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A Fly Over the Fringes: Depressive Suicidal Black Metal, Past, Present, and Beyond

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While gateway bands into certain scenes are ubiquitous, few serve as the portal into some of the darkest arenas in metal. In step with the piecemeal way through which music fans accrue new favorites in the Internet age, it was through the happenstance of clicks that I found Xasthur’s 12-minute epic “Prison of Mirrors” pulsing away grainily to the backdrop of a cloaked man lumbering in front of a noose. It had seemed as though I had uncovered the audible torture of the mind — a realm I knew all too well but had never seen so eloquently articulated in the walls of crunchy guitars and operatic overtones. I was trapped in the same prisons. Glued to the reflections staring me down like a jury made up of only myself, I wallowed in my victimhood of passivity and dissociation. By the rain-beat window on the library’s dirty Mac, after a relationship of three years had unceremoniously slipped away leaving me alone on my 20th birthday, I had, at last, uncovered company.

Almost four years have passed since then, but recently I found myself in another bout of endless rain, accompanied only by the encapsulated voices of those suffering in bedrooms far and near. Finally getting up around 5:00 p.m., waning daylight had become my sunrise. The cool condensation against the glass of my living room window became the only sensation worth detecting. Reaching through the crack in the blinds, I drew a frowning face in the dew. The rug under my bare feet had been ripped out from under me, tossing me into the pits of hell in the process. Despite my better efforts, I hadn’t died. I was still painfully awake, waking up with no rhyme or reason other than to exist inside the vacuum of four walls.

“Too boring, too ugly, too weak, too weird…”

While consuming the words of Shade of Mind by Czech Republic’s Entering, all of the thoughts and feelings that I had been struggling to pin down prodded a foreign feeling inside of me — life, or at least a semblance of it. It was during my afternoon of tossing and turning that I opened my eyes long enough to take notice of the band playing from my phone, which was burning up from all-day autoplay. Emitting its own form of body heat, my only friend put in a good word for the blackgaze outfit who interjected samples from 911 calls stemming from suicides. While Entering asserted a more abstract vision of unrelenting angst than the school of Xasthur, the degree of pain rang through all the same.

While everyone may have their own choice bands, personal stories of depression, and unique ways of coping with it all, there is a core of black metal fans who converge at a common point — the umbrella of depressive suicidal black metal (otherwise known as “DSBM”). It is a name that cuts as sharp as the razorblades historically depicted in its visuals. It is a space within black metal marked by anguished vocals, atmospheric dirges, and imagery of self-destruction bleeding out. It is a meditation on the fragility of hope set to a dimly lit cityscape. It is a scene that’s only more recently thought to be on through the unity of the Internet, thus retaining much of its original earnestness. DSBM is many things to many people, but its diversity not only makes it what it is, but it speaks to the wide range of human emotions and the ways through which they are projected through outsider art.

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Past journalistic discussion of black metal has operated under the paradigm that the darkest corners of the mind’s peripheries can only be achieved by chasing a fantasy. The result? One specific schema has taken form, marked by men in a Nordic wood, resentful of their childhood trauma and globalization encroaching on their homeland. Lingering hate is channeled into howling into the Northern winds as their entities and guises act as escape artists to a distant age. But that narrative is hardly the singular black metal experience.

For artists and fans within the realm of DSBM — the fringes of an already fringe scene — horror is found in what immediately surrounds them. It is the status quo. It cannot be escaped through -isms and ideology, only through an emotive purge onto the canvas. A walk through the many musical interpretations of DSBM reflects the way its practitioners have grown the seed of a concept. From de-thrashing traditional black metal efforts to varying degrees, to the tidying and tightening of production, to riffs tirelessly climbing the stairs to a glimmer of light, the art we are left holding proves just as remarkable as the power of human emotion itself.

Perhaps due to the reality that the shriekiest wheels often get the grease, this journey is one on which media outlets rarely embark. Yet, in these contentious times surrounding the musical integrity of post-metal, the problematic philosophies of choice figures, and the death-wish memes and dead-body vlogs of double-edged Internet culture, there is no time like 2018 to pass the mic to a different breed of black metal artists: the many faces of DSBM.

Members of Xasthur, Psychonaut 4, and Hypothermia/Lifelover
Members of Xasthur, Psychonaut 4, and Hypothermia/Lifelover

Once upon a time in Norway, a new course within black metal was being carved out that managed to evade the spotlight of sensationalized headlines. Without a doubt, well-known figures like Per “Dead” Ohlin of Mayhem also succumbed to inner anguish via suicide and self-harm. Yet it was quieter pillars of the second wave who laid the groundwork for what would become known as DSBM. If black metal began as a conscious response to the commercialization of traditional metal, then DSBM grew semi-consciously alongside this inflamed dissension. For individuals who mourned the commercial corruption differently than their church burning, knife-wielding colleagues, black metal was a space where they could channel resentment and hate inwards.

