Darkthrone: retro-evolution in search of nature and tradition

Darkthrone is a band whose image is, to most, intricately tied to musical linearity and paucity of sound. That would be a consequence of the three foundation stones that are Blaze In The Northern Sky, Under A Funeral Moon and Transilvanian Hunger. Three albums that have laid the foundations of the most traditional black metal you could think of – “true”, as we’re supposed to put it. Three albums that provoke the listener through their sheer minimalism, and their search for “under-produced” sound, as opposed to what can be achieved with modern production tools. The aficionados would tell you this approach is the key to achieving a dark, unhealthy atmosphere. The detractors would tell you they must be fuckin’ kidding us.

Now still, when he talks about his new album, The Underground Resistance, Fenriz mentions a quest for the most organic sound possible (he even goes as far as talking of “organic metal” as a movement in an interview for Nocturnal Cult). For example, he was always forcefully against so-called “triggered” drums, which are often used nowadays and which, according to him, destroy otherwise decent pieces of work. The title of the album clearly refers to the band’s activism against technological evolution and, as we can imagine, the perversions of the music business. And, come to think of it, both the abuses of over-production, which have brought the modern « loudness war » in their wake, and the slow descent into hell of the music industry seem to justify their fight. But do they justify the opposite kind of excess?

In a way, Darkthrone answer this question themselves, for The Underground Resistance isn’t as primitive as you might think. It would be wrong to associate the underground scene to crudeness. Above all, this scene is a breeding ground for naked mankind, as intelligent as it may be, with the faults and imperfections that implies, with raw emotions and complete sincerity. The underground scene is often seen as something musicians must slave through when they lack means, but sometimes, it can be chosen (that would be the “resistance” Darkthrone mention). And yet, even though the musicians remain true to their word and the instruments sound extremely natural and fit the underground spirit, The Underground Resistance boasts the best sound quality a Darkthrone record could hope to achieve. The underlying clarity is probably the most surprising element: it makes every element distinguishable – even the bass line, which has never been the most determining instrument in Darkthrone.

In actual fact, this relatively good – yet old school – production unheard from the band goes along with more elaborate music. After their 2006 turnaround, the duo seems to adjust its course. From The Cult Is Alive on, the band steered away from black metal and went back to their roots. The result was a series of albums largely inspired by Venom, or even crust-punk or basic punk/metal. In order to get as close to their origins as possible, Darkthrone have tried to make theirs the dark and occult heavy metal of the early 80s. Now, with The Underground Resistance, the duo jump to what could be seen as phase two of their archeological exploration, or “retro-evolution”, as we can call it. Paradoxically, this approach, much like that of scriptwriter/filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, shows a certain post-modern character.

Even though the opening track, “Dead Early”, smacks of Venom, this album is more akin to Hammerheart-era Bathory in many respects: richer structures, rather epic songs (six in total, the last of which lasts almost 14 minutes), and grandiloquent yet rough clean vocals (“Valkyrie”, “The Ones You Left Behind”) that recall Quorton, Bathory’s late leader. There’s also some Celtic Frost in the blackness of certain songs and in the unusually sophisticated riffs (“Dead Early”, “Lesser Men” or “Come Warfare, Entire Doom”). Some of the songs even bring back memories of Sarke, a project Nocturno Culto is part of. More surprisingly, you can also feel the influence of King Diamond on this album, with the heavy/speed riffs of “Leave No Cross Unturned” and its attempts at imitating the Danish vocalist’s characteristic voice. Darkthrone remain true to the conservative spirit they’ve always shown in the last few years, but this time, the band have decided to look deeper into the more epic and evolved – with as many inverted commas as you can put around this word – aspect of dark heavy metal from the 80s.

Because this album associates epic and tradition, it’s not surprising that Fenriz should refer to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, in what we can only imagine to be an emphatic way, in an interview for Terrorizer: « Songs of mine are torn from the wombs of the Riders of Rohan of metal. » For those who don’t know, Rohan is the name of one of the kingdoms of Middle-Earth, the fantastic world created by Tolkien. His epic work has been inspiring musicians since the 60s and 70s, and remains part of the folklore and tradition of heavy metal nowadays.

So, have Darkthrone become a traditional heavy metal band? Maybe. All that remains from black metal is that rasping voice. But that’s exactly what Fenriz claims in his own analysis: « The project Darkthrone started like a dark metal version of Steely Dan (note: an American band made up of two musicians, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. They started out as a conventional rock band, then later evolved into fusion jazz-rock). But little by little, the black metal was replaced by metal again, more and more like it was in our minds in 1988 ». It’s actually that kind of music that makes him tick: « So this is my main drive, my main obsession, my main possession; so it is my religion ». That’s impossible to doubt when listening to The Underground Resistance, a more than sincere album, even if that means seeing Darkthrone turn into a different direction than it is expected.

The Underground Resistance, released February 25th, 2013, via Peaceville Records.

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