, and production.” International indie labels, including Nuclear Blast, Black Mark, Metal Blade, and Century Media, took note of the talent and nurtured it. The latter label even released a black metal compilation in 1998 called Firestarter that included a long match inside the jewel case, a twisted in-joke for those in the know.

Early on, Cradle of Filth made themselves highly marketable with t-shirts featuring lurid horror imagery, half-naked women, and the infamous slogan “Jesus Is a C**t.”

Dani Filth was determined and a character,” says Barbieri. “His antics led to more attention, tours, and more acceptance.”

Many bands steadily toured in Europe and played prominent festivals there, with some coming to the United States. While the infamous antics of their extreme brethren ignited media headlines, a spotlight was now being shined on other musical talents. Tours with thrash and extreme bands also helped the black metal groups grow their followings. While bigger bands took some flack for having greater mainstream ambitions (i.e. they wanted to sell albums and play to bigger crowds), their ascension helped draw more interest to the musical side of the genre and not just the controversy.

“We’re not going to take credit for all the other bands’ success, but we definitely opened quite a few doors,” says Silenoz, guitarist for Dimmu Borgir. “We were the first playing major festivals, major alternative festivals, even as a metal band. I remember in Finland [around] ‘98 or ‘99, we were playing after Faithless on the same stage in the middle of the woods in Finland. It shows the broad spectrum of stages that we played back in those days.”

Just prior to black metal’s mainstream ascendancy, Satyricon released their fifth album, Volcano, in 2002 on EatURMusic, the label of System of a Down’s Daron Malakian, which had distribution through Capitol. That album did not have the orchestral slant of the other two bands. Instead, it was an old-school black metal assault, free of the keyboard-laced, symphonically-minded sounds of Britain’s Cradle of Filth and Norway’s Dimmu Borgir. It even had some classic metal riffs tossed in for good measure.

Then the hellish gates opened.

Video: Official music video for“Babalon A.D. (So Glad for the Madness)” by Cradle of Filth.

In 2003, Cradle released their one and only album on Sony, Damnation and a Day, an epic disc featuring them performing with a full orchestra. Interestingly enough, it was less commercial than previous albums with a sprawling storyline devoted to the ascent and fall of Lucifer. The video for “Babalon A.D. (So Glad for the Madness),” inspired by Pier Paolo Pasolini’s infamous film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, was banned from MTV for its sinister suggestiveness. Frontman Dani Filth quipped that some people probably assumed Cradle would become “the Backstreet Boys of black metal” by their association with Sony, but that did not come to pass.

Despite the label never really understanding what to do with them, Cradle did well with Sony. They even had the first DVD-video single to crack the UK Top 40 with “Babalon A.D.”

“We got into the Guinness Book of World Records for that,” says Filth. “We did fantastically well. I don’t know if we did fantastically well along the lines of someone like Jamiroquai, who was releasing albums on Sony at the time. It really was a huge opportunity, and then they just let us go. We were able just to go to Roadrunner, rather than keeping hold of us and not knowing what to do with us. They just let us go, which was fantastic.” Roadrunner would be absorbed into Warner Bros. three years after Cradle signed with them, effectively putting them on another major label for a time. Nympethamine in 2004 surpassed Damnation’s global sales of half a million by selling at least 250,000 more units, becoming Cradle’s top seller.

“Metal is supposed to be evil and piss people off,” says Dani Filth. “I don’t care what people say, I really miss the ‘80s … I loved the shock rock. As long as it’s got great music to go along with it, naturally.”

Also in 2003, Dimmu unleashed Death Cult Armageddon which featured the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. While their previous album, Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia, included a chamber orchestra, this time the group went all out. The horror-themed video for the bombastic “Progenies of the Great Apocalypse” got airplay on Fuse and on MTV’s revived Headbanger’s Ball. The Nuclear Blast release sold a half-million copies worldwide and became their biggest seller.

“I think that [in] the build-up to doing OzzFest, we did quite a few tours,” explains Silenoz. “We played pretty much every Bob’s country bar and grill in North America, so I think we laid down the foundation. Then when we played OzzFest and got to play on the mainstage early on, the audience was so-and-so in certain cities. That was to be expected. But I think it really helped the momentum going. We reached quite a lot of new fans doing Ozzfest.”

Indeed, the summers of 2003 and 2004 were strong for black metal in America. Cradle of Filth, who had played on the UK main stage in 2002, headlined the second stage of OzzFest in America. Dimmu Borgir were fourth on the bill of the main stage in 2004. The gates were also opened for more black metal bands to tour the United States.

Video: Dimmu Borgir at OzzFest 2004.