While there are thousands of talented black metal artists across all thematic creeds, there is perhaps no other artist who can illustrate this era of DSBM more effectively than Strid. Emerging in the Norwegian scene in the early 1990s, Strid’s 1993 contribution End of Life is still regarded as one of the pioneering records from which modern day depressive artists draw significant influence. While differences between Strid and, say, Mayhem may seem marginal to the layman, further investigation yields significant distinctions.

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Through the shroud of lo-fi instrumentals, there is a projected atmosphere that teeters on the brink of devastation. Symphonic operatic singing rings almost as loud as vocalist Espen “Storm” Andersen himself, shouting in the direction of a hairline fracture in gloomy clouds. For the first time, it felt as if black metal, through a more delicate and deliberate pace, was immersed in darkness but trying to detect something bright through its gouged-out eyes. Despite its more emotionally mindful intent, the battle of inner demons proved to be just as ripe with integrity as concurrent happenings in the underground.

Strid guitarist Edvard “Ravn Harjar” Rødseth may live an exceedingly different pace of life in 2018 by raising his two boys and enjoying quiet time in his snow-covered cabin. Yet, the spirit of Strid is breathing on as the troop experiments with new music. Still, Rødseth expresses nostalgia for the early years.

“Believe me, everything was better in the early days,” his insistence bleeds through our correspondence.

He recalled Strid’s wish to dissent from anything formulaic.

“There was no acting in those days. Black metal or the perception of what was black metal at the time was much the same; quite extreme and without any artistic freedom outside the written rules of what is/was black metal.”

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Ironically, black metal in all of its forms seems to have fallen into some trap against which it had initially rebelled — commercialization and confines. Still, the extremity of which Rødseth speaks, through Strid’s conscious efforts, didn’t take place in a singular form. Contrary to the likes of Darkthrone and Bathory, depressive black metal exuded a more subconscious form of rebellion than, as Leviathan would put it, “howling mockery at the cross.”

“At the time we wanted to isolate from society and the modern world, and we felt a lot of anger and hate towards what might be said to be an invisible enemy. It was not just Christianity, which, within the scene was the obvious nemesis, but everything that had contributed to bring our existence to the present situation with decay in more or less every aspect of the world and culture,” Rødseth says.

There is perhaps no greater horror than the one that does not need to be actively sought out: isolation, non-belonging, routine. The musical consequence of such a thematic approach was organically interpreted by Rødseth.

“Instead of expressing these emotions through aggressive and fast black metal, we aimed for expressing the sorrow we felt when reflecting upon and observing the decay around us.”

Moderately paced, atmospheric, and scrubbed of the guile of perfection, a stylistic approach was developed to match the experience of the common day spent under low cloud cover.

The lack of an enemy rooted in an “-ism” makes for less of an agenda to be pushed and more of a visceral vision to be manifested. Much like the formation of other metal subgenres such as sludge, DSBM came about when artists set out to construct the music that they wanted to hear, operating under a sole rule of it resonating personally. Such freedom is essentially what has allowed DSBM to take on countless forms in countless countries. Strid’s musical statement paved out a path that allowed the next generation to take on their own, tacking on further chapters to the story of depression through depressive black metal.

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DSBM gained traction with the development of its signature wail-style vocals, which remain highly polarizing despite them being much more reminiscent of a human-rooted haunt rather than something demonic. The top-of-the-lung technique can be traced back to Germany’s Bethlehem in the mid-1990s. Dictius te Necare features a more unhinged interpretation of black metal’s high-pitched growls. Depressive mainstay Silencer went on to disseminate the worship of this style, ultimately abandoning any lower breaks for a solid dedication to sobbing’s aching crescendo. While black metal vocals have largely focused on the upper quadrant of the throat, contributions such as those heard on Darkthrone’s A Blaze in the Northern Sky require control and mindfulness in order to not break the character of the proposed evil entity. DSBM, on the other hand, requires a process of untethered extraction from within, as portrayed by a now viral video of Hypothermia’s Kim Carlson in the studio. Hated or loved, the voice of DSBM helped carved out an untapped point of view, ultimately earning enough notoriety to spark suspicion of parody by duo I’m in a Coffin.

