Once upon a funeral moon, Darkthrone was a band cloaked in mystery and steeped in intrigue. They rarely gave interviews except for a select few underground fanzines, were never seen photographed aside from album layouts, and never played live. They were the personification of “kvlt”; a band feared and revered for their complete abandonment of the self-described “silly, trendy death metal” style and full embrace of the aesthetics and sound of minimalist black metal. Taking cues from Burzum and pioneers like Celtic Frost, Venom, and Bathory, they endeavored to set the underground ablaze with the most raw and primitive black metal to possibly be generated by a shoddy basement recording. The results are well documented history.
The mid ‘00s saw a reinvention of sorts with an expansion into crust punk territory, whilst still maintaining elements of their roots. This period also saw the beginnings of a more public presence, especially for co-founder and skinsman/occasional vocalist Fenriz, who has since appeared in various black metal documentaries, video interviews, and mainstream metal magazines. Some of the mystery is gone but the dedication to the preservation of their craft remains. Musical stylings have wavered slightly over the years, with the last few albums venturing into speed and power metal territory, marrying those styles with the aforementioned crust punk influence. Reports of a “serious and primitive” new album began to surface over the summer, coloring this reviewer excited. Even the cover art depicting a grim and dark campfire scene from one of Fenriz’s camping trips suggested a black metal return to form. Have the band rekindled the flame that made albums like 1994’s Transylvanian Hunger and 1995’s Panzerfaust so special? Yes and no.
Darkthrone has always been deliberate with their influences, proudly wearing them on their literal and figurative sleeves. The most glaring is undoubtedly Hellhammer/Celtic Frost, and the Swiss trio has obviously returned to the respective turntables of Fenriz and Nocturno Culto these past few years since 2013’s NWOBHM inspired The Underground Resistance. Opener and first single ‘Tundra Leech’ signals a renewed black metal embrace from the first riff; a doomy nod to the Frost-laden mid-90s that would not be entirely out of place on Panzerfaust. The King Diamond inspired vocal gymnastics are gone for the most part, bar a brief appearance midway through the brooding ‘Boreal Fiends’, which calls to mind labelmates Autopsy’s more subtle moments in the song’s intro. But that’s where any death metal comparisons end. No galloping power metal riffs, and the thrashier moments are sparse. Despite shedding these experimental elements, Arctic Thunder is still a diverse album in the scheme of Darkthrone’s discography and much more expansive than the golden (blackened?) era of the 90s. So anyone looking for a kvlt classic rehash will be sorely disappointed.
Still, so much of what made those early albums special is here in spades. While production values have increased over the years, the tones are still raw as ever and convey the original spirit of the band. As a whole, the album is partially a retrospective of those formative years; not appearing deliberate in its execution but instead being an honest representation of this stage in their musical evolution. Second track ‘Burial Bliss’ plods along with a Motorhead paced D-beat, full chord tremolo riffs singing with minor chord melody ala Transilvanian Hunger, though not near as fast. There are even doom flirtations in the second half of ‘Inbred Vermin’, somber in delivery and rife with funereal melody. Fenriz stated on the band’s Facebook account that vocal duties were handled by Nocturno Culto to create a “more solemn/introvert atmosphere”. The characteristic slap back vocal delay from Under A Funeral Moon is present here; lending to, but not for the sake of nostalgia. It must be reiterated that nothing here feels forced. It’s simply Darkthrone being Darkthrone, constantly changing yet always consistent in their motives.
Despite the “serious and primitive” nature of the album, humor is seemingly not lost on the duo. In classic Hellhammer fashion: Fenriz counts off a tempo, opening riff follows, full band kicks in and bpm falls completely. There are hot rockin’ riffs abound throughout the album as well, the highlight being about two-thirds the way through previously mentioned ‘Boreal Fiends’, complete with cowbell and a booty swingin’ cadence that would make Tom Warrior blush. All that’s missing is the characteristic “OWWWWW”. Whether the motive here was humor or not we may never know, but the sentiment is always appreciated.
Darkthrone has always been an honest band, always aware but never preoccupied with the trajectory of other artists and trends. If anything, they use it to their advantage as a cheat sheet for what to avoid, existing mostly onto themselves. Arctic Thunder brings nothing new to the table, and the band seems to be past their experimental and “fun” stage, for now anyway. Granted, even during the experimental crust punk and heavy metal periods of the past 10-15 years, they weren’t exactly reinventing the wheel. Instead, they paid homage with complete disregard for the musical climate surrounding them. Arctic Thunder is the sound of a band returning home after a walkabout through the annals of heavy metal history, collecting a few proud scars along the way and nestling back into their place as a reliable, consistent, and uncompromising source of old school black metal.
Darkthrone’s Arctic Thunder will be available October 14th, 2016 on Peaceville Records. Pre-orders are available right here.