Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Reader Requested Post: Norwegian vs. Swedish Black Metal

This is the final reader-requested post. This was requested by an anonymous commenter. Please feel free to ask for more at any time.

This was the toughest one for me to do, even moreso than the true metal vs. false metal post. As much as I tried to spell out the differences between these two scenes, I could not decide which point was in favor of one side or the other. The issue being that my listening habits within the metal genre are so varied that, at some times, I prefer Swedish black metal and at others, I prefer Norwegian black metal. What I ended up doing then was to make distinctions between the scenes and lay out my favorite bands. If the readers want to decide on their own which they would prefer to listen to based on those distinctions, that is their decision.

This is inarguably the most famous black metal scene. But what makes it famous is not the music. It's the crimes committed by many of its members. The scene is marked by the suicide of Mayhem vocalist Dead, the murder of Mayhem guitarist Euronymous by bassist and Burzum founding member Varg Vikernes, the murder of a gay man by Emperor drummer Bard Eithun, and a few dozen church burnings. With a backstory like that, it's no wonder the scene became so infamous. However, this infamy has cast a large shadow over what was a very vibrant music scene.

The music evolved out of darker thrash metal groups such as Bathory, Hellhammer, Sodom, Venom, and got its visual aesthetics from groups like Mercyful Fate. The music was often comprised of higher-pitched guitar tones with a lot of distortion, double-bass or blastbeat drums, and high-pitched shrieking vocals. The production is often very low quality. Norwegian black metal can be oftentimes very fast and complex as in groups like Immortal, or slower with one basic riff idea repeated ad nauseum, such as Darkthrone. Some bands evolved a more melodic approach with the influence of classical music such as Emperor and Ancient.

Norwegian black metal emphasizes the dark and cold atmosphere of its compositions. It arose mostly in opposition to death metal. As Euronymous once stated, death metal was not "cool" in Oslo, Norway. It can therefore be easily distinguished from that other form of extreme metal. When dissecting the riffs, it is often true that they are traditional metal or thrash metal riffs, either played very fast or slowed way down. Some punk and post-punk influence is also apparent in the early groups.

The lyrics of Norwegian black metal often touch on Satanism, Anti-Christianity or occult topics. However there is also some amount of fantasy-inspired lyrics. Immortal created an entire fantasy world that is explored in their music. Mythology is also often present and the darker aspects of the human experience. Enslaved started presenting lyrics about Vikings and became one of the leaders in the development of viking metal.

Norwegian black metal was one of the first scenes in the black metal genre I explored deeply. For obvious reasons, it is the most well-known scene and most people who know anything about black metal can rattle off the names of some of these bands. The bands have evolved into often considerably different forms from the time when the scene was at its peak. Mayhem has been exploring extremely chaotic song structures, Darkthrone has returned to the roots of metal, Emperor vocalist Ihsahn has formed a self-titled band in which he experiments with progressive rock, Enslaved has evolved into the black metal equivalent of Opeth, and Satyricon has been experimenting with simple rock structures to form what has been called black 'n roll. Only Immortal is still playing anything close to what they played in the early 1990's but even they have slowed down considerably.

If I had to pick a single favorite band from the Norwegian black metal scene, it would be Emperor, Immortal would come a close second. Emperor was the most interesting band musically because of the combination of raw black metal with classical music and keyboards. Many of the other bands were fairly simple from a compositional standpoint, but Emperor's music was highly complex.
The first black metal band I ever bought an album from was Dissection. Despite this, it took quite awhile before I really looked into the Swedish black metal scene. Even now, I am still not entirely familiar with many of the early albums by Swedish black metal bands like Naglfar, Nifelheim, and Arckanum. I am able to form an opinion on much of the scene from the same time period based on what I have heard from groups like Dissection, Marduk, Dark Funeral, and Lord Belial.

