As much of the sonic characteristics of black metal today seem to have been typified by the sound of bands such as Burzum, Darkthrone, and Immortal in the early 1990s, it is easy for some to forget that the term “black metal” had been used for a decade before these Norwegian bands took it to a different level.
One must keep in mind that the term, as any genre or sub-genre tag, is amorphous, not rigid and static, and evolves and adapts over a period of time. In retrospect, the ‘black metal’ of the 80s is often deemed the “first wave” of black metal, because the term was used more to describe a group of bands with a similarity in imagery and lyrics rather than in clearly defined musical characteristics.
The term black metal was first coined and popularized by Venom with the release of the band’s sophomore album in 1982, “Black Metal”. Yet Venom was a part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and indeed was a heavy metal band through and through. So how can they also be classified as black metal when they sound so dissimilar to the bands that we refer to as black metal today? See the list for a brief history of the first wave of black metal.
There is no doubt that Venom was at the genesis of black metal in the early 1980s. The band has influenced just about every style of metal that has emerged since heavy metal began to differentiate into separate styles. Their raw, heavy, loose, and aggressive style, marked their tongue in cheek Satanism, was the first benchmark for what black metal was in 1982.
Moreso even than Venom, there are really no musical qualities in Mercyful Fate’s music that one can overtly point to and say that it is atypical of traditional heavy metal. But they were the first band to embrace the Satanic concept fully and take it to another level. It was at this point that the ‘evil’, Satanic imagery became synonymous with what people began referring to as black metal. With that said, their style was not without influence; for example, Emperor cites Mercyful Fate as an influence, and even covers their song “Gypsy”.
Hellhammer, and its subsequent form Celtic Frost, is where the eventual sound of black metal began to take shape. Drawing heavy influence from Venom, Hellhammer took the rawness and heaviness to a completely different level in 1983. Although the band’s demo recordings were widely panned by mainstream magazines at the time, they are now considered classics of the genre. The band had a tremendous influence on the second wave of black metal bands, most notably Darkthrone, whose “Panzerfaust” album in particular is indebted to Hellhammer’s influence.
There is a sizable group among black metal fans that would argue that Bathory was the first true black metal band and that Venom, Mercyful Fate, Hellhammer, Bulldozer, Future Tense, and the like were just sped up heavy metal or thrash metal. Many others obviously disagree. However, it is hard to deny that Bathory is the single largest influence on the direction that black metal would take in the 1990s, introducing many of the musical norms of the style in the mid-80s, most notably the inhuman vocals.
Of course, there are many other bands that can be said to have contributed to the first wave of black metal. NME from the US is just one of them. Many, though, would later go on to contribute significantly to black metal styles of their own, such as Root, Varathron, and Mayhem. One would be remiss, however, not to mention the latter.
Mayhem, led by Euronymous, was nearly single-handedly responsible for creating and proliferating the style and concept of black metal that is still predominant today. It was Euronymous, who was part of the old guard, that introduced black metal to a bunch of kids playing in death metal bands in Norway, helping to turn them into the pioneering black metal bands of the Norwegian scene, such as Burzum, Darkthrone, Immortal, Emperor, Enslaved, and others. Before that, however, Mayhem contributed to the first wave of black metal with this raw and relentless piece of savagery, taking the primitive aspects of early Venom and Bathory and Sodom and reducing them further to their baser qualities.