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Black metal is an extreme sub-genre of heavy metal featuring harsh screams or evil voices at the vocal styles, fast electric guitars with tremolo picking and blast beat drumming and raw recording and extreme guitar distortion and a harsh guitar sound with satanic or haunting lyrics. Often played by bands wearing all black, long usually black hair, black corpse paint make-up, spikes and studs, blood theatrics, pentagrams, upside-down crosses, black leather and white face paint. Some forms of black metal put an emphasis on the nuances of ambient or atmospheric aspects which include the suicidal or depressive subgenres of black metal, while others focus more on melody or technicality.
The roots of black metal come from Venom’s cartoon satanized and drunken take on Motörhead. The band’s Black Metal album has obviously been cited as a seminal influence on the genre. Venom is generally seen as one of the earliest examples of this style of music, being a major force of the ‘first wave’ of black metal, along with other bands such as Bathory, Hellhammer, Celtic Frost and Mercyful Fate.
The ‘second wave’ of black metal began with Norwegian and Greek bands in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with artists such as Burzum, Darkthrone, Mayhem, Rotting Christ and Varathron playing a major role in the development of the genre. Black metal bands from the United States, such as Profanatica and Von, also formed around this time. Most modern black metal has built upon the groundwork laid by bands during this time period. Furthermore, following a series of church burnings associated with black metal musicians and the murder of Euronymous of Mayhem by Burzum’s Varg Vikernes, the Norwegian black metal scene received considerable attention from the mainstream media.
There is no well-defined ‘third wave’ of black metal, but many modern bands have explored territory outside of the traditional frameworks of the genre. Bands such as Blut aus Nord and Deathspell Omega are particularly known for incorporating various unorthodox elements into their music. Other bands, such as Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir, have become more popular by incorporating gothic sensibilities with a basic black metal framework, with both bands renowned for their use of prominent keyboards especially.
Iconoclastic ideology is typical of black metal bands. Aside from violent or anti-religious acts, an entire sub-genre of black metal bands are aligned with fascist ideology and National Socialism.
Although there are exceptions, modern black metal as a musical style tends to make use of high-pitched tremolo picking, shrieked or growled vocals, blast beats, unconventional song structures and an emphasis on atmosphere over technical playing styles. Black metal rarely features verse-chorus structures, generally favoring a more basic style that features extended musical sections and repetitive guitar riffs. Guitar solos are a rarity in black metal, although they are featured prominently in the music of some bands. Black metal often features very lo-fi, primitive recording quality reminiscent of the early days of the genre, but some bands have favored more professional recording techniques. While the harsh vocal style of black metal has become nearly universal, many bands still feature clean vocals, used either in conjunction with more extreme vocals or as the primary vocal style.
Some black metal bands have incorporated keyboards, folk instruments or other musical influences into their music. Emperor was a key band in the development of symphonic black metal, with many later bands adopting a similar, keyboard-heavy style. Bands such as Ulver and Nokturnal Mortum incorporated influences from ethnic folk music. Other influences from music such as industrial and dark ambient are also common.
Although anti-religious themes are often favored in black metal, there are exceptions. Many bands have written about folklore, nature or a variety of other subjects. Summoning primarily explores lyrical themes inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings. Some black metal bands also feature themes tied to National Socialism or other strong political beliefs.
Unlike most other artists from other forms of music, many black metal bands do not play live. Many bands, such as Burzum and Xasthur, are one/two-men studio projects, but many bands with full line-ups also prefer to avoid playing live. However, many black metal bands are also known for their theatrical live shows, with the shows of bands such as Mayhem, Immortal and Gorgoroth being particularly notorious.