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Deserves most of the praise...and here's why - 93%

Abominatrix, March 29th, 2005

Many things have been said about Darkthrone; their early days of sophisticated and moody death metal, through the gradual stripping down of their sound to its most primal elements within a black metal framework, to the final revellation that, big surprise, Darkthrone are just a couple of guys out to make loud and raucous heavy metal. Much of what's been said seems inaccurate, overblown, exagerated or simply misrepresentative. Whatever the case, it seems that nowadays everybody even remotely interested in metal has to have some kind of opinion about this band, even if more often than not that opinion is based on negligible fact or musical examination that is far from thorough.

So what's Darkthrone all about, circa 1993? Two years previously the band had disillusioned a great many fans by releasing an album that was markedly more ferocious and less rooted in the death metal tradition than its predecessor, yet in the end many of these fans came back after repeated listenings, because they realised that in fact the previous album's influences were still rather in tact, only cloaked by a thinner, much less immediately ear-pleasing sound and with much of the Scandinavian death tradition replaced by some nasty early 80s aesthetics. It was with "Under a Funeral Moon" that many listeners simply lost a grip on Darkthrone's singularly regressive plot. One reviewer described the album as "sounding as if it were "recorded inside a moving car", and while death metal fans could forgive the admittedly less immediate complexities of "A Blaze in the Northern Sky", the minimalism that seemed to be creeping into Darkthrone's compositions at this point seemed rather unpalletable.

Of the two points that are often levelled against this record, production is the easiest to tackle and to grasp. It is interesting to me that for the uninitiated listeners for whom I've played this, it is invariably the punk fans who find this easiest to swallow. Perhaps this is because true punk rock was never made to "sound good", and poor production values were at least in the early days second nature to the genre. Interestingly, the guitar tone on this particular (very metal) record reminds me more than a little of "Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables" from the Dead kennedies, and in fact there's a specific riff on "Under a Funeral Moon" which a friend of mine pointed out sounded a lot like a DK riff (from "Let's Get Drafted", I think?). Comparrisons aside though, I find it difficult to see why anyone who listens to something other than slickly produced albums like "Shout At the Devil" would have any trouble with the sound of this particular Darkthrone album. Hell, Bathory's seminal "Under the Sign of the Black Mark" sounds much worse than this to my ears, yet seldom do I hear anyone complain about that particular masterpiece.

Yet, I'm not a "Darkthrone apologetic". In fact, I think that most of their albums have a perfect sound, or rather, perfect for the musical ideas they're attempting to communicate. It is remarkable to me that a band of Norwegians who, according to most of the naysayers, haven't a clue what they're doing with regard to playing their instruments let alone manipulating a mixing board, manage to go into the studio every couple of years and, almost unfailingly, come out with a slightly tweaked and different soundscape/production approach that fits their music so exactly. The Darkthrone production, in its various forms, is central to the music itself, and operates as a constant backdrop to the actual playing influencing the mood of the compositions and of the listener. It is, really, a stroke of genius that Darkthrone ought to be lauded for more often. Yes, the sound on this one is thin and reedy, the guitar tracks of Nocturno Culto and Zephyrous so brittle and dry sounding that they call to mind a burial mound on a blasted heath. Yes, the drums clatter and rattle away like a broken air compressor, or maybe like the dragging chains of a forgotten spirit (please excuse the melodrama!). But, hasn't anybody noticed, oddities aside, how clear everything is? Can you say with accuracy that you can hear every note played, every nuance of percussion laid out on your favourite Abyss Studios release (Marduk, I am looking directly at you!)? Darkthrone don't play fast, and they never allow everything to become blurred by constantly blasting snare and overmixed/compressed guitar. You can even hear the bass on this record! Despite the rice-paper guitar tone, that bottom end is a constant, a clean and reliable rumble that is like a grounding force holding the listener down to earth and sometimes serving as a reminder of the often obscure melodies being played. Vocals are so up front that you'd think they would overpower the guitars, yet they never do, despite the rampant use of an echo effect with a much longer delay than would be normal for say, your average 80s thrash record.

So Darkthrone can hide nothing with this high, stark degree of clarity. But why should they need to? We already know from "Soulside Journey" that they are capable of perplexing time changes and winding, jazz-inspired structures. Here they have done away with all the autopsy-isms and most of the Celtic Frostisms of "A Blaze in the Northern Sky" and replaced them with something that is part Bathory, part Hellhammer and part early Norwegian black metal trademark. Some of these songs do indeed have very few riffs, two or three, in fact, yet why does a metal song need more than that? Mankind's most ancient, pre-christian musics were unflinchingly simplistic in nature, stripped bare of incongruities and embellishments to tap right to the essence of the soul, rather than to be broken down bit by bit by a brain desperately searching for meaning.

