By choosing to read this article, you've told me that you are either a) interested in black metal, or b) a fan already. Either way, hopefully you'll learn something. And it is in the spirit of learning that I've decided to set it up in a Q and A format. (I saw this done on another guide - I believe it was one to goth music - and it worked really well.) So without further adue, let's begin.
How did black metal begin?
Much like metal itself, the beginnings of black metal are often debated. It is, however, a common belief that the first bands to really bring this extreme style of music to life were Hellhammer, Bathory, Celtic Frost, Mercyful Fate, and Venom. (Venom is credited with naming the genre with their release entitled "Black Metal".) The groups played a style of music much different from other big names of the day (notably Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and the rest of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal). They were agressive and unapolegetic, sporting bullet belts, spikes, and black leather, and torturing their instruments and vocal chords to drive home fiersome lyrics about evil, Satanism, and other highly controversial subjects.
So where did it go from there?
The growing popularity of the "first wave" of black metal bands spawned an entirely new generation of evil. Groups like Mayhem, Emperor, and Darkthrone were born, twisting the Satanic vibes of their predecessors (many of whom were only invoking a wicked appearance for shock value to the public) into a lifestyle. These guys bashed Christianity and exalted Lucifer. And they really, truly meant it. They also developed the sound of black metal into what it is today. Shrieking and rasping vocals, dark, heavy guitar riffs, and blast beats (a type of rapid fire snare/bass drumming) became the name of the game.
Just how crazy were these guys?
Pretty crazy. Along with the rise of a strong black metal scene in Norway (where a good portion of the "second wave" bands were coming from) in the early 90s came the inexplicable burning of many Christian churches. Obviously, Satanic cults and black metal rings (the two went hand in hand) were blamed. Taking it to the next level of crazy, Mayhem came along. Their vocalist, Dead, was found by the guitar player, Euronymous, after having comitted suicide with a handgun. But he didn't call the authorities like one would expect. No, he took pictures of the corpse for an upcoming album cover, made a necklace with the skull fragments, and yes, cooked a nice little stew with small peices of brain. But wait. It doesn't end there. The bassist, Varg Vikernes (aka Count Grishnack) settles a dispute with Euronymous (not over his sick treatment of Dead - but over a girl and Euronymous' supposed homosexuality) by stabbing Euronymous in the head. (...He dies.) Vikernes is taken to prison where he continues to record albums for his one-man band, Burzum, and develop his strong neo-nazi beliefs. He escapes, holds a family at gun point, and steals their station wagon. He is later recaptured. On a sidenote, not that it could compare with Mayhem, but Emperor drummer Faust was also arrested for stabbing a homosexual man to death in a local park. Yes, murders, arsons, and Satanism plagued black metal for a good amount of time.
Does all black metal sound the same?
No. In fact, there are two very distinct schools of black metal. There is the traditional, "true Norweigan black metal" sound that is noted most for poor production quality, a very straightforward approach, and a general lack of melody. Then there is the symphonic sound that incorporates many of the elements of traditional black metal (harsh vocals, blast beats, etc) with keyboards, violins, horns, sometimes even entire string sections. The end result is a very distinct combination, fusing the harshness of black metal with the beauty and sophistication of classical, symphonic music.
What is Corpsepaint?
You may have seen black metal musicians painting their faces black and white for a grim, malevolant appearance. This facepaint is known as corpsepaint. It takes its name and appearance from victims of the black plague, whose faces would turn incredibly pale, but retain dark rings around the eyes. It can also be representative of traditional battle paint worn by many warrior tribes and clans, or simply as an upholding of a prevelant black metal tradition.
Where is black metal today?
Black metal is (arguably) stronger than it has ever been. While some would say that they heyday for this genre was with the second wave back in the early to mid 90s, the influence of black metal is greater today than ever. Thousands of traditional-style groups continue to emerge, not only in Norway, but all across Europe - and even America. The symphonic sound is seeing a boom in popularity and widespread acceptance, especially with bands like Dimmu Borgir. Also, a new branch of black metal has been formed, known as dark metal. Dark metal groups, while maintaining a strong black metal influence, combine their music with other genres, most notably gothic and doom metal.
What are your recommendations?
Here's a few bands, seperated by type, that would be worth checking out.
Traditional: Darkthrone, Marduk, Immortal
Symphonic: Anorexia Nervosa, Tvangeste, Emperor
Dark Metal: Throes Of Dawn, Graveworm, Agathodaimon
So then, what is black metal?
Black metal is opposition and extremity. Whether it be opposed to religion, social norms, commonly held beliefs, or simply the public taste for digestable, thoughtless music - it is always against something. Its sound is icy, wicked, and harsh - and to some, quite beautiful. It is both an end and a means- conveying thoughts and opinions that go against the masses, while also satisfying a need for extreme artistic expression. It is dark; it is controversial; it is black metal.