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Death and Black Metal Pioneers of the 1980s - Possessed, Venom, Bathory, Celtic Frost, Mercyful Fate

Updated: Jun 20

By Rich Catino and Jack Mangan 


The 80s was the golden era of Heavy Metal, much of it by today's standards now considered in the Hard Rock family, which included 70s Proto Heavy Metal: Kiss, Purple, Alice Cooper, Rainbow, AC/DC, and even Aerosmith and Queen, with their diversity and hard guitars. Everyone knows and remembers the many many bands from the decade on MTV: Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Accept, Ozzy, Scorpions and Dio, Grim Reaper, Saxon, to the Glam Metal explosion started by Van Halen in the late 70s - Ratt, Dokken, Motley Crue, W.A.S.P., Quiet Riot, Twisted Sister, and many many many more. Let’s not forget the Thrashers, Power Speed titans, and the rest: Metallica, Megadeth, Overkill, Testament, Anthrax, Armored Saint, Savatage, Lizzy Borden, Helloween, Raven, and on and on and on and on.

Well, there were two other Heavy Metal subgenres bubbling in the dark underworld of Hell… Black and Death Metal. Keep your antlers on, we’re well aware that Death and Black Metal are very different. . .  


In short:* 

Death Metal generally tends to feature faster tempos, melodic guitars, more guttural vocal growls, occasional Prog trappings, and this guy:



Black Metal generally tends toward darker subject matter, downtuned guitars, blast beats, more high-pitched vocals, and this guy: 




But in the primordial days, the line between the two was a lot more distorted.

Possessed's "Seven Churches" was released October 16th, 1985. It's one of those albums that are the foundation bricks of Death and Black Metal in the early 80s, along with Venom's "Welcome to Hell" and "Black Metal", Celtic Frost's "Morbid Tales" and "To Mega Therion", Mercyful Fate's EP, plus "Melissa" and "Don't Break The Oath", and the self titled Bathory, "The Return", and "In The Sign of the Black Mark". All the above Metal Hall of Fame induction worthy. Without question. 


How much more black could this be? The answer is none. None more black.


Here is where it all starts....


Possessed - San Francisco, California



“Seven Churches” is often hailed as the first true Death Metal album, and has been cited as influential by Chuck Schuldiner and Kam Lee of Death, as well as countless other bands across all of Metal’s heavier territories. And what a logo and striking album cover in its simplicity - - a fiery letter font with upside down cross worked into it. Possessed vocalist Jeff Becerra is even credited with coining the term “Death Metal.” High-speed guitar picking, growled vocals, and dark religious themes had been heard before, but with this album, Possessed brought the music to new extremes of savagery, bloodlust, and evil. “Seven Churches” was an incredible feat of brutality, but this degree of musical chaos could never be sustainable. Possessed would grow and improve as they progressed in a Thrashier, more melodic direction on their followup albums and EPs, but they never relented; Becerra’s lyrics and voice would always maintain their intensity. “The Eyes of Horror” EP, notably produced by Metal Hall-of-Famer Joe Satriani, would be the last before a series of fucked-up background events and band disharmony would lead to Possessed disbanding, but they’ve reformed in the 21st century, and their 2019 album, “Revelations of Oblivion,” may be their finest work yet. The riffs, lyrics, and solos are as edgy as ever, and Jeff sounds great. With his inimitable voice and unflinching fire, he continues to rage like a man possessed. 


Venom 



This English band could have single-handedly created Black Metal, just by the album titled "Black Metal", artwork, and lyrics, and of course the debut "Welcome to Hell".  With equally hellish stage names Cronos (singer/bass), Mantas on guitar, and Abaddon on drums, Venom were like a faster satanic Motorhead. Artwork on the first three albums' statements themselves without even hearing the music, featuring Baphomet on two, and a pentagram. Pictures in the heavy metal magazines showed band members striking grand posses with weapons, satanic artifacts, skulls, a snake.  The classic lineup would last for two more albums, the also classic "At War with Satan" (twenty-minute epic title track), and "Possessed", with legendary concert video The 7th Date of Hell Venom Live at Hammersmith Odeon 1984, released on VHS. A show I actually remembering being broadcast on MTV. 

By the late 80s there was a lineup change, with Anthony Dolan (Demolition Man) on vocals and bass, and second guitarist Al Barnes joining Mantas (Jeffrey Dunn) for the underrated "Prime Evil" which showed growth in songwriting and production. Venom would record a couple more albums with Tony at the mic and on bass until Cronos and Abaddon returned in 1997 for "Cast in Stone" in 1997. Again, another drummer change for 2000's "Resurrection", and the album "Metal Black" (not terribly creative title there) going forward to the present Cronos the only original member in a consistent three-piece lineup releasing four more albums. And former singer/bassist Dolan would form his Venom Inc. recording two albums. 