Despite its utilization of the infamous imagery of sensationalized black metal, Burzum’s Aske has also been credited for throwing another ingredient into the vocalistic pot. Through the album’s journey, there is a tendency to teeter on an unadulterated crow-like scream instead of a typical satanic growl. Further, Burzum introduced atmospherics and more mid-level speed, carving out a path that ultimately proved as enduring as thrash-fused Mayhem. Burzum’s well-known Filosofem, through the grit of rough rhythm guitar, holds onto something pretty. The delicate hypnosis of the keyboard melody in “Dunkelheit” conjures unrelenting melancholy mimicked in the surprising beauty of grey-misted forests, sparking a legacy within depressive black metal that, for better or for worse, cannot be denied.

While Burzum mastermind Varg Vikernes continues to tear through the blog circuit espousing his troubling beliefs, modern depressive and atmospheric black metal artists tend to stray from the ideology of choice black metal forefathers. When an artform is nihilist at worst and humanist at best, it becomes a challenge to attach too many more -isms on top of it. Instead, appeals to external natural realms are not asserting a need to regain the alleged purity of Europe, but rather, to mourn a strained relationship between soul and society. An enemy takes form not in one people or race, but mainly, the self (and perhaps the occasional neurotypical). And so, as the years have passed, the knife was struck inward and slowly turned.

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When it comes to understanding DSBM’s evolutionary makeup, it is also important to consider the roles of natural introversion and chemical imbalances in the fringe-genre’s spectrum of existence. It is the outside world that is acting as an inhospitable host for these mental characteristics. Without the socially-constructed label of abnormality, perhaps the soul sick wouldn’t be so inclined to stay shuttered inside – literally and metaphorically. The consequence is a need for another vessel in which upset can reside. For the likes of hallmark mid-era artists such as Striborg, ColdWorld, and Yhdarl, this vessel became DSBM.

“DSBM felt like salvation for me,” explains Russell “Sin Nanna” Menzies of Striborg.
Menzies, who you may remember from his cameo in Noisey’s One Man Metal documentary alongside depressive legends Xasthur and Leviathan, has become one of the figures amenable to lending a guiding hand. Responding to my inquiries in just a matter of hours, it was as if speaking candidly about the personal inner-workings of his heart was just a matter of cutting out a piece of tissue and placing it under a microscope.

“[It was] an artform which suggested that it was okay to talk deeply and openly about your feelings, and, therefore, accepted,” Menzies recalls.

This artform according to Striborg has taken on meditative, almost psychedelic undertones. Much like traditional black metal units, Menzies has found inspiration in nature’s solitude, yet he seemingly basks in isolation for personal soul-searching more so than fulfilling a grandiose destiny in the natural order. While it is difficult to put an overarching description on Striborg’s complete discography, many of Menzies’ records converge at hypnosis. Gnarly rhythm guitar beat relentlessly along as various beast-like effects chime through. Menzies went on to link DSBM’s cathartic potential to his musical approach.

“The vocal style exudes pain and torment rather than sounding like a possessed demon in more traditional black metal. The music in DSBM is even more monotonous and epic as well as atmospheric. [It’s] not so hateful to others but to oneself and being.”

Striborg's Russell "Sin Nanna" Menzies
Striborg’s Russell “Sin Nanna” Menzies

Fellow one-manner Georg “G.B.” Börner of ColdWorld whole-heartily echoed this sentiment when asked about what goals his project had set out to achieve.

“I started ColdWorld because I had to. I was in need of expressing myself that way… I have to do it. I will do it until I’m burned out.”

With this response in mind, it becomes nearly impossible to frame DSBM as the conscious rebellion that traditional black metal has always been made out be. While originators like Strid remained mindful of expanding the rules of black metal, artists like ColdWorld, who helped define 2000s DSBM, have taken the blank canvass and run with it as far as their minds have let them. This organicism resulted in ColdWorld’s sound to possess the same kind of climb reminiscent of viking, folk, and power metal. Yet, Börner’s epics hardly come off as cheesy — his personal highs and lows run deep in his albums’ lore.

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Inaugural EP The Stars Are Dead Now begins more tenderly than the work of Börner’s black metal forefathers, muddling 1990s-style symphonics until they become indistinguishable from depression’s malaise. Traditional tremolo tones are stretched to fit the unbending eternity of synth, which howls as drums beat like a heart released from the grips of a panic attack. While 2017’s Wolves and Sheep dabbles into the punk pursuits of the second wave, the album builds the atmosphere of a place that’s never existed but one for which we long. The melancholic instrumental breaks manage to hatch a profound beauty from extreme sadness. Orchestral fade-outs serve as the theatrical soundtrack to lives defined by severe sorrow. Teardrops on canvass, ColdWorld makes pain feel as though it does not exist in vein.

