Dissecting Darkthrone: A Discography Breakdown
Tired of these yet? No? Good to hear! You’ve stuck with me through my first 3 installments and I’m looking forward to much more. This time, I take on the Second Wave of Black Metal innovators known as Darkthrone. Whether it be from their grim breakthroughs in black metal, drummer Fenriz’s current political status or simply “that one band those dudes talk about all the time”, I am willing to bet everyone here knows of Darkthrone. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone has in fact listened to them, though. With their sixteenth album coming out on October 14th I thought it would be a perfect time to dive deep into this extravagant discography of twists and turns to see how the band got to their current state.
Soulside Journey (1991) & A Blaze In The Northern Sky (1992)
As many of you know, though some may not, Second Wave stalwarts Darkthrone started as a death metal band and Soulside Journey is a direct result of their endeavors as such. This debut is an interesting beast that proves Darkthrone very well could have been a prominent act in the death metal realm. The band, initially a 4 piece, recorded a haunting concoction of death and doom that is laden with keyboard driven atmospheric overtones, setting it apart from their peers at the time. A shocking development on this album is its technicality and tonality. The band knows how to use their instruments with great confidence and the production value is fairly clean and open for an early 90s Death Metal album. Though somewhat forgettable within the history of Darkthrone, Soulside Journey stands well in its own class.
Any fan base Darkthrone intended on building with Soulside got kicked to the curb with A Blaze In The Northern Sky. Like a bag of moldy tangerines, Darkthrone tosses their cleaner death metal sound in the trash and replace it with a grim, lo-fi offering that starts Darkthrone’s run of black metal classics. Worth noting, however, is the slight death metal vibe a listener might receive from the riffs but it is clear that Darkthrone are striding into the ever dark forest. I personally find it astonishing that a budding death metal band decided to turn their direction on its head in the span of one year and to most this transition may seem backward, but Darkthrone knew exactly what they were doing by joining the black metal allegiance. Soulside was cold, but compared to Blaze, it is the Sahara Desert.
Under A Funeral Moon (1993) & Transylvanian Hunger (1994)
Darkthrone eschews all residual death metal and embraces the cold dead winter completely on their third LP. Under A Funeral Moon shows the sound Fenriz and co. were developing on Blaze come into full fruition. I can see now why Darkthrone are hailed in such high regard, how many bands can you think of that have ripped this sound off? Plenty. The riffs are raw, the drumming is strong and the vocals are anguished resulting in a grim atmosphere. All of this atmosphere wouldn’t be worth much on its own, luckily the songwriting here is truly brilliant, riffs intertwine within each other and use subtleties that require the utmost attention to pick up. Due to this, headphones are an absolute must for the experience.
Darkthrone takes a turn towards the epic with Transylvanian Hunger. Perhaps it is the constant, pulsating blast of the drums or the chosen chord progressions but Transylvanian Hunger feels, for lack of a better term, triumphant. There is a certain mighty appeal to this album that recalls the sounds first heard within Bathory albums and utilized by fellow second wavers, Enslaved.The guitars take an interesting form by using constant tremolo picking while the chords and notes themselves progress slowly, adding a dense swirling effect. Under a Funeral Moon felt like a midnight forest walk, but Transylvanian Hunger fits perfectly into an ancient battlefield setting. The clashing of warriors is heard through Fenriz’s cymbals and Nocturno’s battle like cries.
Panzerfaust (1995) & Total Death (1996)
Roughly translating to “armor fist”, Darkthrone’s fifth album Panzerfaust is an aural assault taken straight into the trenches. Once again change their game and broaden their musical scope by adding just the right amount of traditional doom to the mix. Songs like “The Hordes of Nebulah” chug along at a slow, Celtic Frostian pace that would make Tom G Warrior “UGH!” out of respect. This is also the first album with which I’ve found myself outright headbanging with. The past three seem to be best enjoyed in introspective solitude but Panzerfaust begs to be blasted out of car windows and mercilessly headbanged to. My only complaint is that the vocal performance is sloppy, like drunken mess sloppy. Though it is hard to make that a complaint because it actually almost works with the vibe of the album.
