It begins—and ends—with “the devil’s music.”
Upon the 1950 arrival of rock-and-roll, the wild new music’s combustive sounds and infernally alluring purveyors hurled the world’s youth into delirious throes that suggested they had to be… possessed!
A few years hence— on Friday the 13th of February 1970, to be exact—Black Sabbath unleashed their eponymous debut. Heavy metal was born, and even rock’s staunchest defenders found its impact frightening.
Alas, the cultural cauldron from which Black Sabbath leapt, fully formed, had been bubbling for a spell at that point.
In 1967, the Beatles showcased sinister occult guru Aleister Crowley on the Sgt. Pepper cover, prompting the Stones to respond with Their Satanic Majesties Request. Two years later, Chicago psychedelicists Coven and Italy’s progged-out Jacula both released occult-soaked proto-metal albums, as did England’s Black Widow in 1970.
Those sounds, combined with the infernal might of Black Sabbath proper, have evolved through the decades—by way of Witchfinder General, Pentagram, Saint Vitus, Reverend Bizarre, and more—into our 21st century state of occult rock bliss.
At present, dark cabals of sonic seekers worldwide are creating some of the most thrilling, expansive, and enrapturing heavy metal of our current day.
Beyond stoner rock, beyond doom metal, beyond the sound of Slow Southern Steel, today’s occult rock has risen to, as Coven put it, “destroy minds and reap souls.” Of course, first and foremost, they really just want to rock.
The following diabolical dozen occult rock evangelists are particularly potent practitioners of the form.
Swooping up from the near-classic one-album crash-and-burn of her previous band The Oath in 2014, Teutonic ice witch Johanna Sadonis immediately reconvened and re-entered the sphere of breaking occult greatness with her new power trio, Lucifer.
The band’s maiden LP, Lucifer I, actually plumbs heavier depths than The Oath even approached. Best of all, the group’s mascot is a real-life pitch-black dog named for a legendary Germanic force in early heavy metal: Lucifer’s Friend.
Portland purveyors of raucous occult rock Witch Mountain have had the (ironically?) blessed fortune to come by not one, but two extraordinary female vocalists on their journey.
Uta Plotkin sings on the band’s 2012 classic South of Salem, along with an assortment of other recordings. Uta amicably came down the Mountain after 2014’s Mobile of Angels. At present, Witch Mountain is fronted by Kayla Dixon, who has been stunning all comers as the group toured with Danzig in Fall 2015.
Jex Thoth hails from the blackened heartland of Madison, Wisconsin. In the tradition of forerunners such as Alice Cooper and King Diamond, the band itself is named for its demon-priestess conjurer-cum-vocalist.
Simultaneously evoking frosty woodland magic and scorched desert hallucinoations, Jex Thoth is a portal of occultic overwhelm channeled through god-hammered hard rock. Every record rocks, every live performance is a ritual from which no one emerges unchanged.
In 1984, (way) down-tuned Chicago overlords Trouble reinvented doom metal in the mid-’80s by way of the landmark sludge-blast, Psalm 9. Weirdly, Trouble sounded as dire and dread-drenched as even the most overtly pro-evil bands, but their philosophy, somehow, came rooted in Christianity.
Leap ahead three decades to The Skull. Named for Trouble’s second album, the group consists of ex-Troublers Eric Wagner on vocals, Ron Holzner on bass, and Jeff “Oly” Olson pounding those drums.
While not a 666-degree turn away from Trouble’s Jesus roots, The Skull’s 2014 mind-blower For Those Which Are Asleep is frightening, more monstrous than this mere mortal coil,, and awash with apocalyptic explorations of the darkest cosmos. It will overturn your very soul.
Swedish metal giant Leif Edling, founding bassist and primary mastermind of doom legends Candlemass (Epicus Doomicus Metallicus), launched Avatarium in 2013 with guitarist Marcus Jidell and incendiary songbird Jennie-Ann Smith on vocals.
The DNA of Candlemass runs hot through Avatarium, but this group is very much its own modern beast, channeling fears and ferocity beyond our own knowable realm. Take flight with their third-eye-opening 2015 LP, The Girl with the Raven Mask.
Hailing from the same positively cursed Chicago altars that begat both Coven and Trouble, Mount Salem are psych-powered doom-trippers that will take you to hell—and even further south—by way of the Midwest.
Mount Salem’s 2013 EP Endless is a vortex of which to be spiritually wary—but, after one note, resistance is futile. Go with the flow… to whatever dimension it takes you.
Jess and the Ancient Ones
On their self-titled 2012 debut and 2013’s Astral Sabbat, Finland’s Jess and the Ancient Ones ritually paint the entire universe with pagan illumination and infinite musical possibilities.