The fascinating career of Olmo “Déhá” Lipani, perhaps best known for fellow mid-era groundbreaker Yhdarl, but also Clouds, Nadddir, and countless other projects, also personifies a visceral need for a blank page to deposit his emotions. With feats like an interpretation of “Ave Maria” under his belt, Lipani’s purges have created a museum of warped works unearthed from what feels like a cavernous tomb. While orchestrating layers of tortured screams seems like a task that would come with a great emotional toll, for the multifaceted musician, it is the role of a lifetime. In another conversation I had with Déhá on behalf of Nadddir, he warns of the dangers of failing to fill the void with something, anything.

“I am a musician and I am a music lover. What I do with my music is expose a drawer containing different ‘me’s inside. It enables me to better cope with the problems that I have, like social anxiety, constant depression, and a coma that I had years ago. People just need to get catharsis — drawing, theatre, sports, fitness, writing.”

Lipani’s story of struggle has only expanded as he has come to grace us with metal’s interpretation of another emotionally naked musical venture — depressive hip-hop. As we continue to move forth into the post-black metal age, compartments just keep getting added to the cathartic vessel.

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Black metal has hit new forms of derisiveness in its most modern era — yes, in terms of grenade-like instances of white supremacy, but also in terms of sheer musical style. While preconceived notions surrounding artists like Deafheaven dominate the portrait of post-black metal, lesser-publicized post-black metal artists can trace their roots to the origins of DSBM. Hailing from such a tradition may seem ironic being that the hopeful, brighter tones of post-metal seemingly conflict with the bleak themes of DSBM. But, when considered more critically, the timeline is more smoothly linear than it may initially seem.

First and foremost, the DIY roots of DSBM have translated fairly seamlessly into the era of the Internet. Many post-black metal artists have kept up with the tradition of recording in bedrooms, basements, and bathrooms, but production has improved as at-home technological options have followed suit. Pushing mixtapes via Soundcloud and Bandcamp rather than the corners of local venues may seem like an easier feat, but with increased competition in mind, the strenuousness of the fight remains relative. The love of the art remains central to grind-time motivation.

DSBM’s tottering into the mainstream (or as mainstream as something possessing the tags of depression and suicide can be) is also perhaps due to an increase in stylistic accessibility. Since younger artists grew up closely with emo and post-hardcore as much as they did black metal, there is a fairly major shift in the brightness of tone and level of grit — as the former increased, the latter ran in the opposite direction. Of course, perhaps some of the “millennial draw” also stems from the morbid curiosity and personal relatability reflected in dark meme culture. The visceral punch of nooses and razorblades is lessened to a degree in which self-harm can be properly understood. While matters are still intriguing, there is enough desensitization at work to avoid drowning in Marilyn Manson-esque edgelord glory of the 1990s. The razorblade also proves more apolitical than, say, the White Supremacist-tainted Thor’s hammer.

While depressive black metal will always have its place in the peripheries – from cassette tapes to Bandcamp to both — major breakthroughs have come, such as post-depressive troop Ghost Bath signing to Nuclear Blast. The North Dakotan five piece conveyed their jazzily bleak epics in their first full-length Funeral, but eventually shifted to a more astral-fused blackgaze approach while retaining the utmost extreme style of wail. Releases Moonlover and Starmourner were subjected to criticism by old heads casting accusations of black metal corruption, as well as newbies finding too many similarities with trailblazer Deafheaven. But a silent majority proved there for it as Ghost Bath earned spots on bills with Abigail Williams and Thy Art is Murder. This success has facilitated evolution in the depressive black metal sound and narrative.

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“I felt that even though the genre had been around for a while before I even heard of DSBM, I felt immediately that I could bring something new to the table,” says Ghost Bath frontman Dennis “Nameless” Mikula. “I wanted all of the sorrow and atmosphere that I had heard but with my own personal take on melody and hope.”

Even with Strid’s consideration of the dichotomy of light and dark, one would still think that hope would be a blasphemous word coming from DSBM. Yet, the notion of a fragile light in the distance remains a common beacon bleeding through post-depressive artists’ sound. Ghost Bath colleague Unreqvited expresses how his musical outlet has been his salvation, which has ultimately affected the one-man project’s interpretation of depressive music. While Unreqvited retains the gripping heaviness of old school DSBM, riffs and piano strokes crawl up the mountain to reach the peak of a brighter tomorrow.

