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Make no mistake, "Soulside Journey" is a fine piece of Scandinavian death metal, secure in its position and unique because of a twisted and angular approach to songwriting that most of Darkthrone's peers did not favour. However, isn't it a somewhat sterile-sounding affair? Does it not sound, due in large part to the Sunlight production, like "Indecent and Obscene"'s more wide-eyed and brainy brother, who could certainly wow you with his IQ but probably couldn't break your jaw with a fist like his sibling would given the chance? There's something that prevents "Soulside Journey" from really being considered among the classic works of Darkthrone, and I would say there's more to this than the simple fact that it's a death metal album. I'm pretty sure that most people got over Darkthrone's style change years and years ago.
Well, if you answered "yes", even if hesitantly to the question above, then you should listen here, because this album (that isn't really an album at all) encapsulates the feeling of what "Soulside Journey" could have been, while being considerably different by virtue of a distinct lack of polish. In fact, this really is a raw recording, which is not exactly something I would say about Darkthrone's black metal albums. It is a rehearsal, if a well-cooked one, and while it is obvious that the band knows the songs well and are quite disciplined, you will notice the ambience of the room (garage?) Darkthrone recorded this in, you will hear the crackle of overdriven amps and the sharp wash-out of enthusiastic cymbal-bashing. And hell and damnation, it sounds superb! If you ever wondered what it would be like sitting in Darkthrone's rehearsal space in 1991, hearing the band crank out some gloriously evil hymns to Darkness, "Goatlord" is your chance to find out. It's death metal, oh yes, but it is as black as any of Darkthrone's black metal classics, and within the confines of these tracks, mastered no doubt from an old cassette tape, you will find a spine-chilling evil feeling that simply isn't much present on the band's workmanlike debut.
My position on "Goatlord" may be slightly unusual, because this is actually the first Darkthrone release I heard and unreservedly enjoyed. Before early 1997 (I think it was), I had heard "Transilvanian Hunger", or at least most of it, and while there was something slightly fascinating about the repetitive melodies and hissy sound and endlessly pattering percussion, I just didn't get it at the time. Then, a woman who hosted a local metal radio show at some ungodly hour of the night far in excess of the Witching One played "Sadomasochistic Rites" from the "Goatlord" session. I was immediately struck by the absolutely eerie and dark feeling this recording had, and I was surprised to learn that the song was by Darkthrone because, rather than being hypnotically repetitive, it was frenetic, unpredictable and busy, with a raw-as-hades guitar sound that was like early Black Sabbath but much dirtier. Of course, I didn't know the history of the band at the time, but I knew I had to have this recording, whatever the hell it was, and further songs played in the coming weeks on the same show made me realise what a creepy gem this really was. While I went on to love "A Blaze in the Northern Sky", and even "Transilvanian Hunger" in time, this recording has always had a special place in my heart as it was my true introduction to what would become my favourite band for many years.
I suppose it is commonplace for people to say nowadays, "well, 'Goatlord' should never have had the vocals overdubbed .. they maybe should have released the instrumental version." I however cannot condone this sentiment. Sure, the vocals were added a few years later, and they seem to have been thrown into the mix without much thought given toward comparative levels or balance. Yes, there are moaning, ululating falseto croonings in most of these songs, provided by Fenriz himself. You're damn right, it sounds weird and not quite the height of profficiency. But "Goatlord" is basically a demo, given professional packaging in retrospect, and the vocal addition is a sweet touch indeed, with its excessive volume, pukish screams (certainly not done by Satyr) and sundry strange noises only adding to the morbidity of proceedings. I would be a lot less happy about "Goatlord" without them, and I'm almost more of a fan of the crooning than I am of the synthesiser bits on "Soulside Journey", which the former is obviously supposed to replace. Who knows if, given the chance, Darkthrone would have inserted keyboards where these vocals currently stand, but I can tell you that they add a unique presence to the recording that I've never heard anywhere else, particularly when they're harmonised, which provides a wonderfully eerie effect. The band abandoned these songs, but think of all the blackness that would have been sucked out of them at Sunlight Studio! Ole' Skogsberg would never have let Fenriz moan and hum into a microphone like that, and more to the point, that whole ominous, horror-metal vibe that "Goatlord" exhibits in spades would simply be gone!
I don't know if it's the dirty, roomy sound, but this sounds a lot more like Autopsy than "Soulside Journey" does, while still maintaining its own sick character. The lurching tempo-shifts, tumbling drum fills and trudging doom all call to mind the aforementioned American group's most sublime moments, and both Darkthrone and Autopsy seem to draw on the same primal metal influences. Those who dismiss the new Darkthrone stuff for being too rockish might want to take a listen to a song like "Towards the Thornfields", and not only note the unrepentent Black Sabbath-like groove, but also perhaps be surprised by its twisted nature. This is also something I always admired about Autopsy: How they would take these retrograde, rock 'n' roll riffs and wrench and mutate them into something that resembled bile gurgling and churning in a corpse's gut.
Fenriz is all over the drums here too, in full death metal exuberance that only remains slightly on the subsequent full-length and dissipates quickly afterwards. It's a pleasure to hear and assures us that he is a very capable and even stellar drummer, and I do prefer this live percussive attack to the heavy but somewhat lifeless-sounding battery on "Soulside Journey". I particularly enjoy the use of the china cymbal here, which gets beaten pretty mercilessly throughout this session. I must stress that although the sound is much akin to the band playing a few feet from where you stand, no doubt quivering in fright, it's one of the clearest rehearsal recordings I've heard and you won't mistake this for an amateur band of highschool students dicking around in a basement with a ghetto blaster set on record. You can even hear Dag Nilsen's bass sometimes, though admittedly it is the one element that's somewhat buried. He does get a few cool solo spots though, just as he did on "Soulside Journey", only these are better!
So, while this may literally be "throwaway Darkthrone" it certainly doesn't deserve to be forgotten. While you could argue that it's unfortunate the band scrapped these songs, some of which may be rather embryonic, you could also say that this recording really is the way these compositions were meant to be put forward. Fenriz and Nocturno might not agree, but I certainly find it so: Fitting and deserving of your undivided attention, particularly if you're a Darkthrone fan who loves death metal but just doesn't think that the Soulside is quite moribund enough.