Black metal evolved out of the thrash and death metal scenes and became one of the most controversial genres of music out there. It tends toward misanthropic, anti-christian, and satanic views, with many of the bands having incredibly interesting and dark backstories. Some would also be involved in church burnings, murders, and assaults.
Pure black metal remains an underground movement, with most of the best groups only having a few released albums throughout their careers. It is known for its crazy corpse makeup, shrieking vocals, and lo-fi recording quality. Here are the 7 best black metal bands of all time.
Emperor started out with just two members, Ihsan and Samoth who played together under several names before forming the fairly popular band Thou Shalt Suffer. After adding another member, they became Emperor and released a demo titled Wrath Of The Tyrant. Eventually, they would release their debut self-titled EP before signing with the first black metal label Deathlike Silence Productions, but they never released music with them.
In the 1990s, the band ran into some trouble, with members involved in a string of church burnings in 1992 and 1993 that saw a subsequent investigation find their drummer convicted of murder and Samoth convicted of arson. After the latter got out, the band returned to playing music, releasing their final album, Prometheus: The Discipline Of Fire & Demise.
In 2001, they disbanded but reformed numerous times to play live shows, drawing controversy in 2014 for allowing Faust, their drummer convicted of murder, to rejoin and perform with them.
Mayhem was a Norwegian black metal band involved in the same church burnings as members of Emperor, but their story is even darker. In total, they have released six studio albums, though their latter four or five are criticized in the scene for being experimental. Their initial works were their most popular, releasing a demo and EP that had a massive influence on the black metal genre.
One of their biggest contributions was that the band was among the first to actively wear corpse paint in concerts. Unfortunately, after the suicide of their lead vocalist, the band would add Varg Vikernes, the man who would go on to murder Mayhem’s guitarist, Euronymous. Shockingly, his bass lines were still included on the band’s 1994 album, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas.
Bathory was a Swedish black metal band that helped pioneer the black metal genre alongside Venom and Mercyful Fate and the Viking metal genre. Their influence on the black metal scene became the inspiration for groups like Mayhem, Emperor, Burzum, Darkthrone, and Immortal.
Their final black metal album, Blood Fire Death, was their last work before they transitioned away from the black metal genre and founded Viking metal. The influential book Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise Of The Satanic Metal Underground, describing the early black metal scene, labeled Bathory’s first four albums as the blueprint for Scandinavian black metal.
One of the few black metal bands still active—though they’ve generally left the scene—Darkthrone’s first three black metal albums helped define the genre and are some of the most influential ones out there.
They shifted to black metal at the behest of Euronymous of Mayhem, with half the lyrics of their fourth album, Transilvanian Hunger, being written by Varg Vikernes—see, most of these bands are incredibly interconnected. By 2005, Darkthrone had transitioned into a punk metal style, but they’ve always released their work with independent labels.
With a name literally translating to darkness in the black speech—one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s fictional languages—it’s not hard to imagine what Burzum was all about. It was founded in 1991 by the infamous Varg Vikernes who also spent time with Mayhem and the band that would become Immortal. Vikernes would continue to create music, even while imprisoned, with a style characterized as black metal, neofolk, and dark-ambient music.
He would never play a live show with the band, though he was instrumental in all of their recordings. Like all black metal, their music is incredibly dark, but Burzum draws on fantasy and Norse mythology for most of their imagery—hence, the Tolkien reference.
Immortal’s original lineup was made up of two short-lived bands in Old Funeral and Amputation. Throughout their career, they have seen numerous lineup changes, though the core duo of Abbath and Demoniz were with the band throughout most of its lifetime. They would go on to headline the festival Hole In The Sky for a long time, as it was a tribute concert held in memory of their drummer Grim after his suicide.
They have nine full-length albums, with a 10th planned for release in 2023. All of their music is based on the idea of Blashyrkh, which is said to be a realm full of demons to battle and is a fusion of gothic, Nordic, and heroic themes.
Unlike other black metal bands, they don’t include satanic themes in the lyrics of later albums, with only the first including them while avoiding attacking religion. If you didn’t get it from the intro and church burnings, most black metal bands are vehemently against religion, especially Christianity, which is why the lack of those themes is notable for Immortal.
As a last spot, there was a good bit of debating between bands like Celtic Frost, Dissection, Satyricon, and others, but eventually, I settled on Deafheaven due to their interesting blend of styles and my wanting to slide a band onto the list that wasn’t mostly active in the 1990s. They are an American band—notably not Scandinavian—that blends black metal, shoegazing, and post-rock to create what is called blackgaze. They formed in 2010 and signed with Deathwish Inc. in the same year.
Their second album, Sunbather, released in 2013 became one of the best-reviewed albums of the year. By their fifth album release in 2021, they had drastically reduced the amount of screamed vocals, a major element of black metal. While they don’t consider themselves a black metal band, the influence of the genre warrants them a place on the list, even if it’s only a modern version of what was once a pure underground music movement.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
quality content for the Music Grotto website. Dakotah is passionate about music in a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop to country and lo-fi to metal, and he enjoys creating music pieces for Music Grotto.