Every decade since the 1970s has had its own metal styles. The 80s had glam, the 90s had grunge and nu metal, the 2000s had metalcore. Most metalheads can list these off like clockwork. But when the question of “what is the defining genre of the 2010s?” comes up, we usually fall short. Some say djent, which exploded in early tweens. But ask metalheads in the past few years and another name is likely to pop up: blackgaze.
What is blackgaze? In short, it’s a black metal meets shoegaze. Behemoth meets Mogwai. My Bloody Valentine meets Gorgoroth. Any longer description and things get complicated. Fortunately, long and complicated is exactly blackgaze’s style. Bizarre, progressive, completely unmarketable and often far too uplifting for hardcore metal taste, the genre seems designed to sulk on music’s outer fringes. But against every sane prediction, it has grown into one of the most interesting musical movements of the last decade.
Let’s start with what’s different. Blackgaze’s biggest innovation is also one of its simplest; it removes most of the aggression. Make no mistake, the works of genre superstars Deafheaven and Myrkur can still strip the paint off walls with their heaviness, but it’s not done in anger. This is less about rampaging and burning as it is about sliding down a wall, consumed in existential dread. It may not sound metal, but as far as defining the feeling of the past half-decade…well, do the math.
Blackgaze’s rise has been sudden, but not without precedent. Ever since Burzum solidified the black metal formula in 1993 with Filsofem, people have been ramping up the atmospheric factor of the music. Neurosis went all in with multiple ten-minute tracks on 1997’s Through Silver in Blood, creating ‘post-metal’, a scene blackgaze was lumped in with for a long time. Bands like Agalloch and Cult of Luna, as well as an oversaturation of Dimmu Borgir-wannabees, helped push blackgaze through the 2000s.
Alcest, a French act from close to nowhere, rose in 2007 with Souvenirs d’une Autre Monde. Featuring one of the finest blends of shoegaze music and black metal yet heard to date, it became blackgaze’s first true classic. Frontman Stéphane “Neige” Paut has become something a scene godfather, featuring on several other landmark albums. In combination with other acts like Wolves In The Throne Room and Les Discrets, the features of the blackgaze sound were becoming clearer. But it took Deafheaven to force the style out of the shadows.
No one could have anticipated Sunbather. The album shattered every available expectation, being voted Best Metal Album of 2013 by Pitchfork, Spin and Rolling Stone. It catapulted Deafheaven to the festival circuit, performing for audiences that had never heard of black metal, let alone blackgaze. Thankfully, it didn’t tone down any of the genre’s rough edges, instead accentuating them on slogs like “Dream House” and “Vertigo.”
Inevitably, as with most successful extreme acts, the accusations of being “hipster metal” came flooding in from purist fans. Ironic, for a genre so self-absorbed with being underground and obscure.
But Deafheaven never seemed to care. Their rise brought on a tide of new projects from all over the world, one that continues to this day. Myrkur quickly became the scene queen, flanked by the more experimental Chelsea Wolfe, Ghost Bath, Oathbreaker and many others. Meanwhile, Zeal and Ardor have already begun expanding on the blackgaze blueprint to include styles like folk and blues. Blackgaze’s naturally progressive nature lends itself to reinterpretation and expansion. We have certainly not seen how far this genre can go at the time of this writing. But as a reference point, here are some essential tracks for anyone trying to show their friends blackgaze.
1) Agalloch – “In The Shadow of Our Pale Companion” (from The Mantle, 2002)
Inspired by the likes of Ulver and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Mantle was groundbreaking in several respects. “In The Shadow…” shows the band at their creative peak. Mixing neofolk guitar with some of the most vicious vocals this side of Emperor, the self-proclaimed “Cascadian black metal” project paved the way for many others on this list. Sadly, Agalloch are no longer together, but should they ever choose to return they will be welcomed back into the scene they helped create.