Total Death takes the approach of Panzerfaust but tightens the screws a bit to create a more concise album. Unfortunately, in doing so, they lose the charm that Panzerfaust had. The Motörhead vibe is turned up on a lot of the songs and at the same time, they beckon back to Under a Funeral Moon, with the drumming particularly making the blasts a more prevalent factor. Even though these points sound positive, Total Death didn’t grab me as much as the past albums had. At this point in their career and after 6 albums in just as many years, I suppose I can give the band a little slack. They can’t all be zingers.
Ravishing Grimness (1999) & Plaguewielder (2001)
Initially, I thought Ravishing Grimness was going to end up as Total Death Pt. 2, that was not the case, however. “Lifeless” starts and it is a bit lackluster but the album opens up nicely with “The Claws of Time” and the title track having some of my favorite Darkthrone riffs thus far. The band is able to find a nice mid-paced backbone for the album that allows them to deviate when needed. It is also worth noting that this is Darkthrone’s cleanest sounding album since Soulside Journey, something I did not expect to discover. The song structures have smoother transitions and the instruments are well-balanced in the mix, perhaps we will see more of this in the future.
The first thing noticeably different about Plaguewielder is its artwork. Gone are the monochromatic photos and landscapes, we now have a Dave McKean influenced collage in its place. As the album starts, the grim utterance about death and life seems like a throwback to A Blaze In The Northern Sky and I am expecting a more “classic” Darkthrone album. As the cover suggests, however, they have have changed once again. What we are presented with is an album full of good ideas, but that lacks any real memorability. The riffs sound like they are trying to recapture Panzerfaust but instead just float along in a raft of mediocrity. The biggest exception to this though is album closer “Wreak”, that song slays. As lackluster as the album is the vocal performance is done with unique precision and the production is again, cleaner.
Hate Them (2003) & Sardonic Wrath (2004)
Hate Them is the darker, bleaker older brother of its two predecessors. It begins with an airish open soundscape and delves into the band’s introspective early works. The album scratches in just the right places with just the right techniques (like Fenriz’s d-beats) that it ends up being a fairly enjoyable listen. Unlike the past two albums, though, we find a rawer quality to the overall sound which can be seen as a band trying to recapture the old magic. Hate Them also is the first album in which lyrics really stuck out intensely to me, during “Fucked Up and Ready To Die” Nocturno shouts the words, rather clearly actually, “let’s leave this sinking ship together/the water of life will fill your lungs/drink til you bleed/when contradiction fail to soothe.” I know they have more intense lyrics around, but the moment I heard that it struck a weird chord.
Sardonic Wrath is a decent summation of Darkthrone’s career up until this point. Throughout the album, you can dissect its passages and pinpoint each background to any specific moment in their catalog. This is not to say the album is without new qualities however as there is a certain air of punk in the atmosphere. Perhaps to further this particular aesthetic, Sardonic Wrath has an even rawer and more DIY sound than both Plaguewielder and Total Death, but not overly raw to dissuade any new listeners. The riffs cut through heavily in the mix, Nocturno’s vocal execution is killer and Fenriz’s drumming is primal mastery in what seems to be a rejuvenation of Darkthrone’s material. After the slight degradation from the last few albums they have returned past glory and I look forward to the future of the band.
The Cult Is Alive (2006) & F.O.A.D. (2007)
Where Sardonic Wrath was still a black metal album with punk tendencies, The Cult Is Alive presents itself as a punk album with only slight black metal tendencies. And no I am not talking about the nonsensical “pop-punk” either, I am talking grimy crust punk of the nth degree. The opening verse of “Too Old Too Cold” refrains “Nothing to prove/Just a hellish rock’n’roll freak/You call your metal black/It’s just plastic, lame and weak” describing exactly the band’s feelings toward the black metal scene of the time and an explanation for such a harsh transition. Throughout this album the lyrics are in the same vein; describing graveyard promiscuity, whisky binges, and further distaste about their once prominent scene. I must hand it to Darkthrone, they absolutely take no shit, stick to their guns and do what they want. Being a punk fan myself, I couldn’t help but smile throughout most of the album, the riffs killed and it was a good time.
