No Distortion: The Role of Acoustic Guitars in the Evolution of Black Metal

With cold, treble-tipped tremolo riffs, agonized rasps and Satanic imagery, black metal might seem like the farthest thing from acoustic folk. But despite their distance, acoustic guitar has slowly crept

8 years ago

With cold, treble-tipped tremolo riffs, agonized rasps and Satanic imagery, black metal might seem like the farthest thing from acoustic folk. But despite their distance, acoustic guitar has slowly crept into black metal since its unholy birth, even with the strict cultural norms that once governed the sound and image of black metal. Interestingly, the use and purpose of acoustic guitars in black metal is not random, but traces patterns across the evolution of black metal, from Bathory to Panopticon.

Acoustic guitars are a barometer of black metal’s progression, tracing its rise from grim home recordings to polished post-black vinyl. In the beginning, there was Bathory. Everything about their self-titled debut – the guitar distorted to a mangle, Quorthon’s seething rasps, the frenetic pace – either pushed the boundaries of what metal could sound like in 1984 or simply steamrolled right past it. With the subsequent releases of The Return… and Under the Sign of the Black Mark, Bathory solidified what was becoming the first wave of black metal’s standard sound. To this point, Bathory shunned acoustic guitars in favor of the unmatched brutality of distorted electrics. But with the release of the seminal Blood Fire Death, acoustic guitars made their black metal debut to a resounding success. It’s no coincidence that acoustic guitars were used on the most complex (and frankly, the best) songs on the album. The opener, “A Fine Day to Die,” is a Bathory classic and a black metal paradigm, having been covered by Emperor and endlessly emulated since.

Foreboding strings frame the opening of “A Fine Day to Die” amid the sounds of war preparation. Even once the battle has begun, the acoustic notes are not forgotten; they make another appearance in the lull before the final charge of Quorthon’s epic solo. With the song’s conclusion, Bathory had laid down their most ambitious and innovative track since they began recording their hellish noise in 1983. The title track “Blood Fire Death” also challenges the established black metal formula, making its mark as the longest Bathory song to date (and probably in black metal as well, to that point). The song discards much of their trademark speed, instead mercilessly plowing through several movements in ten bludgeoning minutes. And – surprise! – “Blood Fire Death” brandishes an acoustic opening, outro and middle relief section. The only two songs on Blood Fire Death that display acoustic guitars are also the only songs that differ markedly from the Bathory formula, and were the most groundbreaking. Their following album, Hammerheart, serves to drive the point home further as Bathory continued to move away from their breakneck roots. Songs like “Shores in Flames” and especially the sterling “One Rode to Asa Bay” feature extensive acoustic sections, and served to move Bathory firmly into an unoccupied musical space eventually dubbed “Viking metal.” It’s important to reiterate that acoustic guitars were not the drivers of this progression, but rather an easily tracked symptom. The differences in song structure, vocal techniques and atmosphere that fueled Bathory’s evolution are enough to fill another article entirely.

The purveyors of the second wave of black metal were significantly more reluctant to embrace change and progression within their insular, elitist circles – and thus, the acoustic guitar remained woefully neglected for much of it’s beginning beyond a few scattered guest appearances. But as all things must perish with time, so too did the inner circle governing what black metal was allowed to sound like in the early nineties. As the scene fractured and expanded into new territories, black metal inevitably began to progress and evolve – and so followed its acoustic tendencies. The lauded Swedish band Dissection pioneered a melodic black style that welcomed saccharine dual guitar harmonies. In both The Somberlain and Storm of the Light’s Bane, acoustic guitars dip in and out of the band’s innovative melodic black metal. Back in Norway, Ulver sallied forth with experiments of their own, crafting Bergtatt – Et Eeventyr i 5 Capitler, an album that sought to merge slow, meditative black metal riffing with somber folk. Unsurprisingly, the folk/black mix offers lots of acoustic guitar. In fact, their next album, Kveldssanger, is 100% acoustic. Like a sonic platypus, they evolved themselves with one giant leap out of the gene pool into another genre entirely. Meanwhile, their Norwegian brethren Borknagar took Bathory’s torch and ran, lighting a new path for Viking metal with their self-titled release, The Olden Domain, and, of course, their plain Jane acoustic guitars. Even Lord Belial, who had much less to do with forging a new subgenre than any of the aforementioned bands, were creating more complex and well-composed music within the traditional guidelines of the second wave than ever before (more on that here). And, lo and behold, this (overlooked!) masterpiece boasts integral acoustic breaks in the opening and closing tracks, as well as the fully acoustic piece “Forlorn in Silence.” The point being: the use of acoustic guitars are not a coincidence. In every case, progression from the established formula brought with it a heavy dose of acoustic guitars, regardless of genre.

