Ruminations on the power of the riff.
Years ago, at the bar before a Ghost Bath show, I got into a debate (and by debate, I mean a one-sided conversation where I mostly just nodded while putting away an Old Style) with a couple metalheads about whether they were “real” black metal. From their point of view, the band had latched onto the genre’s sudden popularity in the wake of Deafheaven’s Sunbather, a critically acclaimed record that is credited with bringing black metal into the mainstream. It also didn’t help that the band played Fender Telecasters, an instrument more commonly associated with blues, country and indie rock than metal. A fashion statement, they called it, and a sure sign they were posers.
Their points were understandable when viewed through a certain lens. Like Deafheaven, Ghost Bath is composed (I believe) of ex-hardcore kids who had been drawn into the genre’s grim aesthetic, while introducing sonic elements that the truly kvlt would consider heretical. If you want to call that diluting the genre, I guess that’s not necessarily wrong, even though I don’t subscribe to that opinion.
Anyway, I didn’t care whether they were right or wrong. Given black metal’s uncomfortable associations with violence and white nationalism, I never felt compelled to explore it in much depth, and it was fine by me if Ghost Bath played fast and loose with what’s considered “real” black metal. I was unconvinced that going on stage with B.C. Rich Warlocks, wearing face paint, or relocating to Scandinavia would somehow make their music more authentic.
To be clear, there’s much more to black metal than unsavory stereotypes. The murderous church-burning scene made infamous in the early 1990s is largely a thing of the past and it isn’t fair to (corpse) paint the genre with too broad of strokes. At the same time, the black metal scene absolutely has issues with attracting hate groups, and it doesn’t always repudiate racists and fascists as aggressively as it should. So, when someone starts talking about “real” black metal, you have to listen carefully to know whether they’re talking about the music or blowing a dog whistle for something else. The guys at the bar were harmless as far as I could tell, but I did wish they would have lectured someone else, because I will never care about respecting black metal’s purity.
With that said, if there’s anything about black metal’s roots that Ghost Bath did embody, it’s the genre’s sense of mystique. I first heard about the band when a friend of mine who was living in Columbia sent me a link to Moonlover, saying “this is the best metal record that’s come out this year” back in 2016. Not only was I blown away by the album, I was shocked to see they were based out of Minot, North Dakota, just four hours from where I live. The underground music scene in the state is tight knit, yet somehow, I was hearing about this band for the first time from someone who was out of the country. For a band that was blowing up, they’d done a remarkable job of staying under the radar.
Those who know the whole story about Ghost Bath might know where this is about to go next. While it seems to be mostly forgotten about now, this was around the time the band had stumbled into one of the most bizarre controversies in black metal history. Prior to Moonlover’s release, they had claimed to be from China, and the ruse was convincing enough that the Chinese black metal label Pest Productions signed them for their debut record Funeral in 2014. Several metal journalists ran with the angle that the next Deafheaven was from China, only to later learn they’d been deceived.
The full story (that would be shared later) is that Ghost Bath started as a solo project for songwriter Dennis Mikula that was meant to be an outlet for aggression and negative energy. With no plans to tour, and because of the depressive nature of his music, he didn’t need nor want to attract too much attention, either from friends and family who might have worried whether he was okay, nor from labels or booking agents. So, he listed Chongqing, China as his location on Bandcamp because he had a friend from the city, which attracted attention from Pest Productions, and the rest is history.
While the band’s initial statement read like a pretentious non-apology (and looked very much like willful cultural appropriation), in retrospect, it seems more like a situation where the dog caught the car and there was no plan for what would happen next after they signed with Pest Productions (who found out the band wasn’t Chinese prior to releasing Funeral, but opted to keep them on the roster after they privately apologized, citing the strength of their music). Once they started to generate press attention and the narrative took on a life of its own, they leaned into the chaos to see where it would go.
Courting controversy (intentionally or not) would seem to be about the most black metal thing a band could do. So, what exactly prompted the “Ghost Bath isn’t real black metal” discourse in the first place? Was it because they don’t sufficiently look the part? Borrowed too much influence from other genres? Just weren’t “evil” or full of hate enough? On those last points, why would those be desirable traits?
Whatever the case may be, I wonder what utility exists in drawing this imaginary line between real and fake black metal, especially when the criteria seems arbitrary, aesthetic, or tied to things that shouldn’t be valued. Ultimately, few things are more unifying across the black metal landscape than depressed and confused kids struggling to navigate a world that they’re not sure they want to live in (the term “ghost bath” is a reference to suicide by drowning), while simultaneously seeking and avoiding attention from the public. That seems to summarize Ghost Bath and most other “hipster” or “fake” or whatever other prefixes that get applied to the wave of acts Deafheaven ushered in.
At its best, black metal is bleak but beautiful. It taps into deep despair and confronts existential dread in a way that not much other music can touch. It’s an exploration of the darkest depths of the human condition that resonates because it reminds you that you’re not alone in your struggle; for a genre that’s often obsessed with oblivion, it can be, ironically, powerfully life-affirming. At a time where it can feel like the world is tearing itself apart, there might not be a better soundtrack, either. What was once the preserve of a niche community has found a broader audience because, in part, we’re living in a dark time.
