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There's never been a time in music like the winter of 1993-1994. Being only a one year old, I can't say that from experience, but looking at the albums released at that time (Transylvanian Hunger, Hvis Lysett Tar Oss, Pure Holocaust, In the Nightside Eclipse, Vikingligr Veldi, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas) is basically looking at a list of greatest black metal albums ever.
Even though Hvis Lysett Tar Oss may have been the best album in the group and In the Nightside Eclipse may have had the greatest influence, Transylvanian Hunger is perhaps the most significant album here. Without a doubt, it's become a bible among minimalist/atmospheric/mother's basement bands the world over. It was the first and most successful instance of the genre and has been copied, for good reason, ad nauseum.
The production is perfect for what they were trying to achieve. The vocals stick out like a lead instrument should, the guitars are harsh, the bass is fully audible, and the drums provide a nice atmospheric rhythm. The instrumentation is pretty much a non-issue when it comes to atmospheric black metal. The one thing I would like to share is that, contrary to popular opinion, songs like these can be surprisingly hard to play on a guitar (as far as drums and bass go, I have no idea). Playing perfectly-executed tremolo power chords five minutes straight requires a fair amount of stamina in your wrists that takes some time to develop.
With the lyrics mostly being in Norwegian, I doubt I could have much to say in this respect. Judging from the many amateur translations, I'd say their pretty much the awesome, satanism/paganism-inspired narratives you would expect. “Slottet I Det Fjerne” is no doubt inspired by Grendel in “Beowulf” and is a stand out.
The two English songs are very far apart in quality. “Translivanian Hunger” has classic, albeit clichéd, Norenglish lyrics (apparently memorable, since the queer phrase “delightfully immortal” is always popping in my head for some reason...). The lyrics to “As Flittermice As Satans Spys,” courtesy of Varg Vikernes, are probably my favorite lyrics to any black metal song ever. These lyrics are great simply for all of the words it invents (“plenilune” = full moon; “Flittermice” = bats; use of “umbrage” as a verb). It also pretty much summarizes the ideology of all of black metal in one song, like in the lines:
“Beholding the son recrucified, beholding gods race browbeaten (yes, for better or worse, anti-semitism will always be apart of black metal...),
Beholding the Devastation of all morals built by them.”
In terms of composition, a lot of people hate this album because they somehow perceive it as “lazy” or “unskilled” for repeating riffs. I suppose when they hear the words “minimalist atmospheric black metal”, they think of Necrophagist or something. Of course riffs are going to be repeated – the key to not becoming boring is asking yourself how often, when, how long, ect. Darkthrone answers these questions perfectly on this album. For all of the simplified drum beats and lack of variation in song composition, I very rarely, if at all, feel bored when listening to this album. That says a lot.
Most of the time what makes a great minimalist band, of course, are the riffs. This is where Darkthrone shines the most as the melodies on these riffs are simply amazingly atmospheric. There's only maybe one or two riffs here that I would consider substandard and a little boring, but the rest are pure gold. Solos are implemented to tastefully augment the effect of the music (the end of “Skald Av Satans Sol” is a good example), which is a must because solos can easily ruin the atmosphere if they run amok.
The other thing to mention is that this isn't what I'd term “cut-and-paste” riff compositions like some other minimalist bands (not just black metal). That is to say there is a lot of variation and, perhaps, improvisation outside of the regular riff progression. The guitar feedback and ominous drums at the end of “Over Fjell Og Gjennom Torner” is a good example. The wriggling bass line under “Transilvanian Hunger” is another. These seldom-noticed aspects prevent the music from becoming merely robotic, “riff A to riff B” shit.
Positive Points – the riffs are hypnotizing; the production fits like a glove; the lyrics are classic.
Negative Points – none