Even with the conclusion of the second wave, the heuristic still appears to hold true. Take Agalloch, for example. Undoubtedly the most influential black metal band of the new millennium, they practically single-handedly invented the post-black metal genre which now infests the metal landscape. Acoustic guitars are a mainstay of post-black and are critical to Agalloch’s sound in particular. By themselves, the acoustics aren’t revolutionary – but imagine “In the Shadow of our Pale Companion” without them. It’s the glacially restrained sorrow, complex songwriting, guitar effects and varied instrumentation that makes The Mantle timeless. But still, the acoustics find themselves inseparably paired with progression.

Panopticon takes the final discernible step forward in the evolution of black metal as the genre reaches its creative limits – at some point, it just isn’t black metal anymore. Some might argue that Panopticon’s “blackgrass” style is niche and gimmicky, but it’s interesting and well-executed enough to merit acknowledgement. Although the Appalachian-dwelling Austin Lunn had been circling towards this mutation for some time – especially with the otherworldly ten-minute banjo solo on “Speaking (Collapsed version)” – Panopticon finally realized their blackgrass potential in Kentucky. Folk tunes and banjo ditties interweave with surprising ease among brutal black metal tracks, forming one of the most unique records of the decade. Subtly mixed in with all this is another kind of revolution – a cultural one: frontman Austin Lunn implanted an anti-corporate, pro-union and pro-environmentalism ideology into the album, along with a promise to transfer a portion of the proceeds to a local environmentalist organization. How far we’ve come from the blind aggression and arson-happy delinquency of the second wave!

So then: acoustic guitars have been actors in – and borne witness to – every single major step forward in black metal’s history. But the question remains: Why?

One possible explanation is that the acoustic guitar offers a level of interiority that the icy blaze of tremolo riffs cannot hope to approach. The longevity and popularity of black metal is a testament to its effectiveness in conveying aggression, bleakness and sorrow. But for all its versatility, black metal does not lend itself naturally to a full range of emotion. Acoustic guitars, then, help to fill this need. They close the gap between artist and audience. Lyrics are much easier to make out in acoustic passages, allowing them to become part of the art rather than an indiscernible superfluity. Put simply: acoustics offer you a seat by the campfire. Black metal would rather you just fuck off.

Taking another look at Bathory through this lens, it becomes clearer why acoustics were used. In the early days, their lyrics were fairly standard metal fare, ranging from war to women to Satan. But by the release of “One Rode to Asa Bay,” Quorthon had shed his transgressive, obscene lyrics in favor of epic poetry. The acoustic intro foreshadows the song’s emotional depth as Quorthon laments the violent arrival of Christianity in Scandinavia that destroyed Quorthon’s ancestral religion and erased his native culture. He even drops his rasping vocal style in order to make sure his dirge is heard. In this way, acoustics are a tool used to package and accentuate an emotionally powerful song.

Dovetailing with the artistic desire to connect more viscerally with an audience is the phenomenon of whispering over acoustic passages in black metal. In light of this artistic desire, this seemingly odd quirk of whispering over the warm strum of a guitar makes sense. It gives the listener the distinct feeling that they are being told a secret, forcing them to strain for and consider the speaker’s words. Panopticon’s aforementioned “Speaking (Collapsed Version)” offers a great example of this peculiarity. Dour banjos have their heartstrings plucked out, trading tales of woe in the Appalachian mountainsides. At 5:35, a breathy whisper hovers above the ballad. The words are hard to make out, but a curious listener will hear a bleak condemnation of mankind’s ecologically destructive and irresponsible waste. But just as the whispers fade away, the song takes a dramatic tonal shift. After the hopelessness of the first several minutes, the banjos seem to pause for a moment of thought at 7:44. They rejoin the fray with an upward lilting and hopeful twang, culminating into a decisive crescendo at 8:35. Taken with the whispered message, the optimistic riffs are a call to arms, saying all is not lost in the fight against environmental destruction. Through this combination of acoustics and whispering, Panopticon is able to impart nuanced, subtle meaning into their compositions. Lord Belial uses the same method on “Forlorn in Silence”; Dissection on the alternative mix of “Feather’s Fell”; and Empyrium uses it on “The Ensemble of Silence.” In each case, the whispers spread over the lull of acoustics allow for more interiority from the artist. It’s in these vulnerable, quiet moments that the softer side of black metal is revealed. But of course, this is still black metal. Bestial riffs and cavernous blast beats are always close by, chomping at the bit.

And perhaps that’s the simplest answer. When the cascade of black metal drowns out the meek acoustics, its power is intensified and made more poignant by the sharp musical contrast. There are countless examples of this “Beauty and the Beast” duality throughout the metal spectrum. (Orchestral elements are also often used to provide contrast for this purpose.)

Whatever their purpose, acoustic guitars occupy a fascinatingly conflicted space in black metal. They are at once outside of the black metal paradigm and inseparably a part of it. Through the passion of its artists and the variety of its genres, black metal offers a breathtaking display of emotional versatility. But in every subgenre, acoustics have been at the forefront of progression, used as tools to connect with audiences in new and increasingly effective ways. May it never again be said that acoustic guitars aren’t totally fvcking kvlt.

Andrew Hatch

Published 8 years ago