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It seriously doesn't surprise me that this album is generally marked as Darkthrones lowest point in definition, after the monumental black metal albums of the 90s (marked by rough production and ludicrous primitive musicianship, meant to be atmospheric but was rather ridiculous) and before shifting into their new punkish style. Both of this styles were generally well-received in public, while they musically never appealed to me. Plus I hated their early work for musically discrediting and sustained ruining the black metal genre by inspiring so many cult kids to clone their primitive style resulting in a rush of incompetent fag bands.
On the other hand, by shifting their style in the '00s, they greatly lost in credibility, best displayed in their self-ironic lyrics about metal which took over starting with "Too Old, Too Cold", but already started to mobilise on "Hate Them".
Before I start reviewing the music itself, I have to mention one thing about this album that caused controversy: the cover. It is their only colored cover (except from the death metal stuff) and is definitely not trve and thus was heavily criticised, but for me it is a further indicator that this is their most mature and earnest album.
Now for the music. First thing to be said is, this album has little of what would NOT be expected by mid-career Darkthrone, but they have left out the terrible things and surprisingly successfully managed to create an album of very consistent, serious and credible style. I'll get more specific on this now.
Plaguewielder kept the typical minimalistic song structures, resulting in repetitive songs with little variation BUT, instead of one might assume, this doesn't make this album boring by any means, it's more like Nocturno Culto manages to keep the songs interesting with a perfect production, meaning that the sound is clear but not overproduced nor 'atmospheric' and makes all instruments audible but clearly prefers the guitar (the sound of which is similar to Satyricon's “Volcano”, but less screeching) and the drums; and a solid guitar work with riffs that somehow just don't get boring but are neither attention-whoring. The riffs are still in the style of straight-forward thrash/black metal, power chord-based and rhythm-accenting, but not mindless thrashing nor overly fast, tremolo-picking is still to be found, but even this is used intelligently and doesn't makes such an childish impression as on “Transilvanian Hunger”.
The drums, the only instrument played by Fenriz on this record, have slightly developed and are a bit more varying than on earlier records, but they are played with mind for their purpose and therefore not trying to be spectacular but rather serving the music as a whole. They are more often played at fast speed than the guitar and do really work here in being a driving force.
Nocturno Culto's vocals are, as always, a solid performance. They are mid-pitched, raspy and have decent echo and reverb effects on them. Also, they are not so present on this album (maybe as a result of the longer tracks), creating more place for the music to unfold.
One more good (for me) thing about this album is that it has some doomish tendencies, best seen in last part of “Sin Origin”. Some instrumental parts are stretched over several minutes at a medium (or sometimes even low) tempo, displaying the willingness to hold on one idea for a longer time and giving it a last edge and the music time to last and to work in, instead of rushing uninspired ideas all over the place. The doom influence also results in longer tracks and therefore less tracks.
This said, I will now try to interpret this album in a greater context. An obvious album for comparison would be Satyricon's Volcano, being released about the same time, bearing a similar musical style (of course Satyricon still had some industrial and experimental contents) and marking the mid-carrer of the respective band. Both bands were pioneers of the Norwegian black metal scene, but the style Satyricon was known for in the mid-90s was not the simplicity of Darkthrone, but rather sophisticated and party progressive black metal, which they dropped in the late 90s while Darkthrone conversely maintained their overall style, which is the main reason I don't find this comparison really fitting, also added the incident that for Satyricon, Satyr was the all-time mastermind of the band, while for Darkthrone the mastermind shifted from Fenriz to Nocturno Culto on “Ravishing Grimness”.
The Comparison that I prefer is to post-Cronos Venom, therefore the Venom albums “Prime Evil”, “Temples of Ice” and “The Waste Lands”. The meaning of Venom and Darkthrone in the history of black metal is equally high, both lost public interest in their mid-career (again a difference to Satyricon) while both maintained their straight-forward music style. Venom dropped Cronos, the notorious self-ironic clown of the band, Darkthrone dropped the cult-bearer Fenriz' proportion of their musicianship. So this Venom-era is like “Plaguewielder” - solid musicians maintain their style of black metal but gain in maturity and credibility, resulting in competent works of music.