As a genre, black metal continues to evolve in fascinating and unexpected ways, its boundaries ever-changing as elements as disparate as post metal, industrial, gothic and even shoegaze filter into the mix.
Spreading across the globe, the genre has splintered innumerable times to form regional hubs (as with the classic Norwegian black metal scene, or more recently in the fascinating world of Chinese post-black metal), transgressive subgenres (often codified under 'post-black metal') and purist powerbases all dedicated to the beating heart of blackened filth that falls under the wider black metal banner.
2021 proved to be a bumper year for black metal as a genre, its landscape reflective of just how much the genre has evolved since both its birth in the early 80s and eventual infamy of the 90s. With that in mind, here are 10 records that represent the very best of what black metal has to offer in 2021.
10. Noctule - Wretched Abyss
Making the leap over to black metal from her day job as chief-snarler in post-hardcore heroes Svalbard, Serena Cherry's one-woman black metal project announced their arrival unto the world with a sense of sweeping grandeur fit for the fantastical landscapes it was inspired by. Drawing from the videogame Skyrim, Noctule's debut embodied the very best aspects of epic black metal whilst incorporating melodic sensibilities that weren't a million miles removed from Cherry's work in Svalbard.
9. Yoth Iria - As The Flame Withers
With two ex-alumni of Rotting Christ in their ranks, Yoth Iria boasted a sense of pedigree (and resultant expectation) before they'd ever played a note. Thanks to below then for making sure their full-length debut As The Flame Withers upheld a standard of quality worthy of the RC legacy, guitarist Jim Mutilator bringing intense atmospherics and serpentine, winding guitar melodies that made the album immediately arresting.
8. Dold Vorde Ens Navn - Mørkere
Considering its members have played roles in the likes of Satyricon, Ulver and Dødheimsgard in the past, its hardly surprising that Dold Vorde Ens Navn would serve to push the black metal boat out stylistically on debut Mørkere. While the beating heart of black metal still bubbles to the surface frequently, the band's flirtations with acoustic and symphonic passages, clean vocals and almost doom metal pacing ensured that their debut full-length emerged as an iconoclastic entity worthy of their past efforts but boldly proclaiming its own identity.
7. Voices - Breaking The Trauma Bond
Almost 40 years on from Venom putting a name to the wave of satanic nastiness that would ultimately become black metal, the genre has evolved immeasurably from its harder rock'n'roll roots. Voices are exemplar of modern black metal's transgressive qualities, shifting the genre from the kvlt stylistic conservatism to embrace a range of extreme metal styles stretching from old school BM to death metal and even prog. Breaking The Trauma Bond is emblematic of the band's stylistic unpredictability, the only consistent element being just how intensely brilliant this band are across the record's 68-minute run-time.
6. Fluisteraars - Gegrepen Door De Geest Der Zielsontluiking
With 36 minutes of primal energy funnelled into just three tracks, Fluisteraars' fourth full-length Gegrepen Door De Geest Der Zielsontluiking promised a perfect balance of minimalist production and ambitious composition. In stark contrast to the maximalist tendencies of most modern symphonic black metal artists, Gegrepen's usage of strings and horns remains remarkably restrained, consigned to the background as a burning engine of black metal propels the songs forwards. Experiments in ambient noise only serve to further expand the Dutch group's stylistic palette, building atmosphere whilst never turning their back on the sense of raw power buzzing behind each song.
5. Stormruler - Under The Burning Eclipse
For all of the experimentation that has filtered through black metal over the past two decades, there is still something incredibly viscerally satisfying about diving headlong into a no-frills BM record. USBM newcomers Stormruler brought the goods in with a sense of flaming panache on their debut Under The Burning Eclipse, re-released via Napalm Records to show that working within a genre's constraints needn't be an exercise in mediocrity.
4. Negura Bunget - Zău
With the death of Negura Bunget founder and drummer Negru in 2017, it looked unlikely that the "Transylvanian trilogy" of releases exploring Romanian folklore, myths and soundscapes would remain incomplete. Luckily the remaining members of the band persevered using recordings the drummer had made before his untimely death to present Zău, an ambitious closer that could complete the trilogy 6 years from its inception.
The resultant album is resplendent in ambient atmospherics, opening track Brad unfolding slowly across its 15-minute run-time to wring every ounce of intensity and gravitas out of the composition. Zău is an immersive sonic experience more akin to the neofolk evocations of Wardruna or Heilung than to your usual black metal spaces, its darkened fury sandwiched within folk-like passages that ensnare the listener. As swansongs go, Zău perfectly demonstrates the unique folk elements the band utilised to showcase Romania's rich cultural tapestry.
3. Cradle Of Filth - Existence Is Futile
Over 20 years on from Cradle of Filth's breakthrough into the mainstream, its high time to accept the band's rightful place within the halls of British black metal greatness. The band's goth metal inclinations have muddied the waters some for kvlt purists, but even at their most pop-oriented (2006's Thornography featured a Heaven 17 cover, for chrissake) CoF have maintained a consistent base DNA that kept one platform boot firmly stuck in the underground.
Existence Is Futile is as grandiose a record as Cradle Of Filth have written to date, its choirs and symphonic elements downright apocalyptic as the band spread their wings and showed just how they became a British metal institution in the first place. Shades of Dimmu Borgir and Emperor pop up variously through the album, but Cradle never lose sight of the fact they remain one of Britain's most recognisable extreme metal exports, Existence Is Futile every bit as theatrical and thunderous as the band's finest work with an inimitable stamp that could only come from Dani Filth and co.
2. Dordeduh - Har
The nine-year wait for a sequel to Dordeduh's debut Dar De Duh proved entirely worth it when the band unveiled Har in May. Slow-burn spirituals provided a rich atmospheric base from which the band could expand their craft further than ever before, incorporating elements of metronomic post-metal to achieve a sense of sonic hypnotism that was perfectly in-keeping with its members' past lives as part of fellow-atmospherically inclined BM group Negura Bunget.
The sheer expansiveness of Dordeduh's sound proves to be an irresistible lure, Hammer writer Dom Lawson noting that "nine years later, [Dordeduh's] vision has expanded, matured and taken on a sense of polished majesty", before summarising the record thusly: "Dordeduh seem to shape-shift in real time, exhibiting refined melodic sensibilities and sounding irrefutably like one of the most creative and original metal bands on the planet. Which, on this evidence, is exactly what they are."
1. Møl - Diorama
When Møl first emerged unto the wider world in 2018 with their debut Jord, they generated an instant sense of buzz powered by their furious take on blackgaze. After all, where bands like Deafheaven appeared to be smoothing black metal's rougher edges with shoegaze and indie elements, Møl seemed much more likely to follow the example set by Alcest and fuse shoegaze's immersive melodic tones to the wider black metal genre to expand their sonic palette.
With Diorama, it appears they have perfected it. A glowing 9/10 review from Hammer's Matt Mills attested that "while still anchored in black metal’s brutal vigour, [Diorama] dares to shimmer even brighter than before", perfectly summarising the sheer sonic scope Møl achieve on their second release. Soaring guitars evoke a sense of liberation that in turn translates into pure emotional bliss as the record unfolds, pushing Møl into songwriting avenues that could even be described as anthemic.
As Mills puts it, "Flaunting all of blackgaze’s strengths at once while also connoting ambitions beyond the genre’s borders, Diorama deserves to catapult Møl into the stratosphere. In much the same way Deafheaven’s Sunbather set the standard for the last decade, this should be the measuring stick for the 2020s." If this is the standard black metal must uphold for the rest of the decade then we must all be very, very excited.