There’s a reason why Deafheaven’s breakthrough sophomore record Sunbather broke into the cultural mainstream in 2013, and it’s not just because of praise from the more hip ends of the music press, or because it had a pink cover with a conspicuously legible font. It was tuneful and triumphant in a way that black metal rarely allows itself to be, devoid of the goofy pro wrestling face paint and everything else that often pushes people away from the genre. Tracks like “Dream House” and 11-plus minute closer “The Pecan Tree” wash over the listener with so much raw emotion and cathartic energy that it wasn’t hard to feel why non-black metal fans latched onto it.
The band made no attempt to hide the fact that they’re normal musicians who draw upon a wide variety of influences both inside and outside of metal. They created something that felt genuinely new, opening the door for a wave of black metal-inspired bands pushing the genre into uncharted musical territory, while raising the profile of artists on the scene’s fringes who are deserving of a broader audience that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to reach. Black metal’s tendency toward mystery and mythmaking were once part of its allure, but now in the Internet age, maybe it’s time to let that era go and embrace the openness of artists breaking down the genre’s walls.
Liturgy – Aesthetica
When Liturgy’s Aesthetica came out in 2011, I was surprised to first learn about a black metal record from Pitchfork of all outlets. While the band never quite reached Deafheaven’s level of notoriety or popularity, they aren’t far off, and this is probably where the debate around “hipster black metal” actually started. Its clean white album artwork and experimental approach openly challenged black metal orthodoxy.
Deafheaven – Sunbather
10 years after its release, Sunbather has had a more lasting impact than Deafheaven’s early critics predicted it ever would. They weren’t the first to grab black metal by the horns and drag it into the light, but it’s undeniable that this record marked the beginning of a movement of bands who would later cast off the genre’s rules and see what they could do with it.
Alcest – Shelter
After mastering ambient and moody black metal on Escailles de lune (2010) and Les voyages de lame (2011), the French duo Alcest leaned all the way into the more ambient aspects of their sound on Shelter (2014). It’s a move that Deafheaven (who were influenced by Alcest) would make as well on their own 2021 full-length Infinite Granite, which was similarly divisive, and yet made all the more compelling by its audacity to be so bold.
Agalloch – The Mantle
Well before Liturgy or Deafheaven, there was Agalloch. Expansive and atmospheric, they laid the groundwork for a sound that others would later run with. While their catalog is deep and full of gems, starting with their 1999 debut Pale Folklore, The Mantle might be the best place to start exploring the depths of their offerings.
Ghost Bath – Moonlover
Ghost Bath wasn’t the first nor only band to follow in Deafheaven’s footsteps (and in fairness, they were more influenced by Agalloch and Silencer). While the comparisons to Deafheaven were somewhat lazy, it’s likely that Ghost Bath owes them a heavy debt for priming the metal press to prowl for another record like Sunbather. Moonlover gave it to them, and more.
Wolves in the Throne Room – Celestial Lineage
Based out of Olympia, Washington, Wolves in the Throne Room’s sound infuses black metal with elements of crust and goth, which helped them build some bridges into the punk and hardcore scenes (who would later, in turn, start to embrace the likes of Deafheaven and all that came after). Celestial Lineage (and its 2014 companion piece Celestite) saw the band reach a sort of creative apex, and while it might not sound as revolutionary now as they did a decade ago, it remains a stunning piece of work.
Panopticon – Kentucky
There aren’t many black metal records that open with a banjo. In fact, as far as I know, Panopticon’s Kentucky might be in a class of one in that regard. Blending Appalachian folk with searing blast beats and tremolo-picked guitars, the record is an ode to its namesake, capturing the dueling realities of the state’s natural beauty and the desperation of rural blight.
Myrkur – M
Danish one-woman black metal composer Myrkur (the solo stage name of Amalie Bruun, which was initially intended to hide her real identity) is one of the genre’s most critically acclaimed artists of the past decade. She has also been a target for death threats, specifically from men in the U.S. black metal scene. The fact that this blurb can’t be written in the context of this column without mentioning that illustrates the genre’s frustrating duality between loving the music and wanting nothing to do with the scene surrounding it.
With that said, Myrkur’s discography is worth diving into from the bottom to the top, and her debut full-length M is as good a place to start as any. It’s a polished and confident record that blends haunting black metal with glistening vocal melodies that remind you that Bruun was once one-half of the dreampop band Ex Cops. Underneath its abrasive exterior, these songs are undergirded by strong songwriting sensibilities, without needing to rely on sheer aggression to be compelling (though there’s no shortage of tasteful brutality on display as well).
White Ward – Futility Report
Saxophone has never sounded heavier or more haunting than on White Ward’s Futility Report (2017). The five-piece from Odessa, Ukraine, are masters of tension and release, using the brass instrument not as a gimmick, but as something vital to building a discomforting sense of ambiance.
Ben Sailer is a writer based out of Fargo, ND, where he survives the cold with his wife and dog. His writing also regularly appears in New Noise Magazine.