A common topic of conversation among my acquaintances is the concept of “First album beats all consequent releases”, this universal (at least among the «faithful» ones) law of first album superiority, which is deeply rooted in the heavy metal (sub)conscious. There is a number of reasons behind this notion. Firstly, a band’s first album is usually the result of years of fermentation, containing material that has been worked on for a serious amount of time, with the band’s member(s) editing and filtering it through a number of demo/ep/split releases. On the contrary, the next album(s) tend to be released under more pressure, especially if a label is interfering, holding the deadline date as an ominous axe above the band’s heads. Youthful enthusiasm is another matter that has to be taken into account, considering the age of the band’s members when it is firstly formed. Beyond that, the music labels often corrode the musicians’ spirits, as does the exhausting touring. Finally, the success of a debut is a two-edged knife: Your fan base is usually stigmatized by its music direction and style, and can frequently be dogmatic in its devotion to it, unwilling to accept grand-scale changes. Thus is magnified the artist’s reluctance to experiment and follow his creativeness, leading to stagnation and back-to-back similar releases of pure quality.
While I recognize the application of the aforementioned law in multiple cases, I find myself seeking the exceptions to the rule. Thus I made a list of 15 albums -released from relatively well-known black metal bands- which surpassed in quality their debut predecessors. The majority of them are the sophomore albums of their respective bands, a fact leading to the assumption that the first years of a band’s discographic activity are usually the more essential and fruitful ones.
P.S.: Deathspell Omega is a special case. Their second era, I consider to be the best one by far. There, however, we have a band changed in such a degree that it no longer resembles its past self, even remotely. If I consider them a different band past-”Si Monumentum” then the first album of the new period rules supreme indeed. Therefore I take into account here only the first two albums of their first (and more traditional) era.
Abigor – Nachthymnen (1995)
Austria’s Abigor debuted with 1994’s “Verwüstung”, an engaging release as it turned out. But it was their second full-length, “Nachtmystium”, that really made them transcend the underground. Infused with nocturnal atmosphere, being ice-thin production-wise, it burned with a totally medieval spirit. The band’s progress was evident in every aspect of the album. “Scars in the Landscape of God” is a paramount beauty of a song, whose seal is branded upon the listener’s memory (the female vocals are simply enchanting). Definitely the band’s finest moment, one of the flawless examples of mid 90’s black metal.
Absu – The Sun of Tiphareth (1995)
“V.I.T.R.I.O.L.” was an album of well-played death metal, with a thrashy edge and ritual essence. It was with “Sun of Tiphareth” however, that Absu settled on the music style that made them famous, which can be imperfectly described as black/thrash. Lengthy, complex compositions, full of guitar ideas that disintegrate any signs of weariness. Diversity is apparent through both acoustic passages and tasteful keyboard use (who can ever forget the, a la Emperor, middle part of “Apzu”?). A memorial of an album.
Akercocke – The Goat of Mendes (2001)
Carrying on their backs the alarming “Rape of the Bastard Nazarene” debut, Akercocke unleashed in 2001 “The Goat of Mendes”, a mind-numbing creation. Cinematic black/death, b-movie-esque Satan worship, and an astonishing pair of lead vocals. An intoxicating release, in which you have a very hard time of calling favorite songs (if hard-pressed to choose I would go with “A skin for dancing in”). Right about the time that the first signs of saturation begun to appear on Cradle of Filth’s body, Akercocke grabbed the UK extreme metal torch and kept it fueled with 3 soon-to-follow, amazing albums..
Bathory – Under the Sign of the Black Mark (1987)
I am probably the last person to doubt about Bathory’s 2 first albums’ quality and influence. Still, in 1987, Quorthon raised his sound to a total new level, by developing the rough chaos of “Bathory” and “Return..” into atmospheric darkness (“13 Candles”) and genuine epicness (“Enter the Eternal Fire” and the second half of “Equimanthorn”), foreshadowing the albums yet to come. Here one can feel the Swede’s compositional coming-of-age. With “Under the Sign..”, Quorthon delivers a monumental album, that haunts the first wave of black metal.
Burzum – Det Som Engang Var (1993)
Things get rough now. Varg’s debut is a phenomenal milestone in every aspect (year of release, the emerging style, even the one-man-band motif), equipped with a heavy arsenal on its way to claim the “best Burzum album” throne. Meanwhile, the masterful “Hvis Lysset..” and “Filosofem” releases are locked in a constant arm-wrestling fight, the prize of which is also the aforementioned throne. Somewhere among those 3, lies Vikernes’ second gem, a transitional opus, balanced between past and future. Melody (listen to the last part of “Key to the Gate”) and sibylline minimalism (“Snu Mikrokosmos Tegn”) are exquisitely intertwined in this album that tends to be forgotten by the generic Burzum historian, but in my opinion stands above the band’s self-titled debut.
Cradle of Filth – Dusk & her Embrace (1996)
“Principle..” was a fine album. The “Vempire” ep as well. It is in “Dusk & her Embrace” however, Cradle’s sophomore full-length, that the British’s style is fully standardized. Gothic black metal which draws heavily from the 80’s-heavy-metal well (Mercyful Fate and Maiden influence is apparent in the guitar riffs), MEANINGFUL keyboards, love-them-or-hate-them vocals, and short-novel-like lyrics (infused with Dani’s wit). “Funeral in Carpathia” and “Gothic Romance” are songs without an equal. Filth’s capstone, an album that was heavily criticized by “trve” black metallers, most of which would trade both of their eyes for the ownership of even one of the songs herein.
