Darkthrone, to black metal metal fans, needs no introduction. For the rest of you, here’s the quick rundown: Formed in the late eighties, Darkthrone began as a death metal band releasing several demos and the full-length debut, Soulside Journey, in 1991. Then the band abruptly shifted gears, abandoning death metal in favor of raw black metal inspired by the likes of Bathory, Celtic Frost, and fellow Norwegian act Mayhem. With its next four albums, A Blaze in the Northern Sky, Under a Funeral Moon, Transilvanian Hunger and Panzerfaust, Darkthrone became leaders of what is now known as second wave black metal, and in many ways defined the sound of black metal going forward. In the process, the band was gradually reduced from a quartet to the duo of guitarist/vocalist/bassist Nocturno Culto and drummer/vocalist Fenriz, a lineup which would remain intact to the presnt day.
The period from 1996-2001 could be considered the groups lost years. Darkthrone was less prolific during this time and the material it did produce was less well-regarded, though not entirely without merit. Starting with 2003’s Hate Them, however, Darkthrone would undergo both a creative rebirth and a stylistic metamorphosis every bit as dramatic as it’s change from death metal to black metal, albeit more gradual. Over the next decade the band would break free from the rigid parameters of “true Norwegian black metal” (parameters it played a large part in creating), to incorporate a broader spectrum of metal and punk influences into its sound, while retaining its decidedly lo-fi, DIY ethic.
Dakrthrone’s most recent shift in style is not without its critics, but Darkthrone, it seems, has always done whatever the fuck it wanted, and for that it must be respected. That, and two-plus decades of often brilliant metal, black or otherwise.
And so, Last Rites is proud to present A Devil’s Dozen of Darkthrone:
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SJAKK MATT JESU KRIST (CHECKMATE JESUS CHRIST)[Sardonic Wrath, 2004]
Sardonic Wrath was the last straight black metal record Darkthrone put out, and saw them at their most razor-edged. “Sjakk Matt Jesu Krist,” one of the album’s many Norwegian-only tracks, shows that Darkthrone’s Celtic Frost worship certainly isn’t a new development. Power chords fed into a TS-9 Tube Screamer, a simplistic but audible bassline, and driving D-beats provide the foundation for Nocturnal Culto’s unparalleled snarl. The minimalistic nature recalls Transilvanian Hunger days, but the tone was pure 1985. “Sjakk Matt Jesu Krist” provided the contrast for just how much the band’s sound would change just two years later.
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CROMLECH[Soulside Journey, 1991]
Darkthrone’s death metal work is often dismissed as a poor imitation of Swedish death metal, but a careful listen to “Cromlech,” Soulside Journey’s opening track, reveals a band in the midst of developing its own unique style. A heavy reliance on tremolo picking gives “Cromlech” a hypnotic, almost other-worldly vibe that foreshadows the group’s later work. Of particular note is the maelstrom-like interlude that begins at 1:23, (no doubt enhanced the accompanying cry of “Lucifer, Master”) which is exhilaratingly frenetic, despite its simplicity. And just to keep you guessing, Darkthrone breaks from the hypnotic other-worldly-ness to deliver the mother of all grove riffs, in the tracks closing moments.
Darkthrone: always full of surprises.
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VALKYRIE[The Underground Resistance, 2013]
Although there was plenty of traditional metal mixed into the band’s punk/black records of the new millennium, it really wasn’t until The Underground Resistance that Darkthrone let a few songs completely eschew their trademark black metal. Chief among these was “Valkyrie,” a monstrous triumph of trad that manages to feel complete and sprawling despite being rather simple and only above five minutes long. Many will remember the song for its impossible-to-resist chorus and general sense of battlefield victory – and rightfully so – but the bookends are equally as important. When the simple, half-doom intro is repeated as the song’s finale, it flips the script: once an epic, brooding overture, now a sorrowful, ultimate finale.
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RUST[Hate Them, 2003]
Hate Them has always been an album that rarely gets mentioned as one of Darkthrone’s top fan favorites (though it is one of mine), yet the fans that are fulfilled by it can always find something good to say, in this case it’s the excellent slow burn of opening track, “Rust.” Mechanically bleak, yet not truly diving fully into mere industrial, the guys start out weird and pissed, methodically building from a rumbling foundation and becoming more aggressive as they go. A deeper grunt and flashes of anemic melody only add to the chattering clamor, and yet again the band creates an opener which smacks the listener with immediate unfamiliarity, doing its very best to make Hate Them as disquieting as possible from the onset. Though it’s not a crowning achievement in the pantheon of Norwegian black metal, “Rust” is a high mark which surpasses some of the best tracks of Darkthrone’s more frequently lauded albums.
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EN VIND AV SORG[Panzerfaust, 1995]
The opening track on Panzerfaust, “En Vind Av Sorg” is the perfect early Darkthrone song. Featuring a razor thin production and consisting of nothing but tremolo picking and a simple blastbeat, somehow this song becomes so much more. The melody that emerges from the thinness is astonishing given the musical form; you’ll find yourself humming along to this song, something almost unheard of within this style of ice cold black metal. It’s that melody that puts a stamp on “En Vind Av Sorg,” cementing its status as one of Darkthrone’s best songs. Interestingly, the remainder of Panzerfaust is a departure from “En Vind Av Sorg,” almost as if Darkthrone’s intention with this song was to close a chapter and open another.
