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As humans, it can be difficult for us to admit that we occasionally need to give up and go back to the drawing board, no matter what the situation may be. In music, the same applies; some bands may have experimented as much as they can with a certain style, or may have simply run out of ideas and lost their direction. When all else fails, it's usually a good idea to go back to basics, whatever those basics might be. While some, be it St. Anger by Metallica or The World Needs a Hero by Megadeth, may have been extremely weak reboots while some have pulled it off marvelously. Just look at Voivod's new record, Target Earth, for example; even knowing that the band's strongest link had passed away, they managed to set their time aside and release a hell of an album.
With different circumstances, this seems to be the case for Darkthrone's biggest triumph, The Underground Resistance. A household name in extreme metal, Darkthrone unfortunately started to slightly lose their way after the 1991-1994 legendary black metal trilogy was released. The addition of crust punk influences later in their career only added to the disappointment (though some may argue otherwise), and the polarized views people had of the band came in droves. So the next logical step for the duo was to...make a classic speed metal album mixing the old with the new? I'll admit, I thought this would be a trainwreck after hearing the news about their new direction...and let me tell you, I was dead wrong.
In the six songs within, Darkthrone play a blend of classic speed metal/thrash, black metal, doom metal, and numerous other stylistic hints here and there. Contrary to the last few releases, there's only a slight punk influence here. The vocals range from gruff thrash grunts, to the occasional black metal shriek, to dramatic power metal-esque chants, and so forth. Every song has a different vibe and yet somehow the band manage to tie every mood together with their trademark sound. The emotions vary from song to song, among them triumphant, hopeless, hopeful, angry, determined, etc.; the musical backing is always helping to convey these thoughts perfectly. Take the acoustic motif that kicks off "Valkyrie", for instance. The hollow minimalism of the sole acoustic guitar is strong enough to carry the feeling of distance and loneliness on its own, but when the doom metal riff follows, the entire musical portrait is realized. As the lead guitar soars over the burdening heaviness, there is thought to be a sense of hope all the same. Powerful imagery indeed.
Other songs are speed metal frenzies from the get-go, and even the thirteen-minute epic, "Leave No Cross Unturned", takes a stab at Hammerfall-meets-Overkill power thrash before opting for a mid-tempo swing and progressing from there. Similarly, "The Ones You Left Behind" sounds like a song from Metallica's Kill 'Em All if it was modernized and given a nice facelift in terms of songwriting quality. While its E-standard guitar riff is a dime a dozen, the chorus is really where the song hits home; the near-operatic vocals meld with the stop-start guitar work make this climactic portion a joy to listen to. Such moments like these are littered about the album and the consistency of the record only makes the whole experience even easier to digest. That, and the variety and the balance of how the band use each genre is just incredible. Want some of that aforementioned black metal? Get an earful of the blackened "doom" (it does pick up speed frequently, but generally has a doom metal-like atmosphere) number "Come Warfare, the Entire Doom". Want a nice shot of adrenaline? Listen to opener "Dead Early" or "The Ones You Left Behind". Want a moment to take in some atmosphere? Listen to "Valkyrie"'s folk elements and reflective nature. You get the idea.
It's tough to give this release the justice it deserves, so my only recommendation is that you buy it immediately. Whether you're a fan of black metal, thrash metal, death metal, progressive metal, or ANY kind of metal, this is one record that needs to be heard. It needs an audience. It needs to be listened to by heavy metal veterans as well as anybody who's listening to metal for the first time. This album is the sound of a band back in high gear after a long dull patch, and after a record like The Underground Resistance, it's time to treat them like kings. Darkthrone are back, and this may be the biggest crowning heavy metal achievement in recent years. Welcome back, guys!