Black metal. Cold riffs, blast beats, corpse paint and a whole lot of orthodoxy and dangerous ideologies. Right? Not really, at least if you bother yourself with actually going just slightly deeper than its more infamous names. With the whole 90’s black metal scene long gone, some bands nowadays seem to get praised by experimenting with the genre in a way that could mislead one to think that such adventurous songwriting wasn’t present “back in the day”. With this list we’d like to argue by way of examples that not only was black metal as weird as it is today, but a lot of today’s experimentation is actually rather tame. Think of these as six of the unsung oddball heroes of 90’s black metal.

It’s also interesting to note that out of the six bands listed, only Ved Buens Ende is not active anymore and only In The Woods… didn’t release anything this year. Arcturus had the closest to a return to form since Garm‘s departure from its ranks, while Dødheimsgard, Sigh, and Solefald all released great to absolutely brilliant records. To help out with this list, I’ve reached out to another lover of this kind of music, José Carlos Santos, who writes at Terrorizer, Rock-A-Rolla, and Loud!, and whom we’ve recently interviewed regarding Roadburn.

Sigh – “Scorn Defeat”
1993, Deathlike Silence Productions

Mirai Kawashima once told me during an interview that if it wasn’t for Euronymous picking them up for his Deathlike Silence label, they would have just put out a couple of demos more and then called it quits, because no one else gave a shit. So, here’s one more thing to be grateful to old Øystein for. To really understand the dimension and the impact “Scorn Defeat” had, and I hate to be that (old) guy, but you have to position your mind in 1993, with everything that means. It’s all very well to discover a new noise band from Pakistan and “owning” the entire discography ten minutes later, but back then it was tough to have access to stuff and bands from “exotic” (for our Western perspective only) places rarely got heard. Then all of a sudden this band of corpsepainted Japanese dudes shows up, during a time when the second wave of black metal is still defining its personality, and it sounds like nothing else we had ever heard before. Black metal, yes, the most in all of their discography even, but deeply theatrical, truly spooky and drenched in an uneasy atmosphere – plus, it wasn’t about Satan, or at least not in the way all Norwegian bands portrayed the figure of the devil and the personification of evil, with occultism and Japanese mythology leading the lyrics down a much sombre path. It’s a gross over-simplification, especially considering how Sigh have evolved after this (and continue to do so, having released one of their best records yet in 2015), but “Scorn Defeat” is, in a way, the sum of Venom, German thrash (the nasty, proto-black kind – essentially, “Obsessed By Cruelty”) and Norwegian black metal, as filtered through the delightfully distorting lens of Japanese culture. [JCS]

In The Woods… – “Heart Of The Ages”
1995, Misanthropy Records

First of all, let us take a moment to realise how utterly amazing Misanthropy Records were, right? I don’t care what you may or may not think about Burzum, but even if you look past those records (which you shouldn’t, anyway), the label had just about the best roster of the entire 90s decade, especially if you’re into out-there, forward-thinking extreme music. There aren’t many record labels of which I own every single release, but with Arcturus, Beyond Dawn, Babylon Whores, In The Woods…, Primordial, Madder Mortem, Mayhem, Monumentum, Solstice and Ved Buens Ende making up that little bunch, it’s hard not to.

“HEart Of The Ages” (the E is not a typo) was Misanthropy’s fourth release overall and the first non-Burzum, and it is every bit as important, if not more, than anything on the revolutionary label. The “Isle Of Men” demo was already circulating for a little while and turning some brains the wrong way, but this is where In The Woods… really came into their own. “Filosofem” usually gets all the credit for the injection of bleak, pastoral atmospheres into black metal, but this is really where it began for real and what should be more often used as a template for new bands trying to dip those murky waters. In The Woods… would later make their Pink Floyd obsession patently obvious, to the point of including a cover of “Let There Be More Light” (and also Syd Barrett‘s “If It’s In You”) on their last album, but the proggy psychedelic tendencies were clear from the start, and actually what acted as the game-changer on this record. More often than not, said influences mean just layering keyboards or playing a trippy solo, but in this case it permeates everything. For a black metal record, which this is only just, as it flirts with doom tempos and many other things, it breaks free of every constraint the genre might have had, evoking images of grandiose foggy hills and cold forests in the early morning as well as Pink Floyd’s typical cosmic explorations. It also introduced Jan Kenneth Transeth‘s clean vocals for the first time, which would play a significant role on latter masterpieces like “Omnio” or “Strange In Stereo” . and here, the contrast between those and his inhumanly piercing shriek is both stark and terrifying. To truly measure the importance of this album, 20 years after its initial release, do the following exercise – play it all the way through while looking at your record collection, and write down the amount of recent bands you like who have clearly taken something from it. You might be surprised. [JCS]

