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Black Metal History

Those of the Unlight: A Black Metal History Primer (1990 – 1993)

The gulf between Mayhem's seminal Deathcrush EP in 1987 and their first proper full length in 1994 was an industrious but often low key period in the genre's ascendance.

The gulf between Mayhem's seminal Deathcrush EP in 1987 and their first proper full length in 1994 was an industrious but often low key period in the genre's ascendance.

– 1992 –


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Alastis were yet another band that began life in the late 1980's playing death metal before migrating to a black metal sound by the turn of the decade. Their first album, The Just Law, features a distinctive funeral doom pacing alongside the familiar black metal tropes. Much like Swiss countrymen SamaelAlastis would spend the 90's experimenting with non-black metal styles, although in Alastis' case this path brought them closer to goth metal than industrial.



Burzum is at the center of many an overview of early black metal, from the classic text Lords of Chaos to documentary Until the Light Takes Us, but we've focused quite sufficiently on the extra-musical activities of one Varg Vikernes a.k.a. Count Grishnack in the past, which you can find at the two links above along with many others… with the long silence between Mayhem releases in the early 1990's, Euronymous compatriot-turned-nemesis Vikernes was, with his one-man Burzum project, many musicians' mainline to how Norwegian black metal was supposed to sound circa 1992. On the aforementioned Until the Light Takes Us documentary, no less than Fenriz of Darkthrone waxes rhapsodically about how Burzum represented the "true" black metal sound.

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As hard as it may be for many to fathom now, Cradle of Filth were once a highly reputable, up-and-coming black metal from Suffolk, England. The Total Fucking Darkness demo – later released commercially in 2014 with additional period-compatible rehearsal tracks – is a little groggy on the recording quality but clearly shows a multi-faceted band with a talent for expansive songwriting. One may lament their later heel turn as Hot Topic poster boys, but it's not surprising that these talents couldn't be confined to rote, orthodox black metal.


Darkthrone pumped out one seldom listened to album in 1991 in a straight ahead death metal style before quickly renouncing it in the wake of breakthroughs in black metal by contemporaries like Mayhem and Burzum. The sudden shift in style freaked out their label Peaceville,  who had to be talked off a ledge from radically remixing it by threatening to release it instead on Eurynomous' Deathlike Silence Productions. The label eventually relented, to the rejoicing of old school black metal acolytes everywhere. While admittedly featuring "sped up death metal riffs" in places, A Blaze in the the Northern Sky is nonetheless one of the essential pillars of second wave Norwegian black metal.

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Much like their next EP, Hordanes  LandEnslaved's 1992 demo Yggdrassil would later be packaged with an early demo (The Forest Is My Throne) by another influential Norwegian black metal band, Satyricon, which would launch it to fame as an early masterpiece of avantgarde black metal several years after the fact.


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Perhaps no other band of their era did more to legitimize solid production values while still maintaining a fairly raw sound than Immortal. Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism would not turn out to be the band's slickest release, but Abbath's vocals were certainly discernible if not entirely decipherable. Armagedda's drums hit clean and heavy but never get in the way of the guitar, which in its subterranean sound remained the eternal link that would always tie the band back to their Helvete Black Circle peers.


Finland's iconoclastic Impaled Nazarene have long eschewed truly evil-sounding Norwegian black metal in favor of a more hybrid style that often utilizes both the rhythms and the part-political/part-piss take lyrical themes of hardcore and crust punk. Their seemingly auspicious productivity can also be described in terms of brevity… many of their voluminous releases have later been combined on to single CDs due to their short individual running times.


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Marduk made an early name for themselves with 1991's infamous Fuck Me Jesus demo, with its cover art featuring a nude woman masturbating with a crucifix (obviously). Their first full length released the following year, Dark Endless, was decidedly less controversial in spite of three tracks being re-recorded from the demo (all but the intro and outro, really). The band started out – as did many of their peers – with strong death metal roots, but unlike contemporaries like Darkthrone and Immortal, they would frequently return to their early influences on later recordings, with mixed reactions among the fan base frequently centering around how fast or slow an album was compared to its predecessor.


Featuring a lurid plot straight out of a Satanic Harlequin Romance novel, Master's Hammer issued one of the first black metal concept albums with  Jilemnický okultista. Initially released independently in 1992, the album is perhaps best known via the 1993 Osmose reissue under its English title, The Jilemnic Occultist. Both versions feature Czech lyrics in spite of the English song titles.


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While sticking with ambling, cinematic riffs rather than the blast-beat driven sound so prevalent with the Norwegian bands, the Czech Republic's Root continued ramping up the occult imagery with The Temple in the Underworld. While maintaining a regular album release schedule during the late 90's and early 00's, this would mark their last album for four years.


The last of their straight up black metal releases, Swiss band Samael left it all out on the table with Blood Ritual before turning their attention toward atmospheric, keyboard-driven metal. Waldemar Sorychta's deceptively clean production remains a highlight of the album.

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The first full band recording by Thorns – still a Snorre Ruch solo project supplemented with sessions musicians – Trøndertun marked the penultimate release by the first incarnation of the band (the last, The Thule Tape, was mostly just a full band re-recording of the Grymyrk demo). In 1994, Ruch was sentenced to eight years in prison for being an accessory in the murder of Euronymous, though confessed killer Varg Vikernes would maintain that Ruch was merely along for the ride and had no foreknowledge of what was in store.


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Von are one of the more intriguing "what if?" stories in black metal: a black metal band from San Francisco who emerged playing hyper-simplistic, cheaply recorded black metal at a time when slick Bay Area thrash was at peak sales. Few outside of Northern California would ever hear of the band at all until 2003, when label Nuclear War Now! put out their Satanic Blood  demo alongside the unreleased Blood Angel demo and a bootlegged live show. While selling modestly at the time, years of file-sharing and tape trading led to Von being heralded as one of the unsung innovators of USBM. They have since reformed although only one original member, Venien, is currently in the band.

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