Human beings have always been fascinated by space. Scan the archaeological record of nearly every ancient civilization and you’ll find evidence of people trying to divine the meaning of the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars. Whether the celestial bodies were worshipped as gods, seen as controlled by a single omnipotent being, or viewed through science and research, they’ve always been objects of both wonder and fear. It’s hardly surprising, then, that black metal—a genre fixated on malign and mysterious forces—would have birthed a niche subgenre like cosmic black metal.
In recent years, a number of disparate artists have viewed outer space through the lens of atmospheric black metal, but the idea that “cosmic black metal” is some sort of unified scene or movement is almost certainly false. As Dis Pater of Midnight Odyssey puts it, “I think one of the good things about cosmic or atmospheric black metal is that the better bands do sound quite different.” Putrefactus of Brazil’s Lumnos thinks the commonalities are more in spirit than in sound, saying that the single shared thread is “real, raw, screaming, and metaphysical passion.” Jacob Buczarski of Mare Cognitum is even more direct: “I think that this style tends to attract people who keep to themselves, so it’s a looser community.”
If the idea that a “scene” exists is up for debate, then what is it that joins these artists in a loose constellation? One connection is thematic. Buczarski says he wants to “pay tribute to the terrible glory of the cosmos, and perhaps give a glimpse into the majesty of our universe from here on earth.” Dis Pater offers a similar perspective: “I’m very interested in history and mythology related to space and the night sky, in the way cultures have used and viewed the stars, almost personifying them, relating them to gods or heroes.”
Musically, this style emerged at the confluence of symphonic black metal (e.g., Limbonic Art, Emperor, Arcturus) and industrial extreme metal (e.g., Samael, Aborym, Thorns, Red Harvest). Some bands play up the synthesized elements of symphonic black metal and reference the spaced-out New Age and ambient sounds of Vangelis, Brian Eno, or Jean-Michel Jarre, while others incorporate harder-edged electronic elements that envision space as a limitless dancefloor. The style’s diversity begs the question of whether it always remains black metal. Putrefactus hesitates to call his music black metal because his goal is “transcendental feelings, not a static thing.” Dis Pater also says that “writing music with a genre in mind inhibits my ability to write what I truly am trying to create.”
Cosmic black metal as a label thus contains multitudes. While some of these artists construct a malevolently overwhelming fortress of sound, others mimic the gentle twinkling of distant lights and silent acrobatics of spaceships navigating gravimetric forces. Nevertheless, each examines the way in which the enormity of the universe renders humanity laughably small.
While you swallow those hard truths, here are 10 notable bands charting a course to the firmament of cosmic black metal.
Compact Disc (CD)
Many of the other bands profiled here approach space from a spirit of exploration and limitless possibility, and their music reflects that optimism. Not so with Swiss cosmic black metal pioneers Darkspace. In Darkspace’s music, space is a lightless void, an existentially terrifying negation of any sense of self or purpose. Their music is a dense, swirling cacophony of blistering speed that—counterintuitively—feels like drifting weightlessly through a slowly shifting landscape of chords and synth tones. It’s not at all hard to imagine that the members of Darkspace have spent a great deal of time with their countrymen Samael’s groundbreaking 1996 album Passage, particularly as their latest album III I allows the listener a little more breathing room by toying with industrial riffing. Darkspace play with all the dread and abject horror of Ridley Scott’s Alien, except there’s no monster at the end; the infinite vacuum of inky black silence is terror enough.
2 x Vinyl LP
Despite often drawing inspiration from the progressive rock and synthesizer music of the ‘70s, cosmic black metal doesn’t usually sound exactly like any of those groups. Sometimes, however, the feeling is unmistakable, and on Mare Cognitum’s Luminiferous Aether, sole member Jacob Buczarski’s music feels like Pink Floyd’s Echoes, as covered by Emperor. Mare Cognitum’s music is almost always in motion, with buttery smooth lead lines tumbling and spiralling around themselves. Even “Occultated Temporal Dimensions,” which hits harder and more unrelentingly than most Mare Cognitum songs, leavens its claustrophobic approach by immediately following it with the arcing tremolos and piano punctuation of “Aether Wind.” After all, a crazy diamond shines on all the brighter in the black enfolding of space.
Echoes from Eta Carinae
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Alrakis’s black metal, while flecked with ambience and always aimed at the stars, also draws from depressive black metal in the mold of Xasthur, Forgotten Tomb, or Woods of Desolation. That influence turns up in both the music’s despondent trudge and the desperation of sole member A1V’s shrieking vocals. Instead of self-hate and misanthropy, however, Alrakis uses the icy chill of black metal to reflect the vastness of space. Alrakis’s second album, Echoes from Eta Carinae, is a single piece that stretches over more than 50 minutes, beginning with a protracted warmup of twinkling ambient before unleashing a wall of treble, from pensive, splashy cymbals to wildly washed-out rhythm guitar and gorgeously resonant lead lines. As odd as it may sound for such enveloping music, compared to its contemporaries, Alrakis is unique for the minimalist restraint of its musical vision.