Ved Buens Ende – “Written In Waters”
1995, Misanthropy Records

Personally, I’ve always had a lot of trouble reviewing or just writing about not only Ved Buens Ende, but also the bands that have sort of branched out from it that operate in a similar headspace, namely Dødheimsgard and Virus. It always feels like whatever words I might use are just not quite right, not quite enough to really encapsulate the way this music sounds like absolutely nothing and no one else. I typically break down halfway through texts like those “fuck this shit!” memes people post on Facebook on Friday afternoons and just end them abruptly with something lazy like “go listen to it!”, because it’s really all I can do. How to explain the discordant notes, the dissonance, unexpected twists in the half-broken riffs, the angular feel to the song progressions… the brain keeps coming up with ways to evade these tepid, everyone-has-said-it-before descriptions: “it’s like a free jazz collective possessed by Satan performing Voivod cover versions in reverse!”, but it’s too late. 20 years have passed and there’s still not a comfortable way to really, really explain what “Written In Waters” is all about, let alone all the crazy stuff Vicotnik and Carl-Michael have come up since. If that’s not the definition of genius, then I don’t know what is. [JCS]

Solefald – “The Linear Scaffold”
1997, Avantgarde Music

There’s no band like Solefald, just Solefald. Twenty years ago a philospher and poet called Cornelius Jakhelln gets together with TV producer/director Lazare Nedland to form a black metal band. “The Linear Scaffold”, released to years later was their debut full length and would set the tone for one of the most unique careers in the whole genre. It starts traditional enough with some symphonic overtones and Cornelius’ now trademark high pitched screech – some of the most piercing ones you’ll ever hear. It doesn’t take long for the weirdness to set in though, with some clean guitars, backing chants and upbeat passages, and that’s just during album opener “Jernlov”, because as soon as you hit “Philosophical Revolt” you not only get the philosophical leanings the name suggests but they also show you just how reasonable it is to have black metal intertwined with sensual melodies and clapping sounds. Yes, and if that ain’t enough to weird you out, “Red View” has a jew’s harp bit and the lyrics of “When The Moon Is On The Wave” are a poem from Lord Byron, thought I’d argue that its most important feature is having one of the best riffs in the genre’s history.

Despite all this, “The Linear Scaffold” is probably the closest you get to traditional black metal in the career of Solefald, which says quite a lot about the rest of it. What would follow is nothing short of astonishing, with “Neonism” going full blown post modern black metal, including post colonial themes (“Backpacka Baba”), incredible surreal lyrics (“Third Person Plural”) and a criticism of Coco Chanel that would come full circle in this year’s “2011, Or A Knight Of The Fail”. It’s better to stop here instead of going through the other records, lest I go overboard and turn this entry into something unreasonably big – suffice it to say that every single record has something absolutely peculiar about them and are more than worth to be discovered and digested in due time. Several traits and vocal styles are constant throughout the whole career and can already be heard on “The Linear Scaffold”, but the way they are put together to fit the theme of each particular record is an ever evolving process whose result can be as fruitful today as it was back in 1997.

