By design, black metal thrives on its extremism, both musically and lyrically. It’s raw, ugly, menacing, explosive, and blasphemous. So the idea of “extreme black metal” seems like a case of pure hyperbole. It’s not. Like most music styles, black metal has tropes and gaggles of bands that adhere to these conventions—blast beats, tremolo guitar lines, echoing, roaring vocals—which have been exorcised since Norwegian extremists started making music (and burning churches). However, there are also underground figures that believe playing traditional black metal is an exercise in redundancy.
These individuals—many of whom create one-man projects either to maintain creative control or because they’re too misanthropic to get along with other musicians—have no interest in commercial success, and aren’t trying to set some new standard of heaviness. They’re writing and performing the music that reverberates through their minds, and that they don’t hear from anyone else.
Many extreme black metal musicians cherish anonymity and refuse to do interviews. Others are excited to share their motivations for creating such strange, aggressive songs. But all of them share a deep knowledge of music and a desire to reach beyond established boundaries. For groups like Gnaw Their Tongues, Sortilegia, and Jute Gyte, the goal is to create music so discordant and aggressive that it becomes almost cathartic. For others, including Sigh, Oranssi Pazuzu, and Spectral Lore, the kick comes from juxtaposing numerous seemingly incompatible styles of music into a unified storm of sound.
The definition of extremism is ever-changing. When Bathory and Venom surfaced in the ‘80s, nothing sounded as raw, savage, or evil. By comparison, the second wave of black metal, fronted by Mayhem, Darkthrone, Immortal, and others made the pioneers sound like pretenders. Many credible bands followed from Europe, such as Emperor, Satyricon, and Watain. And later, American bands like Abigail Williams, Wolves in the Throne Room, Agalloch, and Xasthur put new twists on the genre. All are extreme in their own way: Watain pile animal innards on their stage set and throw pig’s blood into the crowd; frontman Dagon of Satanic band Inquisition sings in a croak that resembles a snarling frog.
The 10 bands in this list have developed their own, fairly unprecedented styles of extremism. Some, like Sigh’s Mirai Kawashima, Jute Gyte’s Adam Kalmbach, and Vintersorg’s Andreas Hedlund, have pursued academics. Others, like Gnaw Their Tongue’s Maurice de Jong and Nekrasov’s Bob Nekrasov, spend most of their time in the studio writing and recording music. And while these artists might not be the absolute, most extreme musicians to enter a studio, all of them have pledged to buck conventions in order to create their own infernal imprint on the black metal subgenre.
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One of the most prolific artists in extreme music, Maurice de Jong has released 10 full-length Gnaw Their Tongues albums and more than 25 EPs or split releases in just 11 years. (In addition to his already-ambitious discography, he has also recorded under other aliases including Aderlating, De Magia Veterum, Cloak of Altering, Black Mouth of Spite, Caput Mortuum, Pyriphlegethon, and Seirom.) Like most of his projects, Gnaw Their Tongues exists to disturb, unnerve, astound, and overwhelm and de Jong is a master at taking listeners to the abyss of sanity and the brink of annihilation.
The latest Gnaw Their Tongues album, 2016’s Hymns For the Broken, Swollen and Silent, combines black metal vocals with hyperactive beats, torrents of industrial, sample-laden noise, and washes of chilling ambience that foreshadow the next storm. There’s nothing here approaching melody, but there’s definitely structure—though once he establishes anything approaching a groove, there’s a good chance he’ll shatter it like a giant pane of glass. “Silent Buried Atrocities,” one of the more coherent tracks, balances orchestral samples, blast beats, indecipherable screams, and throbbing bass (de Jong doesn’t use guitars) with slow, hollow drumming, horror-show keyboards, and spoken word bits to create what can only be described as music for masochists. The rest of the album is just as pleasurably painful.
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When Swedish post-hardcore band Breach broke up in 2009 after eight years of fusing punk and metal, two of the members, including frontman The Cuckoo, decided to expand upon the outer fringes of their music in a new band inspired by horror films and nightmares. At first, Terra Tenebrosa was meant to be a studio-only project, but with the acclaim of their harrowing 2011 debut The Tunnels came a public demand to translate their sinister visions to the live setting. To play into their horror-based themes, Terra Tenebrosa take the stage dressed as underworld forest beasts. As trite as bands in masks can be, Terra Tenebrosa’s looks complement their cryptic music.