Darkthrone – A Blaze in the Northern Sky/Under a Funeral Moon/Transilvanian Hunger (1992-93-94)
Here be cheating. I honestly cannot bring myself to choose between Darkthrone’s 2nd, 3rd and 4th albums. Each one of them is characterized by a certain style: “A Blaze..” is otherworldly barrenness personified , gazing upon paths almost transcendent. “Under..” is the most down-to-earth one, yet extremely poisonous throughout. “Transilvanian..” stands grimly alone in its inhuman monotony. “Soulside Journey” was an excellent specimen of technical death metal, but in all seriousness, it can not compete with those 3 black diamonds of unearthly black metal.
Deathspell Omega – Inquisitors of Satan (2002)
Concerning the second (and best) era of the French band, I will not say a word here, since the change in style was extremely radical. Concerning the first 2 full-lengths however, I can easily write-off the mediocre debut (“Infernal Battles”); “Inquisitors..” is miles ahead. Riffs imbued with the Norwegian soul, extremely passionate (hear Shaxul roaring “Our Skies are forever black!” on «Succubus of all vices») of temperament, “Inquisitors..” reeks of hellish demonology. Being the peak of their youthful “naive satanic” days, DSO’s second album still spreads its old-school poison.
Dodheimsgard – Monumental Possession (1996)
“Kronet til Konge” was nothing special. Being a decent album of traditional black metal, it did not raise much fuss. Enter “Monumental Possession”. Dodheimsgard turn deadly serious, splitting their music style in 3 (pure malignant venom/black-thrash/suffocating avant-garde), a thing happening also vocal-wise (Vicotnik’s throat shines, full of half-digested maliciousness). The band sows paranoid thrash storms, reaping apocalyptic nightmares. Here stand Dodheimsgard in their full glory. A few years later this band will bring ferociously down the genre itself.
Gehenna – Seen through the Veils of Darkness (1995)
The duration of “First Spell” is a bit deceiving, as far as its categorization is concerned – ep or full-length? Still, the band consider it their first album and who am I to argue? “First Spell” was a convincing species of “Ghost metal” (so-called by the band itself), yet it left us craving for more. “Second Spell” was more than satisfying, broadening Gehenna’s musical vision; even some classic heavy metal influence elements can be discerned. The majestic moments are more than convincing, equal to (or surpassing) even the mighty Emperor (listen for instance to the exaltation of “Through the Veils of Darkness”, or to the narrative in “A Myth..”). State of the art atmospheric black metal.
Immortal – Pure Holocaust (1993)
“Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism” is okay. For a debut. But every notion of comparing it to the ice-block by the name of “Pure Holocaust”, is bound to be considered as picturesque as the “Call of the Wintermoon” video. The ice-columns are mighty in this album, taller than anything else. Oh haze of “Unsilent storms in the Northern Abyss”, you were never denser. Since 1993 the Sun no longer rises. Did memory bells ring while listening to the namesake track? The main riff is the Star Wars “Empire theme” played backwards. The following album, “Battles in the North”, was highly praised too, but nothing can surpass the somber frost of “Pure Holocaust”.
Leviathan – Massive Conspiracy against all life (2008)
This being Wrest’s 4th full-length (while the total release count is quite higher). “Massive Conspiracy..” , his swansong as he led us to believe back then, is – along with “Lurker of Chalice” – his most substantial offering to the Genre. Grandiose, majestic, cantankerous structures, a sound many-folded , full of excruciatingly slow parts which give way to redemptive, religious-like speed bursts. The album’s soul is orthodox, but its rationale is not. “Massive conspiracy..” stands as a landmark, not only of USBM, but of the whole 00’s scene. Mandatory release.
Marduk – Opus Nocturne (1994)
“Those of the Unlight”, Sweden’s Marduk debut album, was not without personality. Though containing mostly typical black metal, it was graced with a number of catchy melodic songs. Still, “Opus Nocturne”, their 2nd effort, showed a band with enhanced songwriting skills. Here lies an album bellicose (in a much more convincing and insidious way than “Panzer Division Marduk”), nocturnal, yet essentially melodic. A cornerstone of Swedish black metal, “Opus Nocturne” is filled with memorable songs, cohesion, and flows seamlessly.
Satyricon – The Shadowthrone (1994)
“The Shadowthrone is not Satyricon’s best album. What it is, is a better release than “Dark Medieval Times”, which was a mighty debut, but was lacking in both the production and composition departments. “Shadowthrone” kicks off with “Hvite Krists Død”, an insuperable tune that showcases the band’s improvement. There is lots of variety herein, both inside the song structures and the album flow. “Vikingland” is Enslaved-inspired viking black, “Dominions of Satyricon” has a bone-chilling backbone of a riff (wait for it after the first minute). Satyricon evolved their music later on, but Shadowthrone’s polish is indelible.
Summoning – Minas Morgul (1995)
Austria was where this list begun, Austria is where it will end too. Summoning is a sister-band to Abigor. Like them, they debuted with pleasant-yet-unimpressive material (“Lugburz”). 1995’s “Minas Morgul” shows a changed band. Gone are the pure-black-metal days, sacrificed upon the altar of a soundtrack-esque synth-based sound. Fortunately, the guitars are not impeded by the keyboards. On the contrary, they embroider heart-wrenching, long-paced, mid-tempo riffs, which attach themselves on the listener’s memory sensors. Following the release of “Minas Morgul”, their discography was of equal quality, but here is where it all started.