If you were listening to music in the late 2010’s, chances are you’ve already heard of Blackgaze. If you think that name sounds odd then just wait till you hear the music. So what’s the big deal with all this newfangled Post-Metal?
Blackgaze, for all the silliness that name brings, is a bold new step in the history of heavy metal music. Or, it’s an overhyped gimmick which will die off as soon as we’ve latched onto some other ridiculous genre-mashup. Really it depends on who you ask.
Essentially, Blackgaze is made up of two parts: the black (metal) and the (shoe) gaze. For the benefit of folks who (understandably) have never heard of either, let’s take a peek at the genre’s stylistic origins.
What is Black Metal?
Black Metal has its beginnings in the basements of 1980’s Scandinavia. The early Norwegian scene in particular gained infamy through, and I’m putting it lightly here, its extreme approach to publicity stunts. By the late 1990’s, the first wave of Norwegian Black Metal was associated with over 40 church burnings, a few murders, and an unsavoury tendency towards Nazism. Delightful isn’t it?
Despite its problematic origins, or perhaps because of them, Black Metal struck a chord with the global metal community. The genre refuses to croak even though most of its pioneers have wound up dead or in prison. Something about the obscure, droning, shriek-filled soundscapes captures a very unique atmosphere.
Today, Black Metal has spun off into a veritable smorgasbord of subgenres and its influence has sunk its teeth into other aspects of heavy metal. For a time it was impossible to cross the street without tripping over ten Death Metal bands describing themselves as “blackened”.
What is Shoegaze?
Shoegaze began at a similar time to Black Metal, albeit across the North Sea in England. It’s a quirky offshoot of Indie Rock with some Neo-Psychedelic colour in its cheeks. Aetherial, drawn out vocals are mixed with sentimental chords and heavily distorted guitars to build towering soundscapes. The term was coined due to the tendency of genre pioneers to stand on stage, playing the music, and not doing much else besides staring into their shoes.
The initial Shoegaze movement was short-lived and did not gain traction until it was rediscovered on the internet.
Like anything weird and obscure, Shoegaze was soon elevated to the staggering heights of a semi-popular microgenre. Thus we arrive at the bizarre lovechild of Shoegaze and Black Metal.
How does this even work?
Bands dubbed as Blackgaze have somehow managed to carve out an admirably substantial niche. Albums spawned from the Blackgaze movement have been met with warm reception from the music community. Deafheaven’s Sunbather, often erroneously referred to as the genre’s progenitor, is remembered as one of the most iconic releases of the 2010’s. The record is an artillery barrage of harsh, droning guitars and blast beats that build cheerful, yet uncannily nostalgic soundscapes. French Blackgaze pioneers Alcest have been producing ponderously sentimental records since their first in 2007.
Blackgaze has also expanded into other metal genres; Nu-Core slammers Loathe have incorporated elements of the genre to contrast their unforgiving riffs, while post-metal golden boys Agalloch have also dabbled with the genre.
What’s even more impressive is that these albums are performing well. Alcest’s last two records have placed highly on European charts, and Deafheaven are Billboard 200 regulars. Aside from this, Blackgaze songs have gathered millions of views on Youtube and other streaming services.
So what gives? Is Blackgaze just a fad? Or is it here to stay?
The answer to that question is complicated. First, let’s take a look at the landscape of the genre itself.
Deafheaven’s most recent album, Infinite Granite sees the California outfit exploring softer sounds, shedding their Black Metal roots, and delving into more purebred shoegazing. Alcest tried a similar thing in 2014 with Shelter, albeit as a short detour from their sound rather than a defined shift of artistic intent. All in all, the Blackgaze genre is relatively thin on the ground. Articles celebrating the movement often return to the same bands, same albums, and even the same songs when discussing it.
Significant changes in style can be seen as reflecting a lack of interest in the Blackgaze sound. Indeed, most bands that have been identified as Blackgaze either fully reject, or merely playfully entertain the label. It would be best to more broadly identify Blackgaze bands as Post-Metal, which is far less restricting and yet adequately describes the aims of the genre. Blackgaze can therefore be looked upon as a temporary summit of disparate musical influences facilitated by a broader artistic intent, rather than a strict formula for gimmicky music making.
In this sense, Blackgaze is far more than a gimmick. A gimmick genre waves its hands in the air and screams “look at the kooky thing we’ve done!”. Yet Blackgaze is actually pleasant to listen to outside of the context of its inherent absurdity.
Blackgaze, a mesmerising soundscape
Black Metal and Shoegaze alike have experimented with various themes and musical styles. However, the prevalent styles of these genres today aim to build dreamlike soundscapes.. Shoegaze is after all a similar alternative to a genre called Dream Pop; both genres are sentimental, aetherial, and expand pop music conventions. Yet what makes Shoegaze such a perfect partner for Black Metal is that it’s loud.
Black Metal and Shoegaze aim to create impenetrable walls of sound: less rhythmically inspired, more focused on harmony and texture. Blackgaze is at an unprecedented intersection between sentimental wonder and ominous terror. This Ghost Bath single from 2016 is a great example of this dissonance. The song is a ghost-train ride of complex emotions that somehow manage to emerge as something digestible.
Blackgaze often flirts with themes of environmentalism, fusing a childlike nostalgia with harrowing corruption. There is a tangible sadness to Blackgaze music which can only really be explored through its particular sound, perfect for anyone looking to vent their frustration over the decimation of our natural world.
Listening to any record from this genre feels like taking a walk in a park or forest that you frequented as a child, with the uncanny feeling that something invaluable has changed. A careless listener could easily become permanently entranced by the sheer density of distorted guitars, pounding drums, and vocals which switch between harrowing and aetherial. Blackgaze transcends the possibilities of its parent genres to create a wholly unique statement, and as of yet, the genre still has plenty to say. There truly has never existed a sound so specific and yet universally appealing.