There is a phenomenon that has developed in modern heavy metal. It is inherent almost to one genre, and it permeates throughout the capilaries to the various subgenres and microgenres within. To some this trend is unlistenable and completely uninviting, being described as “an excuse for lack of talent” as well as being called a gimic. To the fans of this stylistic attribute, it is completely necessary; a veil or filter through which we listen in order to hear the artist’s true vision. That which I speak of is the known as “lo-fi” or “kvlt” production– a tool utilized by thousands of black metal bands around the world in an attempt to convey the music’s connection to the netherworld.
The idea of raw and gritty production is something that a lot of bands go for at some point in their career. Old school death metal bands thrived on it, showing that when applied to the proper sound, it could be very effective. Even heavy metal superstars Metallica experimented with a “raw” album with the abysmal “St. Anger”. However, black metal bands take this concept to a more extreme level, burying their music in many levels of distortion, sometimes going so far as to record their music in the open air of forests and caves, forgoing the controlled environment of the studio. The question some have is, why would a band resort to “bad” production, and actually try to sell music that was recorded “badly”? Why would someone want to listen to music that sounded as if it was recorded in a subway bathroom and then played through a walkie talkie?
Like most aspects of modern heavy metal music and culture, this is a notion that has developed through time. Initially, it began through the extreme poverty of the second wave norwegian black metal bands in the 90’s, who could barely afford to live in their extreme conditions, yet still managed to record and produce influential music. Most of these guys were in their teens and few had actual jobs, living at friends houses and spending a lot of time in the “Helvete” metal record shop in Oslo. They truly lived a black metal lifestyle.
Obviously, the punk scene had been filled with bands that utilized poor production since the genre’s inception, however it was less common in heavy metal. The intentional use of “bad” producition began when a certain Kristian “Varg” Vikernes, a.k.a Count Grishnakh, began recording albums with his one man black metal project “Burzum”. To save time and to further digress into the subject I’ll just let him explain why he recorded his albums the way he did:
What Varg failed to realize at the time was how influential he would be to the face of black metal forever.
Burzum pioneered black metal in many directions that had never been explored before, at least not to the extent in which Varg accomplished. He was without question the founder of the micro genre known as bedroom black metal, gaining its name from the idea that a band could exist with just one dude in his room with a computer, writing and releasing music, forgoing the live experience that many bands focus on. Summoning, Xasthur, Leviathan, early Nachtmystium and many other black metal heavy weights gained their ambition to create bedroom BM based on Varg Vikernes’s trendsetting. This notion of solo artistry birthed an entire underground of obscure suicidal black metal bands that also utilized the anguished and tortured screaming that began as a Burzum trademark.
I’ll skip the many other shards of influence that Mr. Vikernes embedded in the dark core of black metal, both sonically and through activism, to return to my point of his creation of kvlt production. There is a reason why I use words such as kvlt or lo-fi as a substitute for the common, more negatively used terminology such as poor or bad production. You see, what Varg was trying to do was rebel against a mainstream expectation, but he labeled it as an auditory aesthetic. This in turn, led to a bands taking the concept to a different level and using the production itself as an instrument to convey a feeling. Black metal production values were no longer about clarity of sound, but about transformation of the mood of the actual notes, vocals and even percussive elements. When you listen to a muddied and muted band such as Xasthur, there is a despondent mood conveyed even in pauses void of sound, restructuring the very ambience of empty space. The bottom line is, a shift of intent is not the same thing as doing a sloppy job, and that is a distinction that needs to be made.
Fast-forwarding through the nineties and early 00’s to the present day, now Varg is actually re-recording a lot of his early works due to his dissatisfaction with the recordings. We won’t know in what way he’s changing them, but it will be interesting to see if he is now done with his sonic rebellion and wishes to present his art in the more refined lucidity of his newest release “Fallen” which has completely forgone the unorthodox murky recording style.
The band who is responsible for the transition from activism to auditory enhancement is none other than the almighty Darkthrone. A contemporary of Burzum, Darkthrone conducted business in the same manner, focusing on recording constantly and releasing as much music as possible, abandoning the live aspect of the band. The band differed from Vikernes’s project by being not only comprised of two members, but continuing to focus on the metal facet of their music, as opposed to ambience. Darkthrone’s concerns were devoted to fluctuating the production value from album to album until they achieved the pinnacle of minimilism with their landmark release “Transilvanian Hunger”. This intentional direction towards the cold and foggy, generated the momentum that hundreds of black metal bands would follow.
This cloudy production style is not for every metal head, but I hope those of you who have read this at least have a better understanding of the purposefullness and ingenuity that is owed to the bands that practition it. I, for one, have a strong support for this style, and believe that recording quality is sort of a forgotten tool that bands could be more creative with, as opposed to striving for the more pro-tooled out, clean and polished sound of mainstream music, where there is an exclusive concern for how “good” the music sounds, whatever the fuck that means.