10 albums that redefined black metal

Albums that redefined black metal
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Ghost Bath know a thing or two about redefining black metal. Since their formation in 2012, the band have indulged in obfuscation and stylistic variance that made pinning any one characteristic to them for any length of time largely redundant, becoming one of the most acclaimed names in post-black metal in the process. "Whenever I begin a brand-new project, I find that there's some sort of catalyst," explains guitarist/vocalist Dennis Mikula. 

"[I look for] a piece of music or art that inspires me and allows me to understand that particular genre in a way I'd never thought about it before - to escape the confines of the 'box' most people define things as and to reach for new ideas, heights, and unique blends. In the case of black metal, that spark came from Agalloch's Marrow Of The Spirit. I began to think of black metal as more of a tool or medium than a set of rules I had to adhere to."

Taking this to heart, Mikula and his bandmates have blazed a path through black metal that touches in on scenes like blackgaze whilst maintaining its own sonic direction. “This is by far the best way to approach things," Mikula states. "When you are able to find the essence of a specific art, and not only the surface-level technical aspects. When you can incorporate your own unique voice and experiences and still capture the very spirit of the art medium in which you are using." 

As something of an expert in the field, we asked Mikula to guide us through 10 albums that redefined black metal as a genre. "My goal with these following 10 albums is to get the reader to understand many (not all) of the directions black metal can go," he says. "You don't need to stay in the strict lanes set forth by the creators of the genre but take the atmosphere and essence of what they brought into the world and push it ever forward. Here are 10 albums that I believe will help inspire those to do so."

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1. Darkthrone - Transilvanian Hunger (1994)

"Darkthrone's Transilvanian Hunger is the golden standard to traditional black metal in my opinion, I don't care what anyone says. Every element of this record radiates cold, dark, black metal. Pure hatred. From the lo-fi recording technique, to the pattering of the drums, this record is atmosphere to its maximum potential. Yes, this is probably the most difficult album on my list for people who are not yet into black metal to get into, but my theory is that it is done so well, that if someone checks it out and enjoys it, they can know-full well that black metal is definitely for them. More of a hit-over-the-head-with-a-hammer technique than one that eases you into it. Some techniques are more effective with certain people."

2. Agalloch - The Mantle (2002)

"A snow-covered forest, flurries of snowflakes fall around you. Like a lot of albums on this list, The Mantle melds multiple genres together with black metal making it one of the best gateway albums into the genre. This album should appeal to fans of post-metal like Envy, Explosions In The Sky, or anything with a "wall-of-sound" feel. It uses heavy melody in conjunction with black metal style vocals and blast beats. It could also serve as a pathway into a more specific region of black metal from the pacific northwest if you enjoy what is created here. If you like acoustic guitar, nature, sweeping melodies, and vast contrast but with a bit of a black edge to it, this may be the album for you."

3. Wolves In The Throne Room - Celestial Lineage (2011)

"Wolves In The Throne Room's Celestial Lineage is for those who like a slow burn. Those who want to be taken on a journey and don't mind landscapes of sound to build themselves over the course of a lengthy track. It is among the most ‘black’ of the albums I've suggested, although it shares the label of Cascadian black metal like Agalloch. It takes its time with every idea, even more so than Agalloch, and seeps in slowly rather than in quick rushes. Parts of it give a very hypnotic feel, that I find to be a staple of most black metal. But the most important thing to take away from this one is the thick atmosphere. As with all good black metal, the atmosphere is focused on more than any other aspect."

4. Aquilus - Griseus (2011)

"Symphonic black metal from...well, Australia. I'm not sure what it is about Australia and the US, but I believe these two countries have taken a genre that began in Europe and mixed it with enough outside influence, that they create music that could lead one into the more traditional stuff...eventually. I've never been more fascinated with symphonic metal as I have with this Aquilus record. It is grand. Majestic. And beautiful. I swear, I thought I was tilling the fields in a painted landscape at sunset, orange and yellow skies. Like the other records on this list, it will transport you. Allow you to escape, even just for a moment. It will take you to a different world, for better or for worse, and keep you there as long as you give it a chance."

