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What we all know as the Goatlord album is basically a rehearsal tape of the material planned for Darkthrone's second full-length. Recorded in 1991, this followed the path started with Soulside Journey, and one can only speculate how the finished product would have sounded. Obviously, it would have featured a more professional production and would lack the raw feeling that this has. However, this never happened. After the release of Soulside Journey, and as they were working on these songs, three of the four members of Darkthrone seemed to be truly inspired by the old black metal albums of Bathory and Hellhammer, among others. They had also developed some sort of friendship with the guys in Mayhem, most notably, Euronymous. As it turned out, they decided that the Goatlord material did not represent their true musical passions and it was scrapped. Instead, they regressed to the primitive sound of old school black metal and the underground was soon shocked with the arrival of A Blaze in the Northern Sky.
In the meantime, the Goatlord rehearsal sat on the shelf, collecting dust. Fast forward to 1994, during a time when Fenriz was extremely prolific, participating in several projects and working on his own quite a bit. With frequent access to Necrohell studio, he decided to take this aborted album and to add vocals to it. Even still, it remained unheard for quite some time, finally seeing the light of day in late 1996 when it was released on Moonfog records. Popular opinion seems to be that this was some sort of cash grab for Darkthrone or Satyr, yet this view is completely ridiculous. If Darkthrone had ever been a band that existed in order to make money, they would not have abandoned death metal during a time when it was popular and trendy. They certainly would not have embraced the lo-fi necro sounds of '80s black metal at a point in time when no one really cared for or understood this. As well, once this did catch on, they would have taken all of the countless offers to play live and to be paid accordingly. Simply put, there was something about this music that appealed to Nocturno Culto and Fenriz, imbuing them with the feeling that it was deserving of an official release for those that would appreciate it. It was likely that they knew it would meet with some criticism, especially when one considers that, in 1996, Darkthrone still possessed quite a bit of mystique and had just released several of the best black metal albums to ever be recorded. It was a brazen move, to go back and embrace their past, after spending some years distancing themselves from it.
Regarding the actual songwriting, this is really all over the place. At times, it seems rather complex and difficult to follow, as there are hardly any recognizable structures. Rhythms change often and suddenly, sometimes giving the songs a rather random and improvised feeling, even though the band was rehearsing all the time back then. There is of course an overly technical death metal vibe, with Fenriz going against what the music called for and playing with a rather hyperactive style that was not always necessary. It is a good thing that he went on to learn what so many other drummers fail to, that showing off does nothing for the overall product and is often detrimental to the music. Nevertheless, what one finds with Goatlord is that Darkthrone has always been a band that puts the guitar riff first and foremost, and this album is dripping with an utter dark feeling that is conveyed by the brilliant riffs. It is too bad that the songwriting suffers from poor organization. In some cases, there is too much going on within the tracks; so many great riffs pass through, briefly, when whole songs could have been built around some of them. There are a number of melodies that would not have been out of place on an old '80s black/death release, mixed in with other riffs that are totally possessed with a feeling of total doom. One can clearly hear influences from the likes of Autopsy and of course Celtic Frost, as usual. Also present, as on Soulside Journey, are the trademark tremolo melodies that Darkthrone would become famous for, during their classic years. Though the songs are mostly mid-paced and shift gears frequently, there are occasional fast riffs with blast beats. However, these are forgettable when compared to the really slow riffs, which are much more memorable. The band could have, easily, moved on to make a form of black/doom, had they wanted to. The only complaint is that the slower sections would have benefited from less over-the-top drum work. Regardless, there is no denying the absolutely gloomy feeling of this material. There are points here where you can really hear the beginning of the transition from Soulside Journey to A Blaze in the Northern Sky. Still, they had not yet gone into the realm of cold and grim atmospheres, despite the incomprehensibly eerie feeling that this possesses.
As for the sound, the darkness of Goatlord is somewhat derived from the fact that it has such an unprofessional sound. The fact that it is a rehearsal recording lends a raw and old school feeling that only adds to the hellish vibe. For a rehearsal, this actually sounds very good. Often, the low-end would dominate everything else, yet the riffs cut through with a sharp clarity that one would not fully expect. Compared to the instrumental version, it seems that a bit of treble has been added here, which was a really good move. The overall impression is still kind of muddy, but the guitars rise from this murkiness and slice right into you, when necessary. The vocals are a little high in the mix, similar to Panzerfaust, but not to the extent that it becomes a problem. Due to the general raw and under-produced sound, Fenriz's harsh and unrestrained vocal performance really seems to fit far more than what Nocturno Culto would likely have done if the album had been recorded as planned, back in 1991. It would be natural to guess that he would have utilized a style similar to that of the debut record, which is hard to even imagine while listening to this.
Speaking of the vocals, regardless of what anyone may think, Fenriz totally makes this album with his vocals. This may be one of the hardest parts of the album to digest. I know that, the first time I heard this, I could hardly understand what the hell I was listening to and thought it was bloody horrible. I refused to bother with this for a couple years, honestly. However, once I decided to give it another chance, the vocals grew on me. Of course, one would never have expected to hear Fenriz doing his best King Diamond impersonation and, upon first listen, I thought they'd brought in some useless whore to sing on the album as so many other bands had done. Yet somehow, when I later returned to Goatlord, it was so clear what he was going for and I was able to appreciate it. He shows quite a bit of range, compared to what one might expect, with some deeper and throatier voices coming and going, though mostly sticking with the sort of hellish and raspy sound as heard on Isengard's Høstmørke. He also makes good use of rather sinister whispering and tortured wails. In truth, this may be the most brilliant vocal work that Fenriz ever did. Overall, his performance is so over-the-top and even theatrical that it really brings the music to life and adds a lot to the atmosphere, in a way that Nocturno Culto probably could not have done, at this point. Without the great effort put into the vocals, this album would have been rather flat and lacked the eerie and nightmarish vibe that it is known for.
The most important thing to do when approaching Goatlord for the first time is to keep an open mind. It is such a unique album, not only within Darkthrone's catalogue, but just in general. I have never encountered anything else remotely like this. It would be easy to say that, if you are a fan of Soulside Journey, then the music presented here will likely appeal to you. Yet it is not so simple, as the vocals really make this a completely different beast. At any rate, it really does work well as the missing link between the debut L.P. and A Blaze in the Northern Sky, while also venturing into territory that few others ever have. This may not be for everyone, not even all Darkthrone fans, yet it is highly recommended for anyone with a true passion for dark and hellish music. Even if you don't get it at first, be patient. It will definitely grow on you.