“The music is depressive, sure,” says Billy “Ghost” Melsness. “But for me, and for many others, it acts as catharsis. I know I am not alone to say that depression and anxiety plague me day in and day out, and it can be easy to become overcome by these feelings. I just wanted to create a sound that portrayed these feelings of mine, but have the listener feel like there’s still hope.”

Unreqvited’s Billy Melsness and his 2016 release "Disquiet".
Unreqvited’s Billy Melsness and his 2016 release “Disquiet”.

Operating within the tradition of depressive black metal, post-depressive black metal artists confide in art. But they also transcend any chances of a nihilist takeaway through a cautious “it gets better” message that rings through the its openness towards stylistic elements historically considered blasphemous in metal. Vibrant riffs climb in the direction of light rather than traditional black and doom metal’s tendency to pull the listener decisively downward (or, to just make as much racket as humanly possible). Eventually giving way to piano, orchestral, or acoustic outros, post-black metal leaves us nostalgic on the most precious elements of life, like napping on a rainy day or walking through a quiet snowfall.

A Light in the Dark’s B.M. has even gone as far to etch hope into his band’s agenda. The musician described how this goal relates to his writing process.

“All of the songs were written when I was feeling happy. 2012 and around were hard times for me, so that was rare. I set the goal to write uplifting music within this project for listening to it when I feel down again.”

The resulting sound is one that moves a bit faster than the rest, as tremolo is concocted in major – that is until the parachute is deployed, leaving the listener floating in a break comprised of a single outstretched note. Encapsulating happier times like a message in a bottle, B.M. wishes to build a lighthouse that can be utilized if he, again, finds himself adrift at sea. The survival tactic not only benefits himself, but his listeners.

Post-depressive black metal’s hope comes from the heart, but also some of its new-aged influences. While Ghost Bath, Unreqvited, and A Light in the Dark express roots in the likes of Strid, Silencer, and Lifelover, post-hardcore and alternative remain soft spots as strict genre-adherence splinters across the board in music. Again, the result is a venture in brighter, cleaner, and punchier production.

As preemptive self-defense for those who find blasphemy in post-black metal, it is important to note that the likes of Deafheaven are not the only faces of modern black metal. As asserted thus far, black metal can hardly ever be defined in such singular terms. Menzies, for example, has taken the atmospheric roots of Striborg and woven them into his own subgenre called blackwave. Lipani, who has stayed close to the roots of ambient/atmospheric DSBM, satisfies his thirst for experimentation through his depressive rap side project Nadddir. Let’s take away a lesson of acceptance from this most unlikely cloud rap fan.

While the array of art that DSBM has produced is admirably vast, it cannot be forgotten that hard music and hard topics produce hard questions. What responsibility do creators have for their consumers? It’s a question for which Melsness has braced himself since he first embarked on the project.

“You can step away if gets too intense,” the musician explains. “While DSBM is getting bigger, it’s still more of a side of metal that you have to seek out, and if you do, chances are you are looking for something to help resonate for therapeutic/cathartic measures.”

Ghost Bath’s Nameless also explains that he has fans write to him to tell him that Ghost Bath keeps them from harming themselves, and B.M. professes that the refuge of depressive music has left him self-harm free.

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There is an unlikely message of hope in depressive suicidal black metal: either explicit, like the integration of brighter sounds in post-black metal, or implicit, like how earlier acts have managed to persist, using their dark days to keep making new art. The result is a whole museum of art that is unified by darkness, but aware of the light that lurks just around the corner.

I wish I could go back and tell the woman envisioning herself hanging from the tree outside her front window that the branches eventually rise again, lifting with them the low hanging fruit of total self-hatred. But, I can’t, and for that, I feel extremely fortunate that I had DSBM to tell me that there was a place to put these difficult feelings. As the house at the end of the street secretly gives refuge to a home studio and a heavy heart, an underworld is carved out – not one for igniting the spirit of the dark lord, but rather, dominos of fellowship and understanding.

Of course, this survey is just a scratch of the surface. Being that the product of catharsis varies, an entire Lords of Chaos-style book could probably be written on just DSBM alone. In this case, even a glimpse into this realm brings a new chapter to black metal history reports. While the shriekiest wheels are no doubt fascinating to address, those who wailed have proven themselves to be just as full of wonder.

— Jenna DePasquale

Suicide is preventable. Remember, there’s always someone who will listen. You can contact the national suicide prevention lifeline here.

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