5. Woods Of Desolation - Torn Beyond Reason (2011)

"It's like being in a forest on all Hallow's eve. Dark wind whispers through the trees. And life hasn't treated you well. Another group from Australia, Woods Of Desolation take a very black metal approach to guitar riffs, add a bit of melody, and create a thick wall of sound. Although the tone fits somewhere between sorrow and hatred, it should manage to bring in metal fans who want to experience the blackened side of things without delving into religious imagery or ideas. I think a theme of what I've come up with is more of a focus on both nature and emotion. Torn Beyond Reason marries these two ideas perfectly and could serve any listener who loves a solid guitar riff a perfect gateway album."

6. Elderwind - Волшебство живой природы / The Magic Of Nature (2012)

"The Magic of Nature is just beautiful. It utilizes piano and synth heavily throughout, and the atmosphere is thick with fog and mountainous forest air. This band is from Russia and are one of the newer bands on this list in the atmospheric black metal genre. Imagine sitting atop a high mountain, the crisp air blowing past you. Before you are colossal valleys and peaks covered in trees. Only unlike Woods of Desolation, the day is new. The sun is rising, and you have some wood to gather to cook your freshly caught fish from the stream. What's there not to love?"

7. Germ - Grief (2013)

"Hailing from Australia, Germ can lead people into a depressive black metal as well as traditional black metal. It mixes a "rock" feel, again lush with melody and beautiful instrumentals with a depressive black metal vocal style. The way the vocals are mixed and performed, however, make them a lot more palatable than most high shrieks you can find in the genres. I would personalize categorize this one as post-black metal, just not as folky as Agalloch. More like blackened depressive rock that allows listeners to dip their toes in the genre. I must add, the piano and guitar solos on this record are top-notch."

8. Deafheaven - New Bermuda (2015)

"Do you like going to the beach? Do you love the California sun? Maybe this record is just what you need to begin your journey into the depths of black metal. To me, Deafheaven has always felt like a very 'Californian' band. There's something about the chord choice and movement that really reminds me of the west coast state. I think New Bermuda is their best record by far, incorporating the perfect amount of aggression with their trippy shoegaze roots. This is likely the happiest sounding record I've chosen, but that's what makes it unique. People don't always want to dwell in sorrow and pity (not sure who these people are, but I'm sure they're out there) and so New Bermuda is probably the best time you're going to have with anything on the fringe of black metal. Plus, the mixing and mastering on this one is impeccable."

9. Uada - Cult Of A Dying Sun (2018)

"Hmmm, another American band. Maybe my idea of bands that are good gateways into the genre happen to be American sounding. Maybe I'm just biased! Uada brings great riffs, great vocals with amazing range, and memorable hooks. This one is definitely for those who have already delved into extreme metal, but maybe just aren't as familiar with the blackened way of things. It's strange to call a black metal record catchy, but I've gotten these lyrics and guitar riffs stuck in my head many times. Normies like catchy hooks, right?"

10. Spectral Wound - A Diabolic Thirst (2021)

"This is the newest record on my list. It is an example of a modern black metal record that stays true to the traditional sound, while making it their own just enough to be worthy of checking out. All of the elements are here, from the high-contrast album cover to the raw sound, it incorporates everything one might put on a black metal checklist. If someone wanted me to play them a record that is black, and modern, this would be my go-to. They are Canadian, if that interests anyone…"

Ghost Bath's new album Self Loather is out now via Nuclear Blast

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Jonathan Selzer

Having freelanced regularly for the Melody Maker and Kerrang!, and edited the extreme metal monthly, Terrorizer, for seven years, Jonathan is now the overseer of all the album and live reviews in Metal Hammer. Bemoans his obsolete superpower of being invisible to Routemaster bus conductors, finds men without sideburns slightly circumspect, and thinks songs that aren’t about Satan, swords or witches are a bit silly.