2) Alcest – “Printemps Emeraude” (from Souvenirs d’une Autre Monde, 2007)
Leave it to the French to perfect an idea. Souvenirs d’une Autre Monde was a stepping stone in that it never apologized for being what it was. Alcest never fit into any scene, so they created one for themselves. As metal struggled against the rise of emo and an increasingly redundant extreme scene, Alcest soared above into the future. Not everyone was onboard, but those that were never looked back.
3) Wolves In The Throne Room – “I Will Lay Down My Bones Among Roots and Rocks” (from Two Hunters, 2007)
It doesn’t get more blackgaze then this title. Terrifyingly long and mindblowing throughout, “I Will Lay Down My Bones…” showed off the group’s talent for changes styles at will. The abrupt shifts from atmospheric to savagely heavy would become staples of the blackgaze sound. More importantly, the washy guitar effects were a step away from black metal’s distortion, making the listener want to walk through dead, dry fields rather then burn churches. Esoteric, but never angry.
4) Deafheaven – “Dream House” (from Sunbather, 2013)
Blackgaze’s undisputed peak, its Paranoid or Black Album. “Dream House” didn’t just take the metal world by storm, it cracked far into the musical mainstream. Sunbather sold 30,000 copies, was Metacritic’s best reviewed album of 2013, topped Album of the Year charts in Spin Magazine and Pitchfork and ended up being included in Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Metal Albums of All Time. Doesn’t get much bigger then that. This will forever be the benchmark against which all other blackgaze records will be judged.
5) Myrkur – “Onde Børn (from M, 2014)
Just after Sunbather kicked open the door to mainstream appeal, Myrkur slammed it shut and pulled all the blinds. Brutally sad and as fragile as a spun glass doll, “Onde Bønde” was a reminder that there truly were no rules to the blackgaze genre. Combined with piano Bathory covers and a look that screams ‘particularly bloodless vampire’, Myrkur became the new queen just as the scene was really starting to take off.
6) Ghost Bath – “Golden Number” (from Moonlover, 2015)
Amazing album cover aside, Ghost Bath didn’t win everyone over right away. There was the bizarre saga of the band claiming to be from China for no discernable reason (they said it was because of “privacy”), and also the fact that they arrived so soon after Deafheaven’s breakout success. “Golden Number” easily stands up on its own, however, a hair-raising yarn that will leave listeners jumping at the slightest sound. In terms of creepy blackgaze, this one almost takes the cake.
7) Harakiri For The Sky – “The Traces We Leave (from III:Trauma, 2016)
2016 was a boom year for blackgaze. The genre had fully formed by now, and countless bands were lining up to try their hand at ten-minute tracks. Out of the mass rose Harakiri For The Sky, from Salzburg Austria. “The Traces We Leave” might be the heaviest track on this list, and the closest to traditional black metal. Still, Harakiri keep things mellow with guitar interludes and music video visuals that lull, as well as occasionally terrify. It’s like staring at a scary painting for so long it almost becomes not-scary. That is, until it moves and shrieks like a banshee in the night.
8) Oathbreaker – “10:56/Second Son of R.” (from Rheia, 2016)
Okay, this is cheating. “10:56” and “Second Son of R.” are two separate songs on the record, but the music video combines them, so there. Comparisons to Myrkur were unavoidable, but Oathbreaker steps out of that band’s shadow by upping the delicate factor at first, only to throw it on the ground with the most bloodcurdling screaming the genre had yet heard. Lennart Bossu sounds like she might genuinely die when “Second Son” kicks in, bringing to mind Converge at their most absolutely demented peak. If this is as heavy as blackgaze currently gets, we should all be very, very afraid for when it decides to go heaver.
9) Zeal and Ardor – “Built on Ashes” (from Stranger Fruit, 2018)
Proving that nothing is ever truly over in music, Zeal and Ardor are already expanding the blackgaze sound. Bringing in African spirituals and a bludgeoning sense of rhythm, they have instantly become one of the most intriguing things to happen to metal for a long time. The shoegaze influence in diminishing, but its still there in the atmospheric wall-of-sound that drives this track forward. Expect more interesting things to happen. Soon.