Rooted in black metal, but also drawing from ambient and doom, the band’s 2016 album The Reverses is their most bombastic, combining ominous vocals, swarming sound effects, impenetrable walls of guitar, and dissonant minor-key licks with primal drumming. While Terra Tenebrosa forsake blast beats—a staple of black metal—in favor of slower, more textural rhythms, the band invokes sensations of claustrophobia and dread by layering many sounds within its structured arrangements. It makes The Reverses sound like it was recorded in the cursed house in Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead.
Back in the late ‘80s, Japanese teenager Mirai Kawashima was heavily involved in the tape-trading scene, and over the years he developed a network that included various members of Emperor, Enslaved, Ulver, and Mayhem, whose Euronymous signed Kawashima’s band Sigh to his label Deathlike Silence Productions. Over the next 15 years, Sigh evolved from a creative black metal band into a heavily experimental outfit that blended black metal, thrash, classical, jazz, psychedelia, and avant-garde styles.
Their 2010 album Scenes From Hell is one of their most accessible; it’s more Immortal and less John Zorn than some of Sigh’s other releases. Oh, there are still saxophones aplenty, performed by Kawashima’s female sidekick, Dr. Mikannibal. And there are lots of horns, strings, and samples—but they are all presented within traditional blast beat arrangements. Without the references to Wagner, Mussorgsky, and Beethoven (among others), Scenes From Hell would have been a credible black metal album driven by rapid-fire drumming, tremolo riffs, and howling ghoul vocals. But it’s Kawashima’s heavy application of classical music that makes Scenes From Hell exceptional. While Sigh sometimes skew the balance between carnival lunacy and extreme metal, here Kawashima contains his tendencies to get ultra-weird and progressive and the album benefits from his decision to hold his wildest demons at bay.
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2014’s III, the fourth full-length from the Athens, Greece-based one-man band Spectral Lore, is an epic, eclectic black metal double-album. Only one of the tracks clock in under 10 minutes. Of the seven tracks, two are instrumental. And while most of the tempos are as speedy as Marduk, frontman Ayloss occasionally varies the pace to provide breathing room between harried assaults.
Much of the brutality on the album comes from the way Ayloss layers disparate guitar parts and sometimes even different styles. There are tremolo riffs galore—both sinister and euphoric—brooding doom, atmospheric classical, showy prog, and buoyant folk rock. Such complicated musicianship from other artists could reek of self-indulgence and/or be extremely difficult to follow. By contrast, while III is definitely challenging, it’s a rewarding listen, offering new discoveries at every turn. And unlike most blast beat-driven albums, Spectral Lore doesn’t evoke fury or despair. Even when Spectral Lore sounds melancholy, the melodies Ayloss plays between barreling riffs are often colorful and spirited, making III more of a message of hope than a document of destruction.
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Instrumental prowess can’t always be equated with academic intellect. But in the case of Adam Kalmbach, the sole composer for Missouri’s Jute Gyte, math, science, psychology, and literature have as much to do with extreme metal as guitars, amps, and distortion pedals. Ressentiment, the third in a trilogy of albums he released between 2013 and 2014 is an ideal illustration of Kalmbach’s meticulous composition style. Composed of geometrically complex arrangements and drawing lyrical inspiration from Keats, Voltaire, and others, Kalmbach demonstrates how primitive brutality and higher learning needn’t be mutually exclusive.
There’s not much here in the way of melody since most of the passages come from microtonal riffing, and many of the layered rhythms are staggered so they’re a beat apart from one another. The tempos are challenging, the vocals harsh and discordant and the tones somewhat arbitrary. Yet, when Jute Gyte hits on a complementary series of tones, as in “Oh Soft Embalmer of the Still Midnight,” the result is mesmerizing. Other moments are alternately grueling and harrowing, but none last too long and the abundant rhythms shifts prevent the album from becoming too repetitive. As artistic as Ressentiment is, this is about as crazy-sounding as underground metal gets. Proceed with caution.
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Ex-Whitehorse member Bob Nekrasov has used his surname (like Dokken!) for his extreme black metal project, Nekrasov, which has been active since 2007. More recently, Bob has single-handedly also fronted the Australian bands Rebel Wizard and Mors Sonat, but Nekrasov is, understandably, his calling card. The one-man band’s seventh album, Negative Temple, recorded between 2013 and 2015, is divided between long, grinding numbers and shorter, more industrial fare. Throughout, washes of ambient, mechanized tones contrast and sometimes mingle with neck-snapping tempos and eardrum-bursting rhythms.
