Black metal began in the 1980s as a prototype of and speed and thrash metal. The following list of essential black metal albums begins with those early incarnations and goes through the explosion of the second wave and the various styles. The 20 albums listed are a small survey of nearly 40 years of black metal. This list can provide a jumping off point for new listeners or a source of nostalgia for long-time fans of the sub-genre.
Formed in 1979, U.K. trio Venom coined the term “black metal” on the song and title of their sophomore album. Venom combined speed, thrash and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Led by the war cries and gargantuan bass sound of Cronos, Venom’s Satanic imagery and lyrics made them the boogeyman many parents feared.
Lyrically and visually, Black Metal revisited some of the infernal themes of their debut, Welcome To Hell. A head shot of what appears to be the devil graces the cover. “Sacrifice,” “To Hell And Back,” “Heaven’s On Fire” and the title track work with Satanic ideas. Tracks such as “Countess Bathory” and “Buried Alive” are more rooted in the macabre. “Teacher’s Pet” is pure ‘80s sleaze. Black Metal contained attitude, aggression, satanic overtones, loud volume and speed that proved instrumental in the development of thrash and black metal.
Although musically Bathory’s self-titled debut still had more in common with speed metal than the black metal we know today, there were many facets of the album connected to the modern sound. Like Venom’s first two albums before them, the Swedish band’s album cover depicting Baphomet became iconic. Quarthon’s goblin-like vocals were closely tied to the shrieks of today, possibly making him the first true black metal vocalist.
Quarthon (R.I.P.) played all instruments. The sound he produced was lo-fi, or what’s often called necro. His guitars were gritty, drums sounded thunderous yet muffled at the same time. Guitar riffs were picked in a frenzied, memorable fashion. The instrumentation crashes and rolls like a great storm. Some of the guitar solos are off-key and warped sounding, adding to the overall evil of the album. Bathory would later turn to cleaner sounds and write lyrics based on Viking mythology.
Danish band Mercyful Fate are authentically Satanic. Their frontman, King Diamond is an eternal member of Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan. His songs reflect lyrics of the supernatural, ritual and the occult. Although he was inspired by artists such as Alice Cooper and KISS, King Diamond painted his face in more of a morbid fashion, which influenced the corpse paint that would come.
Mercyful Fate’s sophomore album Don’t Break The Oath is similar to the above-mentioned bands. The album shows elements of the speed and traditional metal highlighted in other black metal bands of the times, but Mercyful Fate dealt a greater sense of melody. While King Diamond’s falsetto voice is haunting, he sings gutturally in other parts. The guitar duo of Hank Shermann and Michael Denner trade off graceful, melodic leads and catchy riffs. Their guitar effects added atmosphere. That atmosphere and Satanic devotion of Don’t Break The Oath would inspire generations of black metal bands.
Celtic Frost are one of the most referenced bands in metal. The group formed from the ashes of Hellhammer, another revered band for inspiring black metal. Celtic Frost influenced not only black metal but thrash and death metal as well. To Mega Therion, the band’s first full length, followed two highly prized EPs, Morbid Tales and Emperor’s Return. Frontman Tom G. Warrior used fantasy as a source for lyrics. Listen to “Innocence and Wrath,” “Jeweled Throne,” and “Circle of the Tyrants” to hear tales of high adventure.
The album’s tempos are slow and doomy to medium paced. The guitars are groove based. Orchestral elements such as horns and kettle drums on “Innocence and Wrath” and “Necromantical Screams” express imperialistic ideas. The vocals are diverse, from Tom G. Warrior’s recognizable grunting, yelling style (“heyyyy”) to enchanting female vocals such as on “The Usurper” and “Necromantical Screams.” More than 35 years after its release and bands still borrow from To Mega Therion.
Along with fellow Brazilians Sepultura and Vulcano, Sarcófago helped put South America on the map for extreme metal. I.N.R.I., Sarcófago’s debut album, showed the band creating one of the harshest albums of the 1980s. This album may be the closest in sound and look of the second wave of black metal. They painted their faces and also used pseudonyms, which had a major impact on the forthcoming storm of black metal bands.