But, as is the case with life in general, things are seldom quite as they appear and many of these songs do possess clever shifts and tricks that are, I would argue, based more upon the manipulation of sound rather than on a desire to implement crafty musical ideas. Take the closing track, "Crossing the Triangle of Flames". Why does it sound so different from the rest of the album...almost unsettlingly so? The riffs are strange, sure, obscure and melodic in an off-kilter sort of way, yet the drumming is really what does it. Formerly subdued cymbal splashes are suddenly constant, sharp rings, and it sounds as if Fenriz is flagging behind the kit, growing wearier and wearier as the song progresses, almost holding the band back, dealing out haphazard, painful sounding tom fills at strange seemingly inopportune moments. This sounds horrible, on paper, yet it works to the band's advantage here because you know that by this point they think of their compositions as soundscapes, canvases on which to paint audial portraits of embittered life and death. When you start thinking of music in this fashion, suddenly a whole wealth of new techniques becomes open to you, and former ideas about correct musical structure become limitations rather than benchmarks of quality. It's notable too that this is the final song, and all of us know damn well by now that Darkthrone are not amateurs, that they wouldn't set anything to tape that wasn't in some way purposefully concocted.

The highlights here are many. I already mentioned "Crossing the Triangle of Flames", and I think it is one of the best album closers in my collection. After the flagging, broken sounding semi-blast, the band collapses into a most colossal, doomy riff that is the epitome of hateful sounding, to be slowly superceded by the chhiming of a synthetic gong fed through some kind of strange studio effect to sound merky and as though it were recorded underwater. The title track is also a winner, as it actually possesses quite a few distinct riffs, one of which is so catchy and memorable that one really cannot help but appreciate it (you really ought to know the one I mean). My former band used to cover this one and it was always a fun song to play, right down to the great midpaced middle section with some very proud, malignant sounding chords backed by the kind of howling, dissonant soloing that is par for the course on this album. Of solos there actually are few, but they are very effective, seeming like a desperate and drunken Nocturno Culto's attempt to play every note possible on his guitar simultaneously and occasionally striving for understated, brief melodies in a similar fashion to what both Quorthon and Tom G. Warrior had already done.

Speaking of Bathory, who inevitably must be invoked frequently in any discussion of this album, "To Walk the Infernal Fields" sounds a hell of a lot like "Enter the Eternal Fire", but I prefer to view it as a tribute rather than a pitifully disguised rip-off, especially since darkthrone has an earthy, organic feel that Bathory, despite Quorthon's mastery, never really attained or seemed interested in achieving. "To Walk the Infernal Fields" is the first track I heard from the album, and its swinging drum beats, rather melodic riffs and powerful vocals (Nocturno Culto's gravelly snarls are really at their best on this record) drew me in after a few hesitant listens.

And if you listen hard enough, you might just hear the dying gasps of the Scandinavian death metal influence in Darkthrone's sound playing their way discordantly through the distinctly odd "Natasja in Eternal Sleep". It's a black metal love song, of a sort, with lyrics oddly juxtaposed with the music so that it sounds as if they are being narrated rather than "sung", reflectively spat out by a filthy wretch of a man in between gulps from a bottle clutched in shaking hands. The band plays under this bitter monologue to establish the narrator's state of mind: a strange set of a very few riffs with notes that spiral upward in an unpredictable manner that almost remind me of a certain title track to a certain Entombed debut!

I'm not sure if this is Darkthrone's crowning achievement, but it is damn close. Their personality and inventiveness seems at the highest level on this one, displaying a quirkiness of songwriting and arrangement that is undenyably Darkthroen and, though minimalist and regressive in playing approach, is progressive where it counts; namely, the band has reached the level where they can finally see their music as more than just a collection of riffs and ideas. Instead, we have full, detailed acoustical portraits that are more than the sum of their parts. This kind of thinking has been prevalent in the visual arts world at least since Piccaso (I'm hardly a painting expert), but it seems that the metal public often have a hard time swallowing this degree of abstraction in audio. And, for every one who does really grasp the concept, there are at least two hangers-on who are so quick to sing the album's praises yet still miss the point entirely. Still, isn't that always the way?