The Intestinal Camera View
Black metal is something that fans of the genre take great care in attempting to preserve, and prevent from becoming "mainstream," which is a threat encountered at every corner, with every new album released, with every new video that Cradle of Filth makes.
A staggeringly large majority of black metal fans are males in their late teens or early twenties, who had become either fed up or ultimately unfulfilled with a wide variety of other musical genres, though they seem to stick mostly to either goth, death metal, old-style heavy metal like Black Sabbath, or, in recent years, nu-metal. (Guitar-based music seems to be the rule. I've never met a fan of black metal that was originally a raver, for example, but I assume that some must exist.) To them, black metal is the ultimate in obscurity and oneupmanship with their peers; most people, even other metal fans, probably haven't heard of most black metal bands. Those that have a hesitant grasp of the genre usually name Cradle of Filth (which isn't actually a black metal band; they're just Marilyn Manson fans from the UK) or the infamous Mayhem as examples of the genre. The people that get really into it listen exclusively to bands that no one has ever heard of, bands that are among the grimmest and most necro bands ever unleashed upon the earth, usually by a miniscule record label in Norway or England.
As silly as it sounds, black metal fans take being grim and necro very seriously, and strive to maintain both attitudes simultaneously. They try to be without humour or tolerance for that which is not grim or necro. To them, everything is the bottom, the worst; their only reprieve are extremely obscure bands from Norway who look like either professional wrestlers or circus clowns on their album covers. These bands are True. (Note the capital T.) To be anything less than True is to suck, and anything that sucks is deserving of Satanic sodomization.
Black metal, as a musical genre, got its start in the early 1980s, when the album Welcome to Hell was released in 1981 by the band Venom. That album, along with its successor, 1982's seminal Black Metal, kickstarted the whole thing and by the end of the 1980s, black metal was a very small but extremely True genre of music. Other influential bands from this period include Celtic Frost, Hellhammer, Mayhem, Bathory, and, as some would argue, very early (pre-Reign in Blood) Slayer, even though they're American and all other black metal at the time was issuing from Scandinavia and northern Europe.
The members of a lot of these bands were very guilty of taking themselves far too seriously and not only hated everyone and everything that was not True, but also themselves and their bandmates, and even their own music. The imposion of Mayhem in the early 1990s is a good example of taking things a bit too far. Several members of early (and current) black metal bands have also taken to burning down Christian churches in their native countries (though the most instances have occured in Norway), which landed the perpetrators in jail. This didn't stop all of them from making music, however, as the band Burzum began while Varg Vikernes, the former member of Mayhem, was in jail for killing his bandmate. (Burzum isn't black metal, as such, but black metal fans love it all the same. How can you be more True than by enjoying the "black ambient" music of a convicted murderer?)
The genre really came into its own once the 1990s started. As more and more people became influenced by the music that black metal's progenitors had produced during the previous decade, more and more black metal bands came into being all over the world. While many claimed a concrete anti-religious stance, they nevertheless often wrote songs about Satan and other mythical demons and so forth. The songs, which had started out as three-minute speedy guitar opuses, had evolved into ten to fifteen minute symphonies (for lack of a better word), incorporating sometimes three or four people playing lead guitar at the same time, non-stop double-bass drums, classical instruments such as the bassoon or harp, and completely unintelligible, often heavily processed vocals. Choruses were popping up in not only English or Norwegian, but also Latin, German, and Tolkien's Black-speech (Orcish, what little of it exists, was toyed with and unofficially expanded by a number of bands). The influence of Tolkien's work on black metal is a long and exhausing topic best left for another node.
Bands began producing their own albums and completely eliminated any bottom-end, as anything less than ear-splittingly loud and vulgar wouldn't be True. The results are usually loud, long, epic-like songs about Norway in the pre-Christian era, war and warfare, a Norse fable, or a twisting of a Tolkien story.
The concept of "True" was expanded in 1994 when the band Darkthrone released their fourth album, Transylvanian Hunger, which they dubbed "True Norwegian Black Metal," or "Norsk Ǻrysk Blak Metal" in the Norwegian tongue. Each of their subsequent releases (approximately one new album every year and a half) has expanded upon this theme and influenced a whole other generation of black metal fans with the inclination to form a band. The concept of True Norwegian Black Metal frequently involves Aryanism, Norse mythology, blatant anti-Christian themes (not just atheism, either, but a downright hatred for all things Christian and/or Jewish -- neo-nazism runs rampant among the grimmest and most necro), and blisteringly fast music. True Norwegian Black Metal is one of the few musical genres where every instrument is often played in at least 16/4 time (or higher!), even the bass guitar. The vocals are still mostly unintelliglible, but the CD booklets usually contain transcriptions of them, for fear of the band not getting its point across.
Some examples of True Norwegian Black Metal would be of course Darkthrone, but also Immortal, Barathrum (who are actually from Finland), Emperor, Satyricon, and Marduk (from Sweden), just to name a few.
This does not explain the penchant for black and white facepaint (which they lovingly refer to as "corpse paint") and troll-like behaviour in the bands' videos and album cover photos. It may be True to the black metal fan, but it seems extremely silly and non-threatening to the casual observer -- exactly the opposite of the statement the band is trying to make.
In conclusion, black metal is still around, still going strong, and slowly but surely assimilating itself with other forms of music, as mentioned in this node's previous writeups. For the curious, I'd recommend the following albums. They'll be a good start on your path to being True.
Or, if you're more interested in the "ambient" side of black metal, try these:
An extremely accurate, dead-on parody of the black metal scene is the "band" Impaled Northern Moon Forest. While the music isn't exactly a direct parody (it's a guy shrieking incoherently while slapping his knees, while another guy tortures an acoustic guitar), the titles of the songs definitely are. You'd be hard-pressed to find an actual black metal album without at least one instance of the word "northern" or "forest" in the title of a song, or in the name of the album itself. This all goes back to the Tolkien thing.
Here, this will help you get a better feel for the style of the True.