Celtic Frost - Switzerland



Thomas Gabriel Fischer, Martin Eric Ain, and Reed St. Mark made a significant contribution to the early sounds and stylings of Black and Death Metal. The music was fast, brashy, unpolished like Venom, also Motorhead inspired but with more tempo and riffs changes than Venom. "Morbid Tales" (1984), "Emperor's Return" E.P., and "To Mega Therion" with its H.R. Giger artwork titled Satan 1 using Jesus as a slingshot, music and artistically classics at the foundation to what would become Black Metal. 'Into The Crypt of Rays', 'Procreation of the Wicked', 'Dethroned Emperor', 'The Usurper' bridging abrasive guitars and vocals into Death/Black metal. And fun fact, the song 'Circle of the Tyrants' actually had a music video in 1985, one played here on the east coast a local NY/NJ area TV channel called U68 that played heavy metal music. Following an E.P. "Tragic Serenades" and experimental "Into the Pandemonium" the band would made the mistake trying to cash in on the 80s glam metal scene, recording the album "Cold Lake" in 88 and song 'Cherry Orchards', Yup, it's a terrible attempt at being melodic with an LA sunset strip hook, and the rest of the album is uneven at best, "(Once) They Were Eagles" is pretty good.  But they would rebound in 1990 with the album "Vanity Nemesis", playing traditional, speed, and thrash metal with tighter arrangements and production, see opening song 'The Heart Beneath'. Unfortunately, it would be the bands last album until 2006 and "Monotheist" with Fischer and Ain reuniting gettin back to their roots. But that was short-lived, only lasting for two years, with Martin Eric Ain passing away in 2017, Fischer's successor band Triptykon carrying on, and the occasional Hellhammer show. 


Mercyful Fate - Denmark



Led by Danish singer King Diamond with his unique tone, blood curdling range and ghostly falsetto, Mercyful Fate were even more theatrical than Venom, incorporating candles, skulls, a chalice, alter, goat skull into their shows. Next level Alice Cooper. And if you thought Venom pushed the envelope with Satan on their first two album covers...well how about the Mercyful Fate debut E.P. "Nuns Have No Fun" (later rereleased as "The Beginning" in 1987), with a naked witch tied to a burring stake surrounded by hooded cult members, and equally controversial lyrics. By the second album in 1983, "Melissa", the five piece had already grown as musical composers, guitarists Hank Shermann and Michael Denner incorporating these ominous sounding Judas Priest twin guitar harmonies and melodies expanding the soundscape. The album created lifetime classics 'Evil', 'Curse of the Pharaohs', 'Into the Coven', 'Black Funeral', and epic 'Satan's Fall'. 

"Don't Break the Oath" in 1984 compliments "Melissa" with equally catchy riffs and guitar harmonies and hooks like 'A Dangerous Meeting' and 'Gypsy', with the seven minute title track about the albums title and your allegiance to Satan. Talk about the influence, pioneers for Black Metal. Sure, Fate were not unpolished or savage as Venom and Celtic Frost, nor were they Bathory's primal first two albums. Nor were they what we know as Black Metal today and bands from the 90s: Mayhem, Marduk, Dimmu Borgir, Dissection, Darkthrone, Satyricon, Dark Funeral, or Emperor. But Fate are of utmost importance to the overall presentation and artistic expression of Black Metal, all things of the occult, evil, Hell, Satan, anti-Christian and challenging the rules of religions. Musicianship combined with song titles, lyrics, and artwork to make for a cohesive artistic presentation. See the classic 'Come to the Sabbath'. 

Mercyful Fate also had a career in the 90s. After King Diamond went solo recording more heavy metal theatrical horrifying tales "Fatal Portrait", "Abigail", "Them"/Conspiracy" two album concept stories, and "The Eye", in 1993 Fate released the equally important "In The Shadows", plus five more records by 1999 and "9". And within the last few years both Mercyful Fate and the King Diamond band have been active performing live and currently working on new music for 2024/25. And not only are Mercyful Fate unquestionably a name who should be in the Metal Hall, but King Diamond solo as well. 


Bathory - Sweden



Not so much a band but a man, Quorthon  (Thomas Börje Forsberg), songwriter, more often than not played guitars, bass, sang, plus production/engineer/mixing, on all the Bathory albums. Other musicians credited on drums and bass depending on the album. So Bathory are credited as creating the pure poorly recorded, demonic vocal. savage visceral black metal sound and riffing style from the Scandinavian bands from the 90s. The debut from 1984 (with goat faced Lucifer artwork) and "The Return" the following year carry all the hallmarks of Black Metal what we know today. Literally these two albums invented this genre of heavy metal music. By album three, "Under the Sign of the Black Mark", the music had grown a bit incorporating some synthesizer and tempo changes, somewhat of a chorus for 'Woman of Dark Desires' and Elizabth Bathory. The spooky atmospheric 'Call from the Grave' has melodic guitar lead, was used in a couple video games. 

"Blood Fire Death", and notably "Hammerheart" in 1990 which worked in some clean vocals, told stories of Viking mythology and melodic rhythmic elements in the arrangements. See 'Valhalla" and "One Rode To Asa Bay', and title track to the sixth album "Twilight of the Gods" in 1991. The music changed on the next four albums between 1994-2001 to thrashy, death metal brutal songs. "Blood on Ice" a concept story. The final two albums, "Northland I & II" 2002/03 melodic death metal like Therion. 

Quorthon died in 2004, but his music on those twelve Bathory albums will forever be listened to and regarded in the heavy metal community as the pillars of Black Metal. 



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*No one can/should try to adequately sum up the differences between Death Metal and Black Metal in two sentences, so forgive us this quick encapsulation, full of generalizations. Spare us your "But what about. . ." complaints.

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