It’s a question to which I have no conclusive answer. What makes it more perplexing is that the other branches of metal, namely traditional heavy metal and death metal, face no such indecisiveness. Traditional heavy metal revolves around the song and as such hearkens to a popular tradition going back to civilization’s infancy. Its strong points are emotion, melody, and memorability, and despite the style having little new to offer in the present day, those three ideals are eternal within the framework in which human beings operate. It feels safe to me then to say that traditional heavy metal will never really go out of fashion among people who appreciate simplicity in song-based story-telling forms.
Death metal, on the other hand, seems more fit to be treated with a structural and intellectual scalpel. Which is not to say that emotion has no role to play in it. Far from it; violent intensity is a predicate for death metal to fire on all cylinders, and large chunks of the sub-genre have not been without a certain forlorn, even romantic, sense of epicness. But these two attributes are not the style’s reason-to-be; they are implicit and subdued, respectively, but death metal, more than any other form of metal, actuates the logical faculty. The succor to be drawn here is found initially in the interstices of the song, and then, over waves of gradual ascension, from a high enough plateau revealing the thought invested in the complete composition.
I’ve never had trouble arriving at a fair evaluation of these two strains of metal. I trust my instinct and my experience with them, and these have rarely let me down, at least not over the last ten years. But I can present no such confidence when it comes to black metal. Certainly, it isn’t difficult to sing laurels of the old classics, nor is it especially hard to pull down new bands for their glaring deficiencies. But it leaves me at an impasse: just what is it that I want from black metal?
Can it be treated solely by the parameters used to evaluate traditional heavy metal and death metal? At various times, it seems that black metal vacillates between the conventional, melodic sensibilities of traditional heavy metal, and the intensity of death metal, but there is a third, “transcendent”, for lack of a better word, element in black metal which escapes all definition altogether. Saying something glib like “you will know it when you hear it” doesn’t cut it either; at this stage of my listening experience, I find myself at a total loss as to what constitutes great black metal. I occasionally empathize with an honest band’s intentions, but there is no small patronizing inherent in such a stance. Part of this indecision is due to the wide variety found in what is generally acknowledged as the black metal canon; the artists issuing those formative works of the style went far outside the peripheries of heavy metal proper, much more so than those who made death metal, regularly pulling in influences from Western classical, folk, ambient, and even industrial/electronica, yet – it must be stressed – reining in those outside influences just enough to still qualify indisputedly as a rich, new part of the greater heavy metal tradition.
Perhaps there is something to that oft-quoted sentiment of black metal being dead since 1994. Perhaps black metal was the product of a singular cultural zeitgeist, where disenchantment with existing normative genre constructs colluded with at least a vaguely articulated awakening and recognition of one’s traditional lineages. How does one capture lightning in a bottle again? I very much doubt whether such a thing is possible; in fact, I can’t honestly confess to knowing how it was done the first time around. I do know for a fact that it was done, however it was done; I also know that bands tirelessly keep trying to do so over and over again, but what is it really that they strive at? And do they deserve to be called black metal in spite all of their surface pretensions?