One of unlimited advantages of Darkthrone is the fact that they’ve always guarded an inherent, gleaming “metalness” at their core that’s never come close to being doused. That’s something that likewise radiated within the foundation of all those involved in the Norwegian black metal scene 25+ years ago, but a sizable segment of Darkthrone’s associates spent the mid-to-late 90s reaching for influences outside our confines in order to progress, often at the expense of the metal that landed them in the public eye in the first place.
Darkthrone, however, has persevered under an iron fist, primarily as a twosome, and they’ve produced seventeen records that showcase a genuine knack for progression in a decidedly regressive manner. Put simply, no other highly acclaimed band – True Norwegians or not – has championed the exhaustive roots of our genre with greater gusto or detail than Darkthrone. The heritage of nearly every branch from punk to trad to speed to thrash to crossover to doom to death and everything in-between has been saluted and paid tribute to under a Darkthrone lens of black (in varying degrees) metal, which is likely a principle reason why these guys have been the apple of many a metal scribe’s eye for so long: heavily-patched metal nerdom and sacrificial vinyl rites or GTFO. Fenriz has clearly been the more vocal of the twosome in this regard, but even if Nocturno’s house is missing that huge stack of Bulldozer and Heavy Load original LPs, he’s always played the riffs with the conviction of someone who’s equally sworn to the past.
Where the band has stumbled the most, at least according to the nuclear warriors in the bunker, is when the schtick has felt like it outweighs the devotion – upbeat, punky jaunts like “Graveyard Slut,” “Hiking Metal Punks” and a sizable chunk of F.O.A.D. that emphasize rickety clean vocals and swagger over gravelly snarls and frozen riffing. However, as luck would have it, the last two records have found the mood shifting back toward more serious waters, and Arctic Thunder stretches the intention by delivering the Moonfoggiest Peaceville recording this duo has sired since, well, perhaps as far back as 2003’s glorious Hate Them. That’s not to say that the record fully strays from the modern Darkthrone sound – a blanketing good vibe continues to permeate via sufficient punky jabs and precisely one cowbell, and any number of the shifts to a slower gallop feel as though they could be launched at the command of a perfectly timed vibraslap. (Note: there is no vibraslapping here.) But what Fenriz recently forewarned is absolutely accurate: Arctic Thunder is “more serious and primitive” and holds a more “solemn atmosphere” when compared to the band’s last five records, and one of the clear reasons for that is the Nocturno Culto face of the coin.
No inebriated warbling: turns out, that’s really helpful if you want to keep things grave. There’s a lot more reverb and a little less gravel in Nocturno’s gnarl, but it’s cold-sober enough to keep the mood grim, even when the title track’s central riff does a pretty fine job of conjuring Moshkinstein. But it’s not just his voice that keeps the record severe; the Culto-penned cuts, of which there are four, are as musically dark as the album’s cover, like the beautiful doomy lurch of “Throw Me Through the Marshes,” or the way “Burial Bliss” and the fantastic “Deep Lake Trespass” burst from the dirt with a primitive and sincere blackness. The Nocturno highlight, however, is “Inbred Vermin,” a walloper that’s as mötley with its moods as it is with one of its brassy riffs, and it’s a song that perfectly epitomizes Arctic Thunder’s strength at being weirdly diverse in its straightforwardness.
Barring the aforementioned title track, the four cuts that make up the Fenriz slant are also darker, and he absolutely slays it behind the kit from start to finish. The man certainly knows how to make the mood infectious, both in the way he attacks those kicks and with his methods of drafting a riff; the opening “Tundra Leech” is addictive, and the only real issue with “The Wyoming Distance” is its position as a closer. “Boreal Fiends” is his Arctic Thunder showpiece, though, thanks to its creepiness, its borealness, and the way the epic howl at its midpoint welcomes in one of the nastiest, skulking-est riffs that’s leapt from this side of Mt. G. Warrior in the last decade.
And these RIFFS – my fucking word, that’s something that clearly deserves the final spotlight. Fenriz and Nocturno are at the top of their game when it comes to delivering epic riffs, and this record flaunts numerous moments where the listener will want to stop, drop and roll upon getting lit up by some fiery riff break-out. 3:20 into “Tundra Leech,” the previously mentioned crawler in “Boreal Fiends,” throughout “Inbred Vermin,” and a true devastator 3:42 into “Deep Lake Trespass” all spring to mind. And more often than not, these haymakers are followed by a sweet ’n’ glassy Culto lead, which are also fairly abundant and equally enjoyable from end to end.
All said and done, people will likely tromp out the old “If you love/hate modern Darkthrone…” line to either praise or condemn Arctic Thunder, and that’s an understandable stance, to a point. But what ultimately sets this record apart is the fact that it sounds more like Darkthrone being Darkthrone, as opposed to Darkthrone paying tribute to our ancestors. The good times continue to roll, and one can still have fun trying to bridge these riffs to dusty bands of times long past (and likely be wrong), but the return to harsh coldness without sacrificing a high-quality production or the band’s unique brand of revelry allows Arctic Thunder to stack very close to the top of the heap when it comes to the modern Darkthrone harvest. So, clearly the cult remains very much alive, and this vital duo continues to deliver compelling, highly enjoyable heavy metal that further proves that the band’s core fire isn’t even close to dying out.