Being a duo and tacking into account the amount of layers within their songs, live performances are not exactly usual and have been mostly absent throughout their career, having been restarted only  back in 2012. The setlist with which they did it borrowed heavily from “The Linear Scaffold”, including “Red View”, “Jernlov”, “Philosophical Revolt” and “When The Moon Is On The Wave”, all of which sounded incredible with the latter being the set closer that it was born to be. [LP]

Arcturus – “La Masquerade Infernale”
1997, Music For Nations

In the same year that Ulver‘s most harsh record ever came out, the infamous and brilliant “Nattens Madrigal – Aatte Hymne Til Ulven I Manden”, Garm was lending his vocal talents to Arcturus for their second full length, “La Masquerade Infernale”, an overtly theatrical and grandiose piece of symphonic black metal. In an unusual twist in the genre and despite all the noteworthy musicians present here – Mayhem‘s Hellhammer on drums, Ulver‘s Skoll and Knut Valle on bass and guitars –, the main force behind the music is the keyboard of main composer Sverd, whose compositions couldn’t have been better suited for the “La Masquerade Infernale” title. In songs like “The Chaos Path”, it truly feels like you’re being showcased the soundtrack to a gothic horror story akin to some of Poe‘s works such as “The Cask of Amontillado”. This influence is then made abundantly clear in the highlight of the record and arguably the highest point of the band’s career as far as a single song goes: “Alone”, an interpretation of Poe’s poem with the same title that is made brilliant mostly due to Garm’s performance, as can be shown by reductio ad absurdum on the “Shipwrecked in Oslo” version sung by ICS Vortex. It’s true that the famed former Dimmu Borgir bass player has a much higher range and is arguably much stronger technically than Ulver’s frontman, but it all sounds too damn perfect. The thing that makes listening to Arcturus circa “La Masquerade Infernale” is the somehow eerie feeling you get through the whole thing, as if there is something off with the vocals, as if we are being tricked instead of feeling safe. Who better to do that than the trickster himself?

On the next record, the band would retain the genius while trading all traits of gothic fanfare and horror by cosmic madness, a theme they retain to this day. Unfortunately, at some point in 2003 they decided to start playing live and had to change singers as a consequence (recall Ulver only started playing shows in 2009). Like Borknagar before them, the choice was made to call upon ICS Vortex to fill shoes that were quite frankly to big and special for anyone to make their own. Interestingly enough, Vortex does have some great songs with Arcturus. They happened, you guessed right, when he was guest signing in “La Masquerade Infernale”.[LP]

Dødheimsgard – “666 International”
1999, Moonfog Productions

Dødheimsgard‘s first line up back in 94 “just” included Fenriz on bass alongside then drummer Vicotnik and guitar player/singer Aldrahn. While “Kronet Til Konge” and “Monumental Possession”, the two records of that initial period of more traditional black metal, certainly have their charm, it’s with “666 International” that something truly remarkable happens with the band. Look at the line-up that recorded this beast: joining original members Vicotnik, who by that time was playing guitars, and Aldrahn were three known figures within Norwegian black metal: Aura Noir‘s Apollyon on bass, Ved Buens Ende‘s Carl-Michael on drums and Fleurety‘s Svein Egil on keyboards, this time going by the name of Mr. Magic Logic which through its sheer awesomeness reminds me that I should point out that “Min Tid Skal Komme” could very well be on this list. Coming back to Dødheimsgard, it’s interesting to note that the first true successor of “666 International” only came sixteen years later, with this year’s great “A Umbra Omega”. What I mean is that despite digging the shit out of “Supervillain Outcast” and Kvohst‘s performance there, it doesn’t push itself to these extremes, lacking that futuristic and jazzy insanity that makes “666 International” such a masterpiece. Pretty much each contribution on this record is worth mentioning, from the incursions through industrial drumming and bassing together with the over the top keyboard effects help pushing the dystopian feel to the forefront when the need arises, to the way Aldrahn’s unique vocals sounds something like a cyberpunk oracle of future decadence or the sheer genius of Vicotnik’s guitar work, ever subtle when needed, diving deep in cold riffing, intricate melodies and quick, ever evolving dissonant patterns. It is unfortunate and yet unavoidable that this barely coherent list of attributes feels like it comes short by light years of ever encapsulating the magnitude of songs like the mighty opener “Shiva-Interfere” or the colossal ten minutes of “Regno Potiri”. Urgent and unique even after sixteen years. What else would you want from a record? [LP]