D.D. Crazy incessantly hammers the drums. The guitars range from grinding chords, speed picking, and chaotic string bends. The vocals are very harsh. Antichrist unleashes a chaotic din of voices, from shrieks to wails to demonic pitch-shifted growls. I.N.R.I. is largely a thrash album, but it had many of the markings that would signify black and death metal in the years to come.
Sweden’s Marduk were one of the progenitors of Scandinavian black metal. The group released their first recording, the blasphemously titled Fuck Me Jesus demo, in 1991. A year later, they released their first album, Dark Endless. The debut contained three of the tracks from the demo. The songs on this album were consistent with the demo: a mix of the style of black metal that would characterize the Scandinavian style, death metal and doom.
The mix of death and doom separates Dark Endless from Marduk’s coming catalog. While their next two albums Those of the Unlight and Opus Nocturne were more characteristic of their sound such as a greater use of tremolo picking and blast beating drums, those elements were still a part of Dark Endless, although to a lesser extent. With its varied tempos, filthy guitar tones, ambiance and anti-Christian messages Dark Endless is an early Scandinavian black metal classic.
Varg Vikernes, or as he’s known by his pseudonym “Count” Greifi Grishnackh, is infamous for murdering (he claimed self-defense) his bandmate in Mayhem, Euronymous, and burning down churches. Regardless of his heinous ways, he put out important black metal via his sole creation, Burzum. Det som engang var is essential ambient black metal.
Det som engang var is a moody album. The paces are not fast like many Norwegian black metal albums. The riffs are mid to slow pace, highly distorted and repetitive, which combined with the atmosphere of keys can be transcendental. Some of the tracks are only instrumental, the keys create fantastic soundscapes, which become known as “dungeon synth.” Vikernes would later create entire albums of keyboard instrumentals. When Vikernes sings, his banshee screams bring chills. Although often decried for his world view and past deeds, Det som engang var inspired many musicians to create one-man black metal projects.
Mayhem are the most famous black metal band in the world. They fathered the Norwegian black metal movement. De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas was released posthumously after the death of Dead, who wrote several of the songs on the album, and guitarist Euronymous. Euronymous was murdered by the band’s bassist, Varg Vikernes of the band Burzum, and Dead, one of the songwriters, took his own life. These deaths often overshadow the greatness of this first album.
Although released in 1994, many of the songs on De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas were written several years before release, so the album stands as one of the most influential black metal albums in Norway. Hellhammer’s blast beats, Euronymous’s icy tremolo-picked guitars, the crypt clang of Vikernes’s bass, and Attila’s (Dead’s replacement) schizophrenic vocals served as the perfect combination for a dark masterpiece. De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is arguably the greatest black metal album of all-time!
Much like Bathory a couple years before them, Enslaved looked to Norse mythology for lyrical themes rather than anti-Christian/occult themes. Their sophomore album Frost revealed the dark nature of Norse mythology such as the god Loki or the wolf Fenris. Much of the music on Frost contains the hallmarks of black metal, but there are also folk music passages, keys and segments of thrash, which became known as Viking metal.
Grutle Kjellson animates these dark tales with savage screams during fast parts. He sings in Nordic folk fashion during the folk parts, which may also contain a mouth harp as heard on “Yggdrasil.” Trym Torson’s drums marching parts or blast beats. Torson would later join Emperor. Ivar Bjornson utilized a variety of guitar-playing techniques such as slides, tremolo, speed pick and gallops (see “Jutonblod.”) Although Enslaved would become more progressive in the future, Frost remains an essential album for the pagan/Viking black metal movement.
Darkthrone started as a death metal band in the late ‘80s, but changed their sound to black metal upon the release of their second album A Blaze in the Northern Sky, one of the earliest Norwegian black metal albums. Two years and two albums later, the group released the pivotal Transilvanian Hunger.
Transilvanian Hunger is heralded as a classic Norwegian black metal album for its cold, grim sound. All instruments were handled by just two members: Nocturno Culto and Fenriz. Although the title track was written in English, all the rest of the songs were penned in Norwegian. Fenriz wrote the first half of the album, while Count Grishnackh of Burzum wrote the second part. The drums and guitars repeat in a similar fashion to Burzum producing a trance-like effect. Fenriz’s guitar tones are icy and Nocturno Culto’s voice is bitter. Transilvanian Hunger exemplifies the Norwegian black metal sound.