The title track sets the stage with hellishly warbling spoken word parts overtop humming synths and low rumbling static that sound like mortar explosions. The first beats and guitar bursts don’t hit until past the 11-minute mark. Then, “Seeing of the Mountain Covered in Spirits” takes off with a hammering, low-fi fusillade of scree. Throughout the album, the tempos vary, as do the shrill, scribbly rhythms. But between the tinny recording and the excessive speed of the instrumentation, Nekrosov is on sonic overload and too amped up to look over his shoulder. Even within songs, rhythms abruptly start and stop, then shift into new patterns that might as well be different pieces of music.
Then, just when it seems like Nekrasov has gone too far out on a ledge to do anything other than burst into flames, he drifts back into the land of unsettling ambient tones, complete with choirs of the damned, Middle Eastern chants, tolling bells, and the sounds of swarming bees. Or, he simply reboots and returns to the domain of discernible black metal—for a few moments. Negative Temple is an exciting find for anyone on that eternal quest to reach the next extreme metal plateau.
Saxophone, piano, harp, synthetics, and “others” are included in the instrument credits for the two members of the Portland, Oregon-based band Ævangelist. Their fourth full-length Enthrall to the Void of Bliss opens the doors of madness with a repeated tremolo riff ringing over randomly-plucked harp and droning, rapidly-picked bass. Three minutes in, the band comes alive. Guitars squawk, chug, and howl, a hobbling rhythmic groove kicks in, sounding like something from a badly-warped Gojira LP, as clanging and clanking blend with demonic vocals.
From one track to the next, Ævangelist intersect tumbling rhythms, unearthly guitar sounds, vocal cries, gasps, and sputters without allowing them to interlock. Then, the band piles on more skewed guitar lines, detuned harp noises, and rapid-fire beats. By the time five or six atonal passages are playing simultaneously, phantom sounds begin to emerge from the discordant amalgam. As the songs climax and start to fade, listeners might feel equal parts relief and disappointment. However, the calm before the storm is always short-lived, and followed by something just as jarring as the last fight-or-flight flurry.
Named after a Babylonian demon in the movie The Exorcist, Oranssi Pazuzu create ungodly black metal colored with flutes, keyboards, and a miasma of bad mojo. The band’s fourth full-length, 2016’s Värähtelijä, is progressive without meandering too far into the fog, psychedelic but not in a Haight-Ashbury kind of way, and flush with strong musicianship that introduces elements of jazz, ambient, and avant-garde. At the same time, the songs are consistently brutal, even when the drumming is half-speed and the guitars are playing something that could be mistaken for a King Crimson outtake.
The production quality of Värähtelijä is higher than that of most black metal, so all the instruments sound clear, which the band uses to their advantage. The deep bass string bends and atonal riffing in the 18-minute-long “Vasemman Käden Hierarkia” engenders a fetid queasiness that contrasts with the repetitive rhythms. And whenever Oranssi Pazuzu tone down momentarily with sustained humming keys or single-note almost-melodies, the band re-stoke the flames and bring the pyre back up to a full blaze. The bastard lovechild of Hawkwind and Emperor, Värähtelijä is a masterfully maneuvered triple-hit of brown acid that opens up yet another dimension for extreme black metal.
In John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, beings from the future repeatedly try to communicate in garbled voices with characters that are dreaming. The static-filled, soundbyte motifs that circulate like tainted blood through Reverorum Ib Malacht’s second album, 2014’s De Mysteriis Dom Christi, resemble the ominous, arcane messages in Carpenter’s creepy film. The rest of the album is almost as eerie.
In addition to black metal trademarks (tremolo guitars, blast beats, evil spoken vocals) there are numerous cinematic elements, including operatic vocals in a foreign tongue (Latin, perhaps?), cello, flanged guitars, long, ambient soundscapes, and numerous passages that build and recede in tension and volume. As fright-filled as it is, the music was crafted by a trio of former anti-cosmic warriors from Uppsala, Sweden, who converted to Catholicism and then, for some reason, ramped up the horror show.
Maybe it’s meant as a warning against those who pursue the Left-Hand Path, but De Mysteriis Dom Christi, which borrows its title and cover art from Mayhem’s legendary De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, doesn’t seem the least bit preachy or theological. Instead, Reverorum Ib Malacht draw from darkness and negativity to create images of flickering flames, heinous torture, and sheer insanity. The band may have stepped out of the black and into the light, yet it only seems to have made them more fearful, paranoid, and sadistic.