Although contemporary black metal typically refers to the Norwegian style with shrieking vocals and raw production, the term has also been applied to bands with widely differing sounds.
Instrumentation and song structure
Norwegian-inspired black metal guitarists usually favor high-pitched or trebly guitar tones and heavy distortion. The guitar is usually played with fast, un-muted tremolo picking and power chords. Guitarists often use dissonance—along with specific scales, intervals and chord progressions—to create a sense of dread. The tritone, or flat-fifth, is often used. Guitar solos and low guitar tunings are rare in black metal. The bass guitar is seldom used to play stand-alone melodies. It is not uncommon for the bass to be muted against the guitar, or for it to homophonically follow the low-pitched riffs of the guitar. While electronic keyboards were initially "not heard in [this] type of music," Dimmu Borgir say they started using keyboards "in the background" and then started using them as a "proper instruments" for creating atmosphere. Some newer black metal bands began raising their production quality and introducing additional instruments such as synthesizers and even orchestras.
The drumming is usually fast and relies on double-bass and blast beats to maintain tempos that can sometimes approach 300 beats per minute. These fast tempos require great skill and physical stamina, typified by black metal drummers Frost (Kjetil-Vidar Haraldstad) and Hellhammer (Jan Axel Blomberg). Even still, authenticity is still prioritized over technique. "This professionalism has to go," insists well-respected drummer and metal historian Fenriz (Gylve Fenris Nagell) of Darkthrone. "I want to de-learn playing drums, I want to play primitive and simple, I don't want to play like a drum solo all the time and make these complicated riffs".
Black metal songs often stray from conventional song structure and often lack clear verse-chorus sections. Instead, many black metal songs contain lengthy and repetitive instrumental sections. The Greek style—established by Rotting Christ, Necromantia and Varathron—has more traditional heavy metal and death metal traits than Norwegian black metal.
Members of Gorgoroth wearing typical black metal gear such as corpse paint, spikes and bullet belts. The band was formed by guitarist Infernus
to express his Satanist
Vocals and lyrics
Traditional black metal bands tend to favor raspy, high-pitched vocals which include techniques such as shrieking, screaming, and snarling, a vocal style influenced by Quorthon of Bathory. Death growls, common in the death metal genre, are sometimes used, but less frequently than the characteristic black metal shriek.
Black metal lyrics typically attack Christianity and the other institutional religions, often using apocalyptic language. Satanic lyrics are common, and many see them as essential to black metal. For Satanist black metal artists, "Black metal songs are meant to be like Calvinist sermons; deadly serious attempts to unite the true believers". Misanthropy, global catastrophe, war, death, destruction and rebirth are also common themes. Another topic often found in black metal lyrics is that of the wild and extreme aspects and phenomena of the natural world, particularly the wilderness, forests, mountains, winter, storms, and blizzards. Black metal also has a fascination with the distant past. Many bands write about the mythology and folklore of their homelands and promote a revival of pre-Christian, pagan traditions. A significant number of bands write lyrics only in their native language and a few (e.g. Arckanum) have lyrics in archaic languages. Some doom metal-influenced artists' lyrics focus on depression, nihilism, introspection, self-harm and suicide.
Imagery and performances
A common black metal convention is the use of corpse paint, black-and-white make-up intended to make the wearer look inhuman, corpse-like, or demonic. Shown here: Taalroth of French Pagan black metal band Hindvir.
Many bands choose not to play live. Many of those who do play live maintain that their performances "are not for entertainment or spectacle. Sincerity, authenticity and extremity are valued above all else". Some bands consider their concerts to be rituals and often make use of stage props and theatrics. Bands such as Mayhem and Gorgoroth are noted for their controversial shows, which have featured impaled animal heads, mock crucifixions, medieval weaponry and band members doused in animal blood. A few vocalists, such as Dead, Maniac and Kvarforth, are known for cutting themselves while singing onstage.
Black metal artists often appear dressed in black with combat boots, bullet belts, spiked wristbands and inverted crosses and inverted pentagrams to reinforce their anti-Christian or anti-religious stance. However, the most stand-out trait is their use of corpse paint—black and white face paint sometimes mixed with real or fake blood, which is used to create a corpse-like or demonic appearance.
The imagery of black metal reflects its lyrics and ideology. In the early 1990s, most pioneering black metal artists had minimalist album covers featuring xeroxed black-and-white pictures and/or writing. This was partly a reaction against death metal bands, who at that time had begun to use brightly colored album artwork. Many purist black metal artists have continued this style. Black metal album covers are typically dark and tend to be atmospheric or provocative; some feature natural or fantasy landscapes (for example Burzum's Filosofem and Emperor's In the Nightside Eclipse) while others are violent, sexually transgressive, sacrilegious, or iconoclastic (for example Marduk's Fuck Me Jesus and Dimmu Borgir's In Sorte Diaboli).
The earliest black metal artists had very limited resources, which meant that recordings would often be done in homes or basements, giving their recordings a distinctive "lo-fi" quality. However, even when success allowed access to professional studios, many artists instead chose to continue making lo-fi recordings. Artists believed that by doing so, they would both stay true to the genre's underground roots as well as make the music sound more "raw" or "cold". A well-known example of this approach is on the album Transilvanian Hunger by Darkthrone, a band who Johnathan Selzer of Terrorizer magazine says "represent the DIY aspect of black metal." In addition, lo-fi production was used to keep black metal inaccessible or unappealing to mainstream music fans and those who are not committed. Many have claimed that black metal was originally intended only for those who were part of the scene and not for a wider audience. Vocalist Gaahl said that during its early years, "Black metal was never meant to reach an audience, it was purely for our own satisfaction".