What’s in a name? I don’t recall precisely when I first heard Darkthrone’s name – unfortunately I was a pitiful excuse for a metal fan at four years old when Soulside Journey was released. I didn’t even pick up on the True Norwegian Black Metal era, even after I was exposed to all sorts of new people when I hit elementary school. Guess I went to school with a bunch of posers more concerned with trading pogs than underground metal, or I just wasn’t kvlt enough. Eventually, after discovering Mayhem and Venom, I would come across the name Darkthrone. And while I can’t remember exactly where I was or when, I can remember thinking, “Of course there’s a black metal band called Darkthone, that’s the most metal name ever!”
One of the first noticeable shifts in approach has got to be just how chock full of doom ‘n’ gloom Eternal Hails…….. is. Emerging from (and later exiting with) reverberated cleans and the noticeable presence of a synthesizer (more on that in a minute), Darkthrone kick in with a speedy riff backed by a d-beat. Alright, this is definitely Darkthrone. But when the riff drops into full doom mode, it’s a paradigm shift. When Fenriz hinted that the band put on Candlemass as soon as they left the studio after recording Old Star, he already knew the direction the band were heading in. Sure, they’ve been slowing down to a comfortable mid-pace since Arctic Thunder, but this is proper doom. While “His Masters Voice” holds true to the band’s reverence to Celtic Frost (Tastes of “The Jewel Throne” are all over this track, particularly punctuated by Ted’s vocals), the main riff on the album’s sole single, “Hate Cloak,” feels right out of the Saint Vitus playbook, while the slow bits on “Voyage To A North Pole Adrift” have that oddball-doom rhythm of the likes of Cirith Ungol. The “Doomthrone” aspect of Eternal Hails…….. is a home run–it blends seamlessly into their aging, crustier sound.
While the synths on the record are few and far between, their usage at all is a surprise; Darkthrone haven’t had synths in the forefront since the death metal days of Soulside Journey. Their sparing usage elevates the beginning, middle, and end in the spacier, dreamier atmosphere of the album. “Wake Of The Awakened” sits as the centerpiece of Eternal Hails………, and the synths teased at the opening of the album hit full force in the middle of the song. Just as the driving mid-pace drops at 2:25, the haunting echos of the Moog synthesizer carrying the slow tremolo picking off into the horizon. Given Darkthrone’s love of the eighties and the fact that Judas Iscariot’s Heaven In Flames was released in 1999, I’m sure the similarity between the two is entirely coincidental (maybe?), but regardless, the song hits the grim, forlorn feel of the early U.S. black metal artist to a T before picking back up into a proper gallop.
The third and final major appearance of Synththrone occurs at the conclusion of the album’s final track, “Lost Arcane City Of Uppakra.” Serving mostly as outro to the album, the fabled Mellotron creeps in over light bass play and ominous tapping cymbols. An invocation whispers, and the airy, alien keys drift in like an extraterrestrial wind. No matter how this instrument is used, it never fails to send shivers up the spine. It crafts a melody from air as the intensity of the song builds; I never in my life thought I’d compare Darkthrone’s work to Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but the energy in Fenriz’s drums just build with such organic intensity that the comparison jumps to mind. The gentle touches at the conclusion show such devotion to the mood of the song, lightly tapping like a ghost at the window. The crushing heaviness of the guitars plod into the picture—the iridescent moonlight of the mellotron igniting the soundscape and parting the clouds of ominous doom.
Since the concluding track to The Underground Resistance, Darkthrone have applied a (lower-case p) progressive approach to their song construction. No secret has been made about their formula, basically both members bring their riffs to the table and collectively find a way to make their ideas work. Its “progressive” in the way the song sallies forth from the verse/chorus structure into gut changes. To find similar “progression,” one need look no further than Darkthrone’s self-proclaimed muse of Hellhammer. The way tracks like “Triumph Of Death” rely more on feel than any sort of organized song structure translates across The Underground Resistance, Arctic Thunder, Old Star, and, now, Eternal Hails………