Jess, on vocals, makes an endlessly alluring spirit guide, while the twin guitar engines of two Thomases—one surnamed Corpse, the other Fiend—power the vehicle that pilots us on the journey.
Keyboard wizard Abraham (like Jess, he goes by just one name) whips up the ethereal sea on which all involved float. It might be toward enlightenment, it might be damnation. Either way, the sound is irresistible—and utterly transformative.
The ceaselessly fascinating Process Church of the Final Judgment emerged in hippie-era ’60s England clad in sorcerer robes and creating incendiary artwork that espoused their equal worship of both Christ and Satan.
Occult metal supergroup Sabbath Assembly, pieced together from “the frigid streets of NYC and the sweltering Hell known as Texas” to “cast sonic spells of misery and woe.” Among the Assembly’s fluid lineup is aforementioned Hades-raiser Jex Thoth.
Initially, the Assembly espoused the ideas and ideals of the Process Church; recently they’ve announced a “schism.” Either way, Sabbath Assembly rocks indeed, with the power of both—yes!—Christ and Satan… and whoever else is out there with them.
San Francisco shamans Orchid worship their occult rock forefathers from the fact of their name coming from a bleakly beautiful Black Sabbath song to every note they ring out radiating age-old power. At the same time, Orchid imbues their onslaught with ideas and energy all their own.
Orchid surged to the forefront of modern doom upon the issuance of their 2009 underground sensation, Through the Devil’s Doorway, and its 2011 follow-up, Capricorn. Nuclear Blast scooped Orchid up from there, resulting in consistent greatness by way of Heretic (2012), In the Mouths of Madness (2012), Wizard of War (2013), and Sign of the Witch (2015).
Blood Ceremony flows out of Toronto on breaking rapids of doom metal, but their music take to the skies by way of the voice, flute, and bewitching keyboards of Alia O’Brien, the multi-powered enchantress up front.
Blood Ceremony (2008), Living With the Ancients (2011), and especially The Eldritch Dark (2013) comprise the band’s gloriously unholy trinity of releases to date. We want more!
Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats
From Cambridge, England they come and straight to the pinnacle of all occult rock aspirations whey went in 2013. That’s when Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats opened sixteen European tour dates for devil-doom’s alpha-and-omega superlatives, Black Sabbath.
Across their quartet of uniformly transfixing long-players, the bar set by Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats reigns as contemporary occult metal’s benchmark to beat.
So far, UAATD have consistently been able to best themselves by going ever darker into Tony Iommi murk, ever nastier into Stooges-style abandon, and ever higher (pun most definitely intended) above and beyond the inward insanity of Roky Erickson and the headiest, heaviest smoke ever puffed by stoner pioneers on the order of Leaf Hound.
As evidenced by the majority of acts being celebrated here, an all-powerful female front-siren is one of occult rock’s most enduring tropes. It’s a tradition that’s evolved from the blood-and-incense-drenched boilerplate first set in 1969 by Coven’s original mesmerizing necromancer, Jinx Dawson.
London-launched Purson—who are named for a lion-headed, bear-riding, trumpet-blasting demon King of Hell—boasts as scintillating a vocal sorceress as occult rock has ever conjured in the being of Rosalie Cunningham.
Backing Rosalie are maverick mystics-turned-musicians who turn every Purson track in a full-on cabalistic psych-prog feast. The band has not yet produced a single song that last that falls short of transcendent, up to an including their most recent release, “Electric Landlady.”
Ghost presently reign as the best-known, best-loved occult rock outfit on Earth. At the same time, they also rank, high and hard, as the most hated.
That raging duality, as Ghost continually splits metal fans down the middle, only adds to the overall impact of these “Nameless Ghouls” from Sweden in horned silver masks, and the face-painted anti-pope who gives them voice, Papa Emeritus.
Detractors claim that Ghost don’t rock hard enough, or that they just directly cop the poppier aspects of ’70s rockers in general and Blue Öyster Cult, extremely specifically. These naysayers also moan that Ghost’s costumes and makeup are all just a “gimmick” and that the band’s continually increasing popularity just represents how “false metal” it all is.
Ghost boosters, on the other cloven hoof, celebrate the band’s exquisitely crafted songs and revel in their elaborate stage theatrics. Such fans love how Ghost has built so many multi-layered mysteries around themselves (e.g.—has that always been the same Papa Emeritus?) and how no other presently occult metal concern has crafted such a globally effective mythology.
Either way, Ghost dominates the 2015 occult rock conversation. For that alone—and for at least 666 other points of praise one can glean from their ongoing conquests—here’s saluting them with our #1 horns up!