The black metal mythology is well known at this point, pored over by metalheads like the Greeks studied Homer: the church-burning, the murder, the suicide, the darkness. In Hyperborean black metal, as Liturgy’s Hunter Hunt-Hendrix calls it, the nascent style focused on dark themes, Norse imagery, burst beats, and epic walls of sound built on distorted guitars. These albums often used lo-fi recording techniques as well; for Burzum’s seminal Filosofem, for example, Varg Vikernes selected the worst microphone possible, one from a headset. Newer black metal has maintained much of the core sound of Hyperborean black metal, yet newer bands like Ashbringer, Panopticon, Deafheaven, and False have begun to transform the game.
Contemporary black metal often features more frequent tempo changes, lighter, thinner guitar tones, more uplifting climaxes, high-quality production, and brighter imagery. This isn’t necessarily to say it’s more optimistic—in a largely unchanged society, these musicians are as despairing as their predecessors. And yet the forms of expression they have come to use to channel that despair exists in a fundamentally different musical landscape, one that has seen the full unfolding of post-rock, grunge, and indie. Just as Gandalf returned to his followers in The Two Towers after what appeared to be certain death, black metal comes back to us now, appearing transformed and disfigured, beckoning with rippling beauty and crushing riffs. These are the complex and grand songs of the new wave.