Greece’s unjustly overlooked black metal scene has been raging since the late ’80s. “Hellenic black metal,” as it’s often called, became a force in the cradle of Western civilization around the same time as the most infamous happenings in the Norwegian scene. Yet the bands associated with Hellenic black metal were worlds apart from the church-burning hordes—not just aesthetically, but also sonically and philosophically. The Hellenic sound was defined by an embrace of traditional heavy metal riffing, elements of Greek folk music, a reverence for epic stories rooted in the country’s history and mythology, and a sun-dappled atmosphere that places the music firmly next to the Mediterranean Sea rather than a freezing fjord.
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Both of the definitive bands of the scene’s early days, Varathron and Rotting Christ, are still going strong. Varathron’s Patriarchs of Evil is one of the finest metal albums of 2018, on par with the band’s early masterpieces His Majesty at the Swamp and Walpurgisnacht. It’s bombastic, occult black metal of the first order, preternaturally comfortable with the trad-metal influence that has always been a part of Varathron’s sound. The band even stretch their legs into a straight-up arena rock on the unstoppable “Hellwitch (Witches Gathering).” Rotting Christ, on the other hand, have moved through several incarnations since their early ’90s heyday, including icy gothic rock and symphonic black metal. The recent compilation Their Greatest Spells, put together by founder and frontman Sakis Tolis, takes the listener through all the band’s iterations and contextualizes their evolution as a steady, gradual growth.
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While Varathron and Rotting Christ—and other scene godfathers, from Necromantia to Thou Art Lord to Agatus—remain standard bearers and ambassadors for the Hellenic sound, a new crop of Greek bands is helping to keep it relevant for the younger generation. These acts don’t always conform to the classic tropes of the scene, but what they all have in common is they couldn’t come from anywhere but Greece. They share a culture that goes back to the dawn of democracy, but that has more recently been shaped by the worst financial crisis in the West since the Great Depression. At their best, these bands stand in as a synecdoche for Greece itself—one foot in a glorious past, one in an uncertain future.
The best Hellenic black metal album of the last decade, and one of the best ever, is Macabre Omen’s 2015 opus Gods of War – At War. While it’s not entirely accurate to group them with the newcomers—they formed in 1994 but didn’t release a full-length until 2005—the Rhodian band serve as a crucial bridge between the scene’s early days and its thriving present. On Gods of War, frontman Alexandros foregrounds his obsession with Greek antiquity, weaving tales of battle and myth that wouldn’t be out of place in a poem by Homer, and setting them to a furious cocktail of melodic black metal and folk instrumentation. It’s like if Bathory’s Hammerheart was written about hoplites instead of Vikings—and it absolutely rules.
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The most politically radical of the contemporary Hellenic black metal acts, the Athens-based Yovel formed in direct response to the Greek financial crisis and resulting austerity. Though they revere the music of the ’90s Hellenic wave, the band said via email that “the Greek scene did not manage to form a community relevant and responsive with what the oppressed are experiencing, especially today, in Greece.” At its worst, it harbored bands with fascist tendencies. Yovel seek to change that. On the ripping album Hɪðəˈtu, the band present a clear anti-fascist, anti-capitalist vision that should serve as a rallying cry for young Greek radicals. “We call all those who feel what we feel, to join their paths with ours,” they explain. Yovel isn’t the sound of people who have been broken or beaten down. They sound invigorated, unleashing their righteous fury in the form of triumphant riffs, blast beats, acoustic folk melodies, and fiery spoken word diatribes.
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Alexandria one-man band Celtefog shuns the Hellenic sound’s trad-metal influences for a windswept, atmospheric vision, inspired by the natural world. As sole member Archon Krig tells it, that’s simply a natural result of where he lives: “Greece is a beautiful land. Landscapes are ideal to creating good music.” Krig admits that while he respects what the ’90s Hellenic bands did to put Greece on the map for metalheads, he was never a big fan of their sound. Celtefog’s folk-driven music confirms that. While songs like “Call of the Ancestors” and “Three Nights in the Mediterranean Sea” share the scene’s focus on heritage and geography, they seem to march across vast distances, slowly building atmosphere through repetitive riffs and chanted vocals.
The sound that Athens trio Caedes Cruenta have honed over the course of a handful of demos, splits, and LPs is pretty close to the vision of Hellenic black metal laid down in foundational texts by Varathron and Rotting Christ. On their most recent EP, Recitations of Abyssic Necropsalms, the band approach the genre’s, uh, Platonic ideal. The songs have a bit of maximalist zeal, but the raw, live-to-tape feel of the recording keeps them from floating off into the ether. Both tracks open with crackling samples of ancient-sounding choirs, and they set the tone perfectly for the occult Hellenic fury that follows. By the time the vamping guitar solo arrives at the climax of “Shadows from Ancient Ephyra,” the spell is complete. Caedes Cruenta have found an elusive sweet spot where the listener feels entranced by ritual magick, but doesn’t notice because they’re so preoccupied with banging their head.
Though he works well outside the typical sound of the Hellenic scene, multi-instrumentalist Ayloss shows the great breadth of modern Greek black metal with his one-man project Spectral Lore. On releases like his 2014 masterwork III, Ayloss pushes the boundaries of atmospheric black metal, handing whole 10-minute-plus compositions off to acoustic-driven instrumental meditations (“Drifting Through Moss and Ancient Stone”) and delving deep into his singular philosophy (“The Veiled Garden”). At times, his songs evoke the sweeping landscapes of Greece, but this is really music of the mind, and Ayloss is in possession of one of the brightest minds in metal right now.
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On the seven songs that comprise their debut album Perennial Fire, neo-Hellenic black metallers Primal Cult emphasize melody above all else. Whether luxuriating in an extended atmospheric passage or barreling forward like a freight train, the band have a knack for finding a riff that works as a hook and leaning into it. Despite the fact that this isn’t particularly subtle music, it’s not without nuance. The compositions on Perennial Fire are complex machines, as adept at employing an Emperor-style haunted house keyboard as an eruptive, guitar-hero lead, and seemingly always finding the right sound at the right moment. The album is a promising first missive from a band that’s already operating at an advanced level.