Along with Marduk, Dissection were one of the earliest black metal bands to come out of Sweden. Their second full-length Storm of the Light’s Bane would prove to be one of the most influential melodic black metal albums.
Storm of the Light’s Bane has a fairly clean production by necro black metal standards. Still, the album contains plenty of the characteristics of Scandinavian black metal including blast beats, fast tremolo picking and loud, reverberated vocals. Some passages feature thrash riffs and galloping guitars. The melodies really stand out, though, with moments of acoustic guitar and Nordic folk harmonies. Dissection’s use of melodies show similarities to Sweden’s heralded melodic death metal scene. Their last album Reinkaos was styled more as a melodic death metal album compared to their first two albums. Their story came to a tragic end when singer/guitarist Jon Nödtveidt took his own life in 2006.
Satyricon’s first two albums, Dark Medieval Times and The Shadowthrone, were pagan black metal albums that combined black metal and medieval folk (as the debut suggests). The Norwegian band’s third album Nemesis Divina expresses some of the same ideas of nature worship and paganism, but this album showed maturity.
Like the previous two albums, Nemesis Divina was sung in both Norwegian and English. The rhythms are both fast and mid-paced. Atmosphere is a major component of the album as keyboards blend with guitars in symphonic splendor. There are also moments of classical piano. Some tracks are of ambient noise. The ode to nature, “Mother North” would become a fan favorite. Nemesis Divina contains many of the elements characteristic of Norwegian black metal. Later albums would become more in line with a black ‘n roll style, but Nemesis Divina is considered by many to be their best work.
Enthrone Darkness Triumphant is the breakout album by Norwegian symphonic black metal act Dimmu Borgir. Part of the greater interest found in the album was surely due to their writing songs mostly in English, as opposed to the Norwegian-sung previous titles. Also, the album found it’s way to a bigger audience via Nuclear Blast Records.
Keyboards are at the forefront of Enthrone Darkness Triumphant. Chiming or choir keys enchant and spellbind, while piano keys add a sense of classicism. Shrieking vocals add to the devilish horror, but part of the accessibility is the ability to understand Shagrath’s lyrics. The tempos are varied to mesh with the theatrics of the keys. In some parts the keys are fast to follow the quick tempo or rise and fall majestically. Tremolo picking is part of their sound, but there are also grooves and gallops. Enthrone Darkness Triumphant was a pivotal album in Dimmu Borgir’s oncoming international success.
The last album on this list of a packed field of releases in the ‘90s is another with GOAT consideration. Anthems To the Welkin at Dusk by the Norwegian band Emperor is a legendary symphonic black metal album. It has appeared on many journalists’ lists as album of the year. It’s melodic, yet fierce. The album is primal, yet complex.
Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk is Emperor’s second album. In the Nightside Eclipse, their debut, was a symphonic black metal masterpiece in its own right, but Anthems… showed them mature and develop as artists. Vocalist Ihsahn screams like a bird of prey but sings cleanly in small parts, a technique flirted with on the previous album. The rise and fall of the keys meshes with the rest of the instruments in perfect unison. Emperor only released two more albums, but Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk cemented their legacy.
There are none more grim than Immortal. The Norwegian band creates entire albums based on the subject of winter. Their songs aren’t about drawing angels in the snow, though. Demonaz pens tales of fantasy where the ice and wind freezes everything and winter demons roam. Demonaz’s brother Abbath provided croaking, demonic vocals to animate Demonaz’s bleak, northern tales.
Starting with At The Heart of Winter, Immortal changed their blizzard-sounding production for a cleaner, thicker sound. The sound on Sons of Northern Darkness was provided by Peter Tägtgren (Hypocrisy, Pain) of Abyss Studios. Stylistically, the album is rooted in old school metal with gallops galore. Drummer Horgh’s beats are deafening and his fills are swift and precise. Abbath speed picks his guitar or plays slowly with clean tones. Although not as “wintery” in the distortion of the guitar, Sons of Northern Darkness hits hard and is very memorable.
