Contrary to the Satanic camp and hard-partying ways of most black metal in the 1980s, the second wave was a deadly earnest beast. Fiercely underground in the 1990s, a small handful of young acolytes took the words and and aesthetics of their forefathers to previously unimaginable levels of depravity, hatred, and beauty.
Although many of the practitioners who appear below were involved in unforgivably heinous crimes several decades ago, the continued religious and political extremism of some from the scene disqualifies them from inclusion. Are they influential? Incredibly. Do you most likely already know what I’m talking about and therefore don’t need my guidance in formulating an opinion one way or another? Absolutely.
Although somewhat arbitrary, for our purposes this time period will be defined as beginning with Master’s Hammer debut album and ending with the founding of Moribund Cult and the rise of USBM in the 21st century. We’ll tackle the third wave and beyond in other lists at another time.
Here are the ten best second-wave black metal albums.
Bethlehem – Dictius Te Necare
A landmark of pure anguish, Bethlehem’s second album is the sonic embodiment of a nervous breakdown. Listening to Dictius Te Necare can almost feel voyeuristic at times, given the degree of palpable suffering present in vocalist Rainer Landfermann’s agonized howls. Mournful, doom-laden riffage often supersedes traditional black metal ferocity, effortlessly crafting a horrific experience of glacial ambience and unmitigated pain. A terrifying journey through personal hell.
Vlad Tepes / Belkètre – March to the Black Holocaust
The elite French horde known as Les Légions Noires fiercely guarded their musical secrets, keeping many of their recordings insular by only handing off demos to close, trusted allies. Due to the sheer quality of their work, most of the rare LLN albums that were released to the general public have become certified classics. March To The Black Holocaust showcases the expert savagery of two bands from the circle, the legendary Vlad Tepes and Belkètre. There is an undeniable punk element to the Vlad Tepes side, with a hidden penchant for melody not unlike their Norwegian counterparts in Darkthrone. On the other hand, the Belkètre side is an exercise in unadulterated acrimony. This is just about as furious and terrifying as it gets.
Master’s Hammer – Ritual
The record that ushered in black metal’s second wave, the debut full-length from avant garde Czech outfit Master’s Hammer created the bridge between the primal thrash of the genre’s namesake bands and the cold, deliberate antipathy of the Scandinavian bands they would inspire. With synth-driven atmospheres and a penchant for epic riffs and abstract melody, Ritual served as an early template for much to follow.
Ildjarn – Forest Poetry
The definitive statement of raw black metal fury. A creature of pure ethos, the music that Vidar Vaaer made as Ildjarn stands leagues above all others in terms of spiritual purpose and refusal to compromise. This is the sound of abject hatred towards the entirety of the human race from an enraged emissary of Mother Nature. A record that will certainly be off-putting to most due to its absence of fidelity as an aesthetic mandate, Forest Poetry is nonetheless riddled with undeniable hooks and a primal propulsive power that rewards those patient enough to understand.
Dissection – Storm Of The Light’s Bane
Although it’s a cornerstone of the second wave, Dissection’s second album also marks an important moment in the evolution of the Gothenburg sound. Released just three days after Slaughter Of The Soul came out, Storm Of The Light’s Bane can in many ways be viewed as the black metal analog to that At The Gates classic. Impossibly melodic and tastefully constrained, a sinister power lurks just underneath the surface. Monolithic in scope and just about as evil as it gets.
Ulver – Nattens Madrigal
Before they transitioned into the avant-garde, Ulver were responsible for some of the most ferocious yet forward-thinking extreme music ever created. Probably the most stylistically progressive of the early Norwegian bands, their two black metal albums are certified genre classics that deftly weave the sounds of their Black Circle contemporaries with traditional Scandinavian folk music. Although the near absence of bass on Nattens Madrigal might be grating to some, a patient listener will be rewarded with some of the most skillful songwriting and relentless passion the genre has ever seen.
Mayhem – De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas
The circumstances surrounding Mayhem’s full-length debut have long eclipsed the music in the public consciousness. Infamy aside, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is a record of such outstanding quality that it easily towers over any legend. Frozen, spectral riffs hover just above an unyielding percussive cacophony, creating the wall of ambience for Attila Csihar’s maniacal death rattles. Arguably the most important black metal band of all time, this bleak and harrowing record is an appropriate totem to Mayhem’s notorious legacy.
Darkthrone – Under A Funeral Moon
The very definition of “True Norwegian Black Metal”, Darkthrone evolved out of death metal with the righteous contempt of a converted religious zealot. While A Blaze In The Northern Sky still retained many of the band’s prior knuckle-dragging elements, Under A Funeral Moon presented the fully realized version of Darkthrone’s singular apocalyptic vision. A flawless exercise in sonic misanthropy, the deliberately caustic recording quality nonetheless serves as the perfect canvas for relentlessly violent rhythm and deceptive melody. Absolutely timeless and essential.
Beherit – Drawing Down The Moon
The Ross Bay Cult might have invented war metal, but Finnish horde Beherit perfected the style and broke the mold when they made Drawing Down The Moon. Although their demos were more in line with Blasphemy’s sonic approach, Beherit’s official debut album slowed things down drastically, incorporating heavy use of electronics and vocal modulations to create a masterpiece of atmospheric brutality. As beautiful and haunting as it is utterly relentless.
Emperor – In The Nightside Eclipse
After cutting their teeth on the more traditional Wrath Of The Tyrant demo, Emperor began to introduce subtle symphonic elements on their self-titled EP. With the release of their debut full-length a year later, Emperor unleashed a majestic opus of unimaginable proportions. Grandiose in scope and ambition, In The Nightside Eclipse earns its esteemed rank in the pantheon of classic black metal albums with gusto. An epic testament of abject violence and limitless beauty.