F.O.A.D. is exactly what I love about heavy metal. It has elements of speed metal, traditional metal, crust punk and an ever-so-slight hint of the band’s black past. What I enjoy most is the fact that Darkthrone have made a tribute to their obvious love of heavy metal in a short 40 minutes, a feat that I can’t even put into words. Not many bands have been able (or even try) to step back, look at themselves, remember why they do what they do and make an album based solely on what they see. A key point that really helps to make this album is Fenriz’s extra duties as a vocalist. While he has provided some in the past, he sings nearly 50% of this album and even supplies a magical falsetto during “Canadian Metal.” Additionally; the riffs are catchy, the song lyrics are fun, the production is unbeatable and the artwork rules. In my mind, this album is near perfection.
Dark Thrones And Black Flags (2008) & Circle The Wagons (2010)
What is that I spy? The same character from F.O.A.D. is gracing this cover as well, that’s what! You know what that means? More excellence from these Norwegian metalheads. Dark Thrones and Black Flags continues the new sounds Darkthrone embraced on F.O.A.D. and once again I am sold on it. The band plays right into the crusty speed metal, this time with a darker edge. Many of the riff structures here have a black metal feel to them than previously, creating a slight ominous ambiance around the album at times. Turning over a new leaf, Darkthrone has plenty of fun (I’m not saying they didn’t have fun before this era, just that it is blatantly obvious now) and “Hanging out in Hainger” is a raucous party starter if I’ve ever heard one.
M!P!D!S opens Circle The Wagons, Darkthrone’s 14th album and what follows is another catchy speed metal album, this time with a little less emphasis on the dirt and crust. Circle The Wagons is, surprisingly enough, a fairly clean album. Nocturno and Fenriz trade-off songs with ease and churn out riffs like a well-oiled machine while the production is level and the recording doesn’t sound like it was in the red. If you were to imagine F.O.A.D. as a debut release, Circle The Wagons is the refined 3rd album with a more evolved production (think Kill ’em All vs Master of Puppets). I find it uncanny how Darkthrone has practically been four different bands at this point in their career and can show progression through each phase, not even caring what others think. It is truly admirable.
Underground Resistance (2013)
After Circle the Wagons Darkthrone dropped practically all of the crust and punk influence from their sound. This change (yes, yet another!) resulted in The Underground Resistance, a stripped down, traditional heavy metal album. As you can see from the album art, the band plays into the warrior laden aesthetic of early Celtic Frost and Viking-era Bathory. The songs trudge along at a solid mid-pace with the occasional amped up thrashing, adding to a largely triumphant atmosphere and sounding just a bit like Di’anno led Iron Maiden. Overall this album is solid, especially for a band this far into their career, not many bands would find the drive to continue along these paths but Darkthrone prevailed. As a side note, “Valkyrie” will rank high as one of my favorite Darkthrone songs.
And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for! THE LIST! Now remember folks, this is just my personal favorite list, not a definitive end all, be all master list. I can already hear the bickering in the comments below and as always the list is subject to change.
2. Transylvanian Hunger
4. Circle The Wagons
5. Under A Funeral Moon
6. A Blaze In The Northern Sky
7. Dark Thrones and Black Flags
8. The Underground Resistance
9. Ravishing Grimness
10. Hate Them
11. Soulside Journey
12. The Cult is Alive
13. Sardonic Wrath
15. Total Death
Now take a breath, I know that list was difficult to read for some of you. If you think about it, though, you should’ve guessed that the more traditional metal pride album would be my favorite.
As a reminder, the new Darkthrone album Arctic Thunder is out on October 14th, give it a listen and let me know what you think! I really do want to know.
Thanks again to everyone here for dealing with my self-indulgent dives, I hope many of you are introduced to old classics and take dives of your own. I have a large list of bands to go through, but I will not turn down any suggestion for future articles. Please comment below!