Darkthrone. Despite being one of the most-mentioned bands when it comes to what became known as the “second wave of black metal” that came out of Norway in the early-to-mid ’90s, they have become one of the most polarizing when it comes to their subsequent output. Their path has led them down some strange avenues, but it has landed them in the position of having released what might be the album of the year. And it’s only February.
Darkthrone have always been the weird ones out. Their first album, 1991’s Soulside Journey, is actually a technical death metal LP in an early Entombed vein, and a damned fine one at that. But it seems that immediately afterward, they decided to strip down everything about their music to the bare minimum in an effort to find out what metal sounds like after you remove what makes people comfortable. Drain the color; make it black and white. Take the warmth and depth out of the sound and make it cold and brittle. In the process, they became an inextricable part of Norway’s nascent black metal scene. It started with the following year’s A Blaze in the Northern Sky and reached its apotheosis with 1994’s Transilvanian Hunger, which honed everything down to a blade-sharp sameness: the same time signature, the same drum pattern, the same tempo. All of the songs were uniform, stripped bare and blurred by in a frenzy, like a whirling mass of razor blades. The only things that changed between songs were the riffs and the lyrics. As an end result, it was a singular expression of the band’s purposeful regression. In its wake, Transilvanian Hunger established a template that, much to the band’s chagrin, many have embraced and followed to the letter.
But where do you go from there?
Panzerfaust came next, an explicit homage to Celtic Frost, which is where many people hopped off the train. It was followed by several albums that even drummer Fenriz admits is where they lost their way, got bored and wound up going through the motions. They started regaining their mojo when they started incorporating more and more influences of the music they grew up loving: punk, speed metal, NWOBHM and more traditional heavy metal sounds. This evolution took place starting with 2006’s The Cult Is Alive (though hints appear on the previous LP, Sardonic Wrath), and—much like Transilvanian Hunger did before—has reached its ne plus ultra with their new album The Underground Resistance.
Holy whore of Babylon (if I may steal a phrase), this is the album those of us who’ve been following Darkthrone’s later career have been waiting on for nearly a decade. It’s not just evidence of a revitalized band firing on all cylinders, it’s the most serious album they’ve done since The Cult Is Alive. There are no paeans to “Canadian Metal” or “Hiking Metal Punks,” no sly boasts along the lines of “I Am the Graves of the ‘80s,” “Raised on Rock” or “I Am the Working Class.” Instead, this is the hard-hitting shit, planting a flag and calling it like it is. This, as the cover art makes plain, is battle music. It’s the resistance. The titles tell you the story: “Dead Early,” “Valkyrie,” “Lesser Men,” “The Ones You Left Behind,” “Come Warfare, the Entire Doom,” “Leave No Cross Unturned.” This is music to kick ass to.
Musically, this album is both all over the place and cohesive: pulling together Maiden-esque galloping beats and time changes, black metallic tremolo picking, Morricone/spaghetti western-inspired acoustic guitar openings, doom-laden Sabbathian plodding and speed metal fury. Six songs. Half by Nocturo Culto, half by Fenriz. Vocals shared along both. Culto’s Tom G. Warrior-esque rasp perfectly matches the power and anger of his tracks, while Fenriz has fully embraced the operatic and dramatic vocals of bands like Agent Steel and Fates Warning, balancing them with gruff barking orders. And more than any other album since Soulside Journey, it demonstrates just how fucking great these guys are at technical matters like composition and playing. If the previous four albums were the sounds of the duo having fun while riffing off the music they came of age to, this is the sound of the band leaning into the machine and taking control of it. Glorious riffs abound, from the chugging doom of…well, “Come Warfare, the Entire Doom” to the twisting, burning riff that hits you 3 minutes into “Dead Early.” On those rare occasions when Nocturno Culto’s leads are sloppy, it’s evident that the passion behind the playing has taken center stage (and is the most important thing to display, anyway).
The (sorry, overused term, but what else can I call it?) epic sweep of “Valkyrie” automatically pushes it into the category of instant classic, but the pinnacle of the whole album is the climactic 13:49-minute long “Leave No Cross Unturned.” Shifting from the aforementioned Agent Steel to Celtic Frost and back again, the song is both the summation of the entire goddamned record and a call to arms. When I first heard the 7-minute edit, I was bouncing off the walls with glee. It’s practically everything I love in metal wrapped up in one big, glorious box. And its mid-song shoutout from Fenriz, “Nocturno Culto, HAIL!” both ties the song back to Blaze’s “In the Shadow of the Horns” and emphasizes what makes Darkthrone so fucking special: these are brothers. They may be separated for most of the year, each working in their own city on their own music, projects and day jobs, but these two complement each other like few other artists. On their own, sure, they’re great. I love Sarke. I love Isengard. But together, it’s like alchemy. And on this album they’ve achieved something they haven’t in nearly 20 years: a masterpiece.
The cult is alive. Long live the cult. Hails!