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Minimal, minimal, minimal, ... and complex - 95%

Kruel, January 8th, 2009

How can this album be described? Fans of it will say it is minimal. Detractors will likewise say it is minimal. Fenriz says it is minimal. I say it is minimal. Indeed, Transilvanian Hunger is a work of minimalism. Three riffs per song, generally with two alternating main riffs and a third bridge riff; little variation in song structure; simple drum beats and bass lines that usually follow the guitar riffs; and raw production. It is minimal. What this minimalism creates is a hypnotizing ambience and an atmosphere that unfolds around the listener. Every riff is tremolo-picked, and except for the first riff of Skald Av Satans Sol and the second riff of I En Hall Med Flesk Og Mjod, none of the riffs have any sort of rhythmic emphasis. This album is a continuous flow of melody with little disturbance.

It is apparent that Darkthrone is not one of the bands that hide their simple core with a flashy outer coating. Darkthrone is also not one of the bands that mistake simplicity for minimalism and boredom for ambience. They distinguish themselves as the masters through subtle manipulations. The bass guitar provides unexpected contrapuntal twists while the second guitar occasionally switches the harmonic backdrop. Howling, tremolo arm-based guitar leads and pick scrapes are also employed. Nocturno Culto knows exactly when to scream to heighten the dramatic effect and Fenriz plays some essential fills. None of these are conspicuous. Instead of disrupting the atmosphere, like some flamboyant attempt at appearing complex would, these subtleties work unassumingly to sustain the magic of the atmosphere, fueling it with small does of warm blood to keep the listener from being completely frozen, or bored, by the cold trance.

Individual tracks, however, are little more than good black metal songs with predictable structures. The true brilliance of this work only becomes apparent when the album is taken as a whole. That which once was a simple riff becomes something of a theme to be developed throughout the album. There is more than a passing melodic semblance between the second riffs of Skald Av Satans Sol and I En Hall Med Flesk Og Mjod, and most of the riff can be divided into largely two groups: the frosty, more consonant riffs and the aggressive and fierce riffs. But this is not to say that riffs are merely recycled, for the context in which each riff enters is constantly adjusted. While the basic structure of the songs generally adhere to the ABABCAB riff pattern, as perfectly exemplified by En As I Dype Skogen and Skald Av Satans Sol, and the to a lesser extent the title track (which has riff "A" played again at the very end), there are slight changes in the arrangement: ABC (Over Fjell Og Gjennom Troner), ABCABC (Slottet I Det Fjerne), ABABCBA (Graven Takeheimens Saler), ABABCA (I En Hall Med Flesk Og Mjod), and ABCA (As Flittermice As Satans Spys). This, however, is but a minor aspect. The way riffs interact with each other makes the album much less predictable than the individual songs, for the climaxes occur at different moments in different songs (e.g. the title track and As Flittermice As Satans Spys reaches their climaxes as the first riff enters again after the bridge and Nocturno sends out a scream, while in the case of Skald Av Satans Sol the cathartically consonant yet ambiguous third riff drives it to the climax), with some songs showing an equivocal attitude toward the concept of climax (e.g. Graven Takeheimens Saler, I En Hall Med Flesk Og Mjod). Despite of having each song clearly defined, with fully resolving cadences and moments of silence between the end of one and the start of another, Transilvanain Hunger is like a river, with songs naturally flowing from one to the next. This is mainly a result of the fact that the riff pattern is organized from a larger perspective, rather than from a point of view confined to a single track. The way the menacing opening riff of Graven Takeheimens Saler towers above its surroundings in a grim manner after a beautifully consonant riff closes Slottet I Det Fjerne, or how the cold riff of En As I Dype Skogen drives forward after the dark and heated ending of As Flittermice As Satans Spys, is even climactic in itself.

No review of Transilvanian Hunger will be complete without mentioning the production. Fans will say it is raw. Detractors will say it is raw. I say it is raw - and perfect. Each instrument is clearly audible, yet they all come together as a singular force. Nocturno Culto's vocals feel ventriloquial, with the component of human throat almost being removed from the voice - thus the vocals feel abstract, like evil itself personified, rather than a voice coming out from a human being. The guitar tone is very fuzzy and inflated, but lacks the aggressive sharpness from the previous album. It is harsh and raw but not filthy or ugly. The cold treble is there, but it feels more like snow than ice. The lyrics of the title track really described it best: "So Pure...Evil, Cold." This also applies to the music at large. It is remarkable that the two albums that represent the pinnacle of Darkthrone's artistic achievement are, while technically similar, almost like polar opposites in mood. Whereas Under A Funeral Moon was utterly demented and eerie, Transilvanian Hunger is the essence of pure beauty, transcending the mere ear-pleasing aesthetic and arriving at a state of meta-beauty through the juxtaposition and the mutual struggle of the beautiful and the ugly. Transilvanian Hunger is minimal, but not simple; it is complex.