Shards of Silver Fade
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Notable for being one of the only artists to release a three-way split with himself, the Australian solo artist Dis Pater saves his most expansive musical expression for his Midnight Odyssey project. Midnight Odyssey’s music has greater stylistic diversity than many other artists in this style, but by easing off on the monomaniacal approach to the density of space, Dis Pater mirrors the sprawl of the universe that inspires his music. His monumental double-album Shards of Silver Fade is just as indebted to ambient, drone, neoclassical, goth, and New Age as it is to black metal, and is all the more fascinating for it. Midnight Odyssey sometimes feels like being encased in an icy comet as it hurtles through the galaxy, observing with equal detachment the creation and destruction of stellar phenomena.
Progenie Terrestre Pura
The black metal on the Italian collective Progenie Terrestre Pura’s recent starCross EP is fiercer and more coruscating than on previous PTP outings. The songs are interspersed with elements that range from the psybient that marked their earlier full-lengths to chunky, industrial riffing and electronic beats that call to mind Thee Maldoror Kollective’s A Clockwork Highway, as well as some of the oddball moves of Ulver’s and Manes’ later non-metallic albums. The halfway mark of “Twisted Silhouette” is almost a dubstep drop, but instead of red-lined bass, the breakdown flirts with skittering effects and then catapults immediately into a punishing array of blasting programmed drums. In space, no one can hear you Tangerine Dream.
Brazil’s Lumnos hews very closely to the sound of Austria’s reigning kings of Tolkien-inspired atmospheric black metal, Summoning, but sends enough chiming, high-fret guitar melodies spinning off into the ether to make clear their allegiance to cosmic themes. “I Am Born from a Star” sets the expected tone with spacious guitar arpeggios and distant, rasping vocals, but its midsection pits a clean, vulnerable chorus over flirtations with trip-hop and synthwave, before returning to angelic tones. “Like Summoning… in space!” is a bit pithy, but it ain’t exactly wrong, either.
Arkhtinn’s formalist approach reveals the sometimes contradictory faces of cosmic black metal. On each of their six Roman numeral-incremented albums released since 2013, the first song is a long-form black metal song with a claustrophobic approach similar to Darkspace, while the second song is a capacious dark ambient piece of roughly the same length. On the black metal side of their most recent LP VI, Arkhtinn’s sound is stretched, harrowing, and desperate, like a derelict vessel approaching the event horizon of a collapsing star while listening to Satyricon’s The Shadowthrone at both half- and double-speed simultaneously. By embracing both the intensity of stellar collapse and the stark blankness of the void between the stars, Arkhtinn embodies humanity’s instinctive ambiguity about our place in the cosmos.
Compact Disc (CD)
Greece’s Spectral Lore has covered a dizzying number of styles, ranging across collaborative splits, sprawling full-length albums, and a recent series of EPs in differing experimental styles. At its heart, though, the work of sole member Ayloss revolves around a tightly-packed, progressive, and atmospheric style of black metal that looks to the stars with just as much dread as wonder. 2014’s III is Spectral Lore’s strongest individual statement yet. Though undergirded by frequently blasting drums, “Omphalos” plays a strong bassline against several different layers of guitars—the sort of gravitational counterpoint that typically accompanies celestial bodies. Spectral Lore’s music is every bit as patient as it is exploratory, and over III’s 90 minutes, the cunningly intricate songs feel like watching black metal suddenly rotate along a different axis.
II – Frozen Light of Eternal Darkness
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One of the most durable tropes in black metal is evoking the icy blast of a blizzard. A number of notable ambient black metal artists—particularly Paysage d’Hiver and Vinterriket—have taken that approach to its logical extreme, and thus it’s fitting that Battle Dagorath’s cosmic black metal has become even frostier since Vinterriket’s Christoph Ziegler was added on keyboards. On their two most recent albums, a pair released back to back in 2016 and 2017 on Avantgarde Music, the band’s style has reached the apotheosis of long-form, hypnotic, beautifully synth-drenched black metal. It shrieks and howls and clatters as expected, but also exudes a curious sense of glacial calm. Space is like that, too: constant violence and tumult under the guise of placid stability.
The Density Parameter
Over the course of three full-lengths and a phalanx of EPs, the Australian band Mesarthim have explored many of the common elements of other cosmic black metal artists, while gradually embracing highly synthesized elements that verge on trance music’s early ’90s heyday. This hardly means that The Density Parameter is cozying up to the Ibiza crowd, but the gleaming synths and electronic beats that surround and propel the expected howling vocals and lightspeed guitar blitz give Mesarthim unique character. For a sense of the diversity of Mesarthim’s approach, consider that while the final minute or so of “Collapse” is one of the wildest, most chaotic passages in Mesarthim’s discography to date, the synths that carry the melody in “Transparency” periodically sound like Yanni. This is as it should be: music about the universe should embrace the universe of music.