Leviathan are the first band from the U.S.A. to be included on this list. American black metal bands don’t receive a lot of attention internationally, but America has a strong scene. Although there were some classic BM albums in the 1990s, black metal didn’t really take hold until the 2000s. The Tenth Sub Level of Suicide, Leviathan’s first album, debuted in 2003. Leviathan is the brainchild of a sole member, Wrest.
Like Burzum’s Varg, Wrest has an ambient vision. Black soundscapes match the blackness of the album cover. It sounds as if the music emanates from the dark tunnel which the corpse-looking person on the album cover is climbing out of. Wrest’s vocals are harsh. The music ranges between fast, tremolo picked guitars to slower, droning parts. The Tenth Sub Level of Suicide has a cruel, enthralling sound that help put the western USA on the map for black metal.
Led by ex-Dissection member Erik Danielsson, Sweden’s Watain have become a international sensation. Much of their popularity is due to their bloody, fiery live shows. Although the group didn’t release a single full-length album in the nineties, Watain’s sound is firmly rooted in that era recalling bands such as Mayhem and Marduk.
Sworn to the Dark marks a Satanic trinity for the band. Danielsson’s mind is buried in occult/Satanic ideas. Sworn to the Dark is the perfect vehicle for him to express those ideas. Blast beating drums are a motif found throughout this list, one not lost on Watain. While speed is a driving force, the band knows how to separate the tempo to create memorable chorus lines as found on such songs as the title track and opener, “Legions of the Black Light.” The overall production is loud with a jagged, trebly guitar sound. Sworn to the Dark is without question a top-level Swedish black metal album.
Starting in 1991, a year many of the greats in Scandinavia formed, Absu are one of the earliest United States black metal (USBM) bands. Although they started as a death metal band, their adoration of the occult would influence the black metal style for which they became know. Absu are not a typical Satanic band; their lyrics/imagery focus more on Mesopotamian mythology.
Absu waited nearly twenty years to self-title an album, but the album proved it was well worth the wait. Led by drummer/vocalist Proscriptor McGovern, the self-titled album represents the best of the Dallas-area band. Stylistically, the album toes the line between thrash and black metal. McGovern commands the tempo (he tried out for Slayer) with speed and numerous stops and starts, all the while flinging lightning-fast verbal projectiles. The occasional clean vocal choir, Mellotron and keys appear, unearthing the gods of antiquity. Absu’s self-titled effort deserves a spot among the pantheon of black metal records.
Wolves In The Throne Room are often called Cascadian black metal, referring to the Cascade Mountains that run through their native home of Washington state in the United States. Transcendental is an adjective often used to describe their sound. Celestial Lineage, their fourth album, is full of mystique, melody and atmosphere.
Celestial Lineage conjures images of serene waterfalls, lush greenery and the misty, Cascade mountains. It’s not an album that relies on riffs or traditional song writing. WITTR’s keys are chiming or they hold notes to create dark, lush soundscapes. Female vocals create awe and wonderment. Guitar notes are often sustained and heavily distorted to add another layer of atmosphere. Even when played fast, the sustained notes makes it seem like the music is barely moving. Although there are fast parts, the album mostly slowly drones. The vocals exude harsh tones and the guitars are heavily distorted, but Celestial Lineage is a relaxing album that promotes higher planes of conscious.
Rotting Christ – The Heretics (2019)
Rotting Christ are one of the original bearers of the black mark in Greece, but their sound goes beyond black metal. They started playing grind, switched to black metal, then to gothic metal and melodic black metal. The grind element was buried by time and dust, but all those other descriptions hold true on The Heretics.
The Heretics is a title that relates the subject matter of the album. It’s a smart album about heretics throughout history and contains many quotes from authors and historical figures. Musically, the group relates many sounds from church music. Choral arrangements sound monastic or priestly. There passages are heavenly, yet dark and melancholy. The guitars, keys and vocals all mesh together well to paint an atmospheric picture, while still maintaining the heaviness of the ground-pounding rhythms that have come to define modern Rotting Christ. All these elements combine to make The Heretics an epic, non-typical black metal masterpiece.