Influential headbangers Behemoth released their seventh album, Demigod, in the fall of 2004, selling respectably in the States and drawing greater international attention. Outspoken frontman Nergal even became a controversial celebrity in his Polish homeland, appearing years later as a judge for one season on the Polish version of The Voice.

Musically, the stage had previously been set for a broader approach to black metal both musically and lyrically. By the late ‘90s, more experimental bands like Arcturus, Ulver, and Emperor vocalist Ihsahn’s other band, Peccatum, had integrated elements like folk and electronic music, while one-man band Burzum had explored extended ambient instrumentals. The mid-2000s rise of European black metal also began shining a light on the American black metal scene that already existed but was now getting a larger boost in interest for established groups like Absu and Goatwhore and newer ones like Abigail Williams and Wolves in the Throne Room.

“There’s a resurgence of the more old school thing, and that’s cool,” says Silenoz. “That still gives me a lot of inspiration, but it’s hard to keep track, too. Now everyone is in three or four bands, so there’s an overflow of music out there. But I tend to believe that I’ll get to hear some really good or great music sooner or later. The better bands, the more atmospheric black metal bands which I like, I’m going to pick up on them sooner or later. I’m just trying to keep calm and let it come to me.”

The genre today is healthy with offshoots like symphonic black metal, atmospheric black metal, blackgaze, and blackened death metal evolving in recent years.

“Ten years is a long time in any revolutionary musical style or niche, but black metal continues to have success and fans,” asserts Barbieri. “Most of the [big-name] bands are still going, but it hardly seemed dangerous or extreme by the mid-2000s and beyond, especially when it’s all been seen and done. On the flip side, a lot of black metal groups began to expand upon the basics of the genre and the breadth of the black metal style is now quite diverse. You still have the raw, trebly, and hateful side, but you also have quite progressive bands who’ve incorporated a lot of influences from outside genres whether it’s industrial, ambient, folk, shoegaze, or just rock elements — ultimately and ironically, making black metal one of the less restricted sub-genres of metal.”

Video: Behemoth playing live in 2004.

As black metal has maintained its longevity, classic second wave bands have continued to tour including Mayhem, Darkthrone, and Emperor, who generated controversy during a 2013 reunion with their old drummer, Faust, who is a convicted murderer. They have played select shows since that time. Those old school bands have influenced the newer generation as well.

“There’s a resurgence of the more old school thing, and that’s cool,” observes Silenoz. “When I listen to black metal, it’s more like old school stuff, the older albums. That still gives me a lot of inspiration, but it’s hard to keep track too. Now everyone is in three or four bands, so there’s an overflow of music out there. But I tend to believe that I’ll get to hear some really good or great music sooner or later. The better bands, the more atmospheric black metal bands which I like, I’m going to pick up on them sooner or later. I’m just trying to keep calm and let it come to me.”

The music continues to evolve even if the shock value has worn off. The animated show Metalocalypse reveled in all things extreme metal in the latter half of the 2000s and also poked fun at its dark imagery. For example, the members of Dethklok liked to eat at Dimmu Burger. But metal fans have a good sense of humor about their music. Further, numerous black metal documentaries have emerged over the past few years to chronicle the genre’s history and introduce it to a new generation of fans.

Video: Trailer for the 2018 film Lords of Chaos.

Lords of Chaos was another chance for the genre and part of its history to be retold, whether as nostalgia for those of us there then or for a new audience, either too young or non-associated,” notes Barbieri. “The film being available on [streaming] platforms captured a lot of fresh eyes giving a potential new wave of interest. I personally enjoyed the film, and other books or documentaries also help lend credence to this point in time.”

Which makes one wonder if black metal regain its dark mystique? It depends on how that is done, but perhaps looking to the past could be a key to the future.

“Metal is supposed to be evil and piss people off,” declares Filth. “I don’t care what people say, I really miss the ‘80s. I miss the whole PMRC [thing]. I loved the shock rock. As long as it’s got great music to go along with it, naturally. W.A.S.P. were prime exponents of that. They were always getting picked on. I love bands like that, to be honest, and I miss those times. Blackie Lawless was this awesome figurehead.”

When asked about whether black metal will experience another mainstream resurgence, Barbieri remains doubtful.

“It’s still too dark and underground to appeal to the masses, and unfortunately the youth of today just weren’t raised on rock and metal as a whole,” he says. “So this is a wide stretch for what is unfortunately considered mainstream music today and doesn’t have any of the benchmarks that the majority of casual music listeners have become accustomed to. But it will live on and inspire those of us who prefer it extreme and individualistic, which are the foundations of the niche.”

The fact that black metal got as big as it did, and continues to mature, is a testament both to its raw power and its musical diversity.

Feature image is a parody of American Gothic by Grant Wood.


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