Black metal essentially started in Sweden. Groups like Venom and Hellhammer from the U.K. and Switzerland respectively, certainly had an influence on the formation of the genre, but Bathory was quite possibly the first real black metal band. They laid the framework for the basic black metal sound. Despite this, the second wave Swedish black metal bands did not sound much like that framework. The second wave Swedish bands were heavily influenced by death metal. Marduk was essentially a death metal-influenced take on black metal. Dissection had heavy melodic death metal touches in their music and eventually, on their final album, became a melodic death metal band. Groups like Naglfar and Lord Belial have evolved more into blackened death metal bands.

Some Swedish black metal bands have been derogatively called "Norsecore" due to the heavy death metal influences in their music. Marduk and Dark Funeral are two of the bands most commonly referred to as such. The term is meant to refer to the Swedish bands taking some of the Norwegian elements and focusing entirely on them and distorting them into a parody of the Norwegian sound. For instance, the lyrics become outlandishly Satanic and the sound becomes extremely heavy and fast. Swedish black metal bands in this style are often focused on brutality and speed with very little melody.

Other bands such as Dissection, Arckanum, and Nifelheim are extremely melodic, using guitar leads and melodies influenced by traditional metal bands and tremolo riffing, and infusing that with the blasting drums to make up the majority of their sound. These bands are much closer in relation to the Stockholm and Gothenburg death metal scenes than they are to the Norwegian black metal scene. Many bands have crossed over into the Swedish death scene. Other Swedish death metal bands have had black metal influences early in their careers, such as Dark Tranquillity and At The Gates.

The Swedish scene is not nearly as well-known as the Norwegian scene. Groups like Marduk and Dissection have had a considerable amount of influence on the further formation of the genre, but are not often spoken of in the same breath as some of the more famous Norwegian bands. Despite this, there was a very large diversity of styles in Sweden and it should not be overlooked.

Picking a favorite Swedish black metal band is much easier than picking a favorite Norwegian black metal band. I am a huge fan of Dissection's first two albums, even placing Storm of the Light's Bane in my top five all-time favorite albums. It's not even really close.
If I had to pick my favorite of these two scenes, I would probably go with Norway. I really enjoy the music of most of the Norwegian bands. Even though Dissection is my favorite black metal band, I am not as interested in Marduk, Dark Funeral, and the like as I am in Immortal, Darkthrone, Mayhem, Satyricon, and other Norwegian bands. Norway's scene has also evolved more. Dark Funeral and Marduk still sound the same, whereas the Norwegian bands have changed their sound markedly.


  1. Interesting. I haven't listened to a whole lot of the old-school black metal. I only recently got into black metal (the last 8 months or so). It's obvious there's just as much diversity in black as in death, but people don't tend to separate black into three (or more) distinct styles like they do with death (i.e. regular, melodic, and technical). I am familiar with a few--I really like Satyricon's more recent output, but couldn't really get into their 90's stuff. I tried listening to Darkthrone, but couldn't get into it. I also really like the progressive and symphonic Norwegian black metallers like Borknagar and Dimmu Borgir.

    At heart, I think I'm more of a death metaller. Death metal is not only more brutal, but it's more real. That is, in the sense that there's an implicit understanding that they're not 100% serious about the lyrics, and there's a slight sense of humor at play. I suppose that sounds paradoxical to say that it's more real because it's less serious. But with the real hardcore 100% serious black metallers I think they're either (a) lying to themselves or (b) completely out of touch with reality.

    As a result, I tend to get into the more death-influenced stuff a lot easier. Which is not to say I don't like some of the crazy Norwegian stuff--I just haven't listened to much of it yet. I've been trying to keep a good balance between keeping up on the current music and learning the old, and I was just about to listen to some old Marduk. För Sverige i tiden.

  2. I'm more of a thrash metal fan myself. I do have a strong appreciation for the other metal genres though. Black metal is a genre I never saw myself getting into early on, but I did anyway. Power metal was actually the last genre I really got into. Not sure why.