Latter day Darkthrone is, to say the least, divisive. Many see the band’s abandonment of the “true Norwegian black metal” sound as something of a betrayal. I’m not among them. Black metal has always been something of a joke to me, and usually a bad one, so if Darkthrone takes itself a little less seriously these days, so much the better. All I give a shit about is riffs anyway, and in that department, Darkthrone has always been all business.
That brings us to “Black Mountain Totem” from 2010’s Circle the Wagons. While Fenriz handled the lyrics, the music of “Black Mountain Totem” was written by Nocturno Culto, (hereafter referred to as Ted) and, as is typical of Ted’s work of the period, the track is more serious and more complex than Fenriz’s simpler, catchier and sometimes sillier material of the same era. Following the anthemic title track in the album’s running order, “Black Mountain Totem” is easy to overlook, but it’s brimming with some classic Darkthrone riffs. Let us delve into them.
We will start at the beginning, with the intro / first verse riff. The four-measure passage begins with some hardcore punk-like strummed power chords in the first bar, but the second concludes with a quirky phrase based more on fretboard geometry than music theory. A two-note lick—F♯ (9th fret) to E♭(7th fret)—is played on the Fifth or A string, and then the lick is repeated at the same positions on the fourth (D) and Third (G) strings. So, while the two-note lick is one that descends in pitch, the phrase as a whole ascends in pitch from lower to higher pitched strings. It’s not exactly a revolutionary technique, but it’s quirky enough to make a simple motif a little more interesting.
The third measure is similar to the first, but the fourth measure shifts from punk to something more like thrash. Ted injects some sixteenth notes into the riff’s previously more relaxed rhythm, and shifts from standard root-fifth-octave power chords to a root-third-octave voicing of major thirds. Thirds, in addition to implying major or minor tonality in a way that fifths do not, lean a little more towards dissonance than fifths, particularly when distortion is present, which helps adds some tasty Voivod-ian skronk to this riff.
The next riff comes crashing in at 1:05 with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, obliterating the established groove with big, bruising power chords. The first measure of this riff features a half-note a piece of G5 and F5. The second measure returns briefly to G5 then finishes off with a seven-note lick of mostly palm-muted notes on the last three frets of the sixth string, but among these palm-muted notes, Ted throws in a bend from G to G# that would do Tom G. Warrior proud. In my opinion, it makes the whole riff, maybe even the whole song. I freely admit that I’m a sucker for a sick sounding low-string bend. As I’ve mentioned before, there are great stores of evil hidden between the notes, and a bend is the best way to get at them.
Let’s skip ahead to 1:34 for I riff I call the “engine” riff because, to me, it sounds a bit like a motorcycle or muscle car engine. It begins with an open fifth string, palm-muted pedal tone interspersed with a couple notes on the ninth and tenth frets of the fourth string. This thrashy phrase sounds a little bit like a starter trying to turn an engine over. In short order, ignition is achieved and Ted start’s revving the engine up, strumming on a B5 power chord, then shifting gears and pitch up to C5, then quickly down to A5. Ted lets off the throttle and finishes out the fourth bar with some legato trills sliding down the sixth string. The second half of the riff starts the same as the first, but rather than shifting down, Ted kicks it into high gear with some E5 and E♭5 power chords rooted on the eleventh and twelfth frets of the sixth string, followed by some trills down fifth string in the area of the seventh fret. I appreciate this riff for its dynamics in terms of pitch variation and its mix of both hard staccato picking and smooth legato lines.
While I’m in the ham-fisted comparison mode, let’s examine what I think of as the “pinball” riff, which enters at 4:15. This eight measure riff, like the last, starts with an A-string pedal tone phrase in the first measure and repeated in the third, but with this riff the notes are not muted, which leads to a fuller, more open sound. Like a pinball careening from bumper to bumper, this riff is bouncy and frenetic. The mix of sixteenth, eighth and quarter notes, coupled with abrupt chord changes give it a sense of rhythmic complexity. Fenriz wraps the whole thing up tight, however, with some of the grooviest drumming he’s done since the band’s death metal days. In fact, this riff has a similar groove and bounce to the outro riff in “Cromlech” from Soulside Journey. I don’t know whether to make a True Detective reference here with the “time is a flat circle” bit, or somehow tie the title Circle the Wagons to the band coming full circle with this riff. Why don’t you just imagine I did whichever one you think is more clever.
One of my issues with black metal, particularly during its rise to prominence in early to mid-nineties, was that it often seemed like eighties glam-rock before it: favoring style over substance with all the corpse paint, ideology and shitty production, plus no fucking riffs. Darkthrone dabbled in its share of pretentious bullshit, to be sure, but the band’s main focus was and continues to be on the music itself. As Darkthrone’s corpse-painted image and icy mystique has melted away, that focus has only sharpened. “Black Mountain Totem” is a treasure trove of riffs from a band that was already twenty years in the game and still coming up with fresh, vital material. Now, almost a decade later, the boys are still at it—the power of the riff compels them.
Essential listening: Darkthrone – Circle the Wagons, Peaceville Records, 2010
Homework: In the comments, share your favorite riff from the first five Darktrhone albums, and your favorite riff from any album album after the first five.
Extra Credit: Learn to play “Black Mountain Totem”.