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TOO OLD,TOO COLD[The Cult Is Alive, 2006]
It’s amazing what a difference a little bit of picking attack can make. The number one rule of black metal seems to be “thou shalt not strum your power chords.” And yet, as Darkthrone took their sound in a more crust punk direction, they had “nothing to prove.” This song is an anthem for their no-fucks-given mentality, calling out modern black metal for becoming exactly what it had originally set out to reject. But Fenriz and Nocturnal Culto were too old to give into that shit—they remembered the 80s, when metal was real. They’ve since beaten this lyrical theme into the ground, but “Too Old Too Cold” came first, and did it best. “Down with people.”
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SKALD AV SATANS SOL[Transilvanian Hunger, 1994]
With its immediate burst of jarring riffage, “Skald Av Satans Sol” may start with as much of a metal vibe as anything on Transilvanian Hunger, but it is in how it grows from this impact that makes it one of the album’s greatest tracks. After a few heavy/cold shifts, Darkthrone lands with a moment of blackened perfection at about 2:05 or so, delivering a chilling chord cycle that is a blueprint for lo-fi and ice-cold, yet epic and melodic black metal. More than that, it is in moments like this when the group truly shines, turning a seemingly simple motif into something that feels gargantuan and crucial, massive enough to fill a cathedral. (Or, you know, empty it…)
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PARAGON BELIAL[A Blaze In The Northern Sky, 1992]
“Paragon Belial” is one of the shorter tracks on A Blaze in the Northern Sky, but it is long on memorable riffs. The first minute is all Celtic Frost barbarity, but the atonal theme introduced, at 1:50 is so detached from musical convention it sounds like it was written by aliens. At 1:50 it’s a trip down the grim and frost-bitten Slip ‘N Slide and The banshee wails at 3:31 usher in a doom riff that would do Tony Iommi proud. Saving the best for last, however, the real standout in this track, is the closing section (discussed in detail here), a majestic, yet tragic sequence that makes an “eterntal oath” to the “Dreamking of the Tombworld” seem almost a comfort.
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KATHAARIAN LIFE CODE[A Blaze In The Northern Sky, 1992]
It was in 1998 that I became fully interested in the Norwegian black metal scene, and A Blaze In The Northern Sky was one of the first albums to be sought out. It wasn’t a comforting first listen, to say the very least. Darkthrone found new footing and showed their freshly-blackened hand early with the piercing “Kathaarian Life Code,” which throws the mood into the deep-freeze with harsh speed, while jabbing icy shards into your ears by way of one of the best/most fragile production jobs laid to wax. Ambient growling and chants usher in an odious volley of riffs with widely varying speeds, setting the tone for what’s to come. Though it might not have made the best first impression, it also causes the most frigid initial impact than comparative albums. A departure from their deathly beginnings, it is a definitive, pitch-black belch of contemptuous indignation.
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FUCKED UP AND READY TO DIE[Hate Them, 2003]
Although it’s not exactly fair to say that Darkthrone’s post-Panzerfaust ’90s/early ’00s output was a bust, the procession of oddball experiments, reheated leftovers, and less-than-inspired albums nevertheless didn’t exactly inspire the highest confidence in the future of our intrepid heroes. 2003’s Hate Them, then, wasn’t so much a reboot or retread as it was a fat wad of spit directly in the eye of any hand-wringers (such as yours truly) who doubted the ability of Mssrs Fenriz & Culto to shiv the listener from a brand-new angle.
“Fucked Up and Ready to Die” is perhaps the most gleefully grimy mission statement, and a perfectly decrepit sheen to top off Darkthrone’s new coat of paint. Culto’s vocals are ludicrously on-point throughout Hate Them, but perhaps nowhere better than when he dredges “Let’s leave this sinking ship together” up from the pits of a deeply aggrieved psyche. But goddamn it, nerds, this is still party music. That’s the magic of Darkthrone from Hate Them on: a celebration of life through the glorification of gutter noise.
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UNDER A FUNERAL MOON[Under A Funeral Moon, 1993]
“Under a Funeral Moon” may better encompass Darkthrone’s entire breadth of influences than any other song in their catalog. Seem silly? This album is far too raw and unrelenting for that, you say? Stay with me… The opening moments are like being split open with a buzzsaw made of ice, sure, and show the band at their absolutely most arctic, but the gallop that follows is downright playful, taking an early Bathory approach to adapting a classic metal riff through Motörhead’s drive. A slower, heavier mid-section then harkens to mid-paced Celtic Frost, and shows off an absolutely gnarly bass tone. It might not have Fenriz soaring with his faux-NWOBHM vocals, but within these five minutes, the decades that inspired the band are all present, and it’s brought together as one serious humdinger of a track.
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TRANSILVANIAN HUNGER[Transilvanian Hunger, 1994]
The prototypical Darkthrone song, “Transilvanian Hunger” is stylistic perfection. A haunting example of tremolo picking, a simple blastbeat, horrid production, and a rancid atmosphere made all the more grim with Nocturno Culto’s very muted vocals, more so than any other song, “Transilvanian Hunger” lulls the listener into a nightmarish dreamscape that becomes harder and harder to emerge from. Oft imitated, never equaled.
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IN THE SHADOW OF THE HORNS[A Blaze In The Northern Sky, 1992]
I have gone on record frequently – and loudly – to convert others to my staunchly held belief that not only is “In the Shadow of the Horns” Darkthrone’s best song, but that it also happens to be the greatest black metal song of all time. It’s a perfect song because of how ferociously it captures the classic Celtic Frost stomp; because of how its myriad digressions always loop back to that impossible-to-not-scream-along-with chorus; because of how Fenriz’s drums froth and roil as the song kicks into high tempo for its final third; and because of how openly the whole damn thing just rocks like a son of a bitch. “In the Shadow of the Horns” ain’t down here for your money, and it ain’t down here for your love; it’s down here for your soul.
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