I feel so silly even listing these things off, but apparently many people read Lords of Chaos and have taken every word Michael Moynihan types as perfect historical canon. Though the "Black Circle" was certainly a focal point in the genre's transgressive history, and, murder aside, Øystein "Euronymous" Aarseth's presence as both owner of the Helvete record shop and proprietor of the short-lived Deathlike Silence label certainly made him a fixture, the musical world of black metal in the early 1990s was so much bigger and creative than we have been led to believe.

There are still many who consider Mayhem's 1994 full-length De Mysteriis dom Sathanas to be the first "true" black metal album, so I took it upon myself to find a few definitive staples which pre-date it. It is difficult to make this point without appearing to discredit Mayhem, but it's time to break the stereotype that they made black metal "true." If anything, maybe Mayhem reiterated the genre's conservative nature once more, and so early on.

Of course, these are all brief, word-salad meditations on a very small number of full-length albums out of many which helped sculpt this style's formative years, so be sure to share your pre-1994 second wave favorites in the comments below (yes, we all know Burzum had already released hours' worth of music at this point, as well). Note that first-wave bands like Bathory, Celtic Frost/Hellhammer, Sarcofago, Venom, the Medellín Ultrametal scene, and more are excluded. Citing first-wave black metal in this particular case feels cheap and dismisses musical efforts from the early 1990s.


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    Master's Hammer - "Ritual" (1991)

    (Monitor/Osmose, Czech Republic)

    I don't think many realize just how early Czech weirdos Master's Hammer got their start. In a perfect world, people would bow at their feet. Sure, they are pretty… unconventional, and Tom "Necrocock"'s riff style runs the gamut from goofy and bouncing to pure, chilling evil, but beyond the superficial strangeness, Ritual approaches perfection, and so early on. Subsequent album Jilemnický okultista (1992) would expound upon this strangeness, thrusting Master's Hammer into further outsider isolation (and we all try to forget Šlágry), but Ritual so masterfully balances the band's penchant for both oddity and chilling atmospheres. I once read a review on Encyclopedia Metallum which declared this album "the first Norwegian Black Metal Album," which could be considered more valid than not.

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    Absu - "Barathrum: V.I.T.R.I.O.L." (1993)

    (Gothic/Osmose, United States)

    A time for arguments and contention. The Norwegian scene completely dismissed Absu's first album and called it "death metal," but it seems so reductive now, continually fueling the "yeah man, black metal from the United States sucks!" mentality. Sure, the band's formative years were as a death metal band (Dolmen was actually pretty damn heavy), but Barathrum: V.I.T.R.I.O.L. is so oppressive, so uncompromisingly heavy, that the United States' post-Von black metal heritage had a strong backbone to build atop. The whole album moves with a momentum of self-discovery, shifting from the heavy, death/thrash exposition to mystical, keyboard-driven atmospheres which fuel its conclusion.

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    Darkthrone - "A Blaze in the Northern Sky" (1992)

    (Peaceville Records, Norway)

    Darkthrone! Sure, the story goes that Euronymous showed young hip-hop and turntablism fan Gylve "Fenriz" Nagell black metal, but that was years before Darkthrone actually recorded anything. I guess many still cite that in favor of Mayhem's debut, which is a little strange. Suddenly shifting from a (very talented) death metal band, Darkthrone's first two black metal albums (yes, Under a Funeral Moon followed in 1993!) were incredibly (and unintentionally) progressive vaults of riffs. Though Mayhem's subsequent full-length would feature stricter songwriting and possess calculated momentum, Darkthrone's music was much more compelling. Some refer to Fenriz's songwriting as "riff Scrabble," just placing his pieces side-by-side with reckless disregard, but that adds so much magic and character to Darkthrone's superficial frigidity.

    You can read more about this album here.

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    Sigh - "Scorn Defeat" (1993)

    (Deathlike Silence Productions, Japan)

    Bet you didn't know Euronymous released a Sigh album, huh. Though later material from this band is… not so good, at least in my book, early Sigh was adventurous and challenging in a way which immediately denied what was still a burgeoning style. I can be a broken record sometimes, shouting "Black metal was always weird!" on repeat, but few are aware of the genre's avant-garde lineage. Sigh's music may have grown increasingly strange over the decades to follow, Mirai and Shinchi's performances on Scorn Defeat still present an incredibly bizarre spin on the harsh stomp of early second wave black metal.

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    Fimbulwinter - "Servants of Sorcery" (1994, Recorded in 1992)

    (Hot Records, Norway)

    Another Norwegian band! Fimbulwinter's glorious stomp and desperate, howling voice was simple, but impassioned and frigid. In interviews and written works, Euronymous never acknowledged the young Fimbulwinter, who had already disbanded by the time their 1992 rehearsal was re-released under the name Servants of Sorcery, but the seeds of two members' careers had already grown roots. Featuring the bass work of Hugh James "Skoll" Mingay, who would go on to join Ulver, Ved Buens Ende, and Arcturus, and guitarist Stian "Shagrath" Thoresen, of eventual Dimmu Borgir fame, Fimbulwinter's early, mystical-ish minimalism set a wider stage than their isolation could ever predict. Sometimes I wish Shagrath would bring Hot Records back, if just to reissue this album (and maybe the first Malignant Eternal album so a CD copy wouldn't cost two hundred goddamn dollars).

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