Sunday, December 17, 2017

Black Metal Bass: Part I

I’ve put together eight short clips as a highlight of bass guitar work that I have really enjoyed in black metal. This is also partly a response to a Metal Archives thread a while back asking if bass was even necessary in metal. While many people pointed out how obviously silly the question was, bass is often an unsung hero. This is especially true in black metal, which is so treble heavy.

This is just a quick sampling of a bunch of different songs where I feel that bass was particularly interesting or prominent. Still, no matter what song you are listening to, if you are using $2.00 earbuds you won’t have the best bass response. The selection is about 50/50 traditional/experimental black metal, and I put down some quick thoughts on each clip.

Another nine clips are already picked for Part II, but if people enjoy this and email me some suggestions we could do some more.

1. Darkthrone - Summer of the Diabolical Holocaust

This song is a great example of how bands can use bass to add a ton of character to a straightforward transition, even when the underlying riffs are an exercise in stark minimalism. By having the rest of music temporarily drop out of the mix, Darkthrone uses the bass to introduce a riff that centers around just two notes in a way that is absolutely striking. When the guitars come in afterward and harmonizes with the bass it’s also a clear example of how much space in the mix the bass occupies in the song.

2. Peste Noire - Sale Famine von Valfoutre

In this example, Peste Noire brilliantly uses the bass guitar to introduce a crushingly heavy element to the song’s initial build up. Relying on a simple four part harmony fade-in, the band forces the song to start off with a ridiculous amount of energy by having the bass interpolate notes between the main parts of the melody. This lets the intricate bass work transform what would have been a rather formulaic intro into one of the album’s highlights. Also, you have to love the warm growl on the bass tone here.

3. Lord Belial - Osculum Obscenum

This song has such a classic buildup structure: repeating a melody with a stereo split before having the guitars harmonize (think for example of how Slayer’s “Raining Blood” starts). Lord Belial uses this approach by having a right left split on a single riff before having the guitars harmonize while simultaneously adding in the punchy bass (following the guitars note for note) and the percussion. This song is a great example of how tinyn and thin guitars can sound, even when harmonizing, without support from the bass and drums.

4. Khold - innestengt I Eikekiste

It’s pointless trying to pick just one song from Khold that highlights the bass because it’s so essential to their sound. Khold is unequivocally black metal, and fairly traditional other than taking the bass guitar to the extreme. Aside from sitting high in the mix and having some solo moments, it’s wildly more independent than what most bands have. In our example “innestengt I Eikekiste” we can easily hear Khold’s take on a “walking bass” melody, which diverges from the main riff while sticking to the song’s scale.

5. Leviathan - Crushing the Prolapsed Oviducts of Virtue

While many band’s use the bass guitar only as an accent, this song flips that role by having a layered melody where one guitar provides the harmony and the other guitar plays off of the bass’s melodic line. This song is a great example for how important black metal bass can be because it provides an essential part of the melodic counterpoint. The huge gulf between high and low pitches in the melody makes for an absolutely unforgettable moment on a release that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.

6. Stargazer - An Earth Rides Its Endless Carousel

When I first heard this song I felt that Stargazer should be arrested and their bass player tested for performance enhancing drugs. While this example may be only tenuously connected to black metal, Metal Archives lists the band as “Avant-garde Black/Death Metal” and frankly this 2014 release is one of my favorite albums of all time, so it’s getting included. The bass on here is absolutely out of control. For anyone that doubts whether bass guitar can keep up with the technical side of metal, this song should resolve the question permanently.

7. 1349 - Nathacana

1349’s Hellfire took black metal aesthetics and imbued them with death metal’s percussive aggression and intensity. The brief bass introduction to “Nathacana” is a critical part of the album. With Frost on drums, the album’s low end might seem like a crowded field, but this section lets you understand how the bass’s low end connects the razor sharp guitars to the low end of the percussion. While this kind of role is bass 101, this brief moment of separation helps you recognize the bass’s strength on the entire album.

8. Ved Buens Ende - I Sang for the Swans

It might be cheating to use Ved Buens Ende, but “I Sang for the Swans” is the kind of song that makes you question whether it is necessary to have guitar in black metal. While the traditional roles between bass and guitar are flipped, the band uses the moment to focus on the lyrics. Because, hey, it’s not a big deal for VBE to make the bass center stage for the stringed instruments. You could even argue that the vocals also take a second seat and just act as an accent for the bass work on this part of the song. The entire album is a clear example of how powerful a bass player can be in black metal.

9. Ellorsith - Susurration

This may seem like an odd choice to demonstrate bass at first. But, listen to how it takes up a huge amount of the overall sound and nearly overpowers the guitars while also simultaneously enhancing the oppressive atmosphere. With black metal, the wall of sound effect is frequently critical to establishing presence, and Ellorsith allows the bass to take on a lot of the weight of this role while relegating the guitars to relatively subservient, but nonetheless compelling, melodic flavoring. This approach works extremely well with how deep the band’s vocals are.


Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed the variety in your list. I played it a few times through, learned a couple of new bands. Looking forward to the next nine clips. One suggestion: the new Konsortium with Teloch on bass.

Orion M. said...

Thanks for the comment. I checked out one of the tracks from the new album you recommended, since I could not find a promotional copy of the release or anything downloadable. I enjoyed what I heard from Konsortium so hopefully I get an opportunity to hear the full album at some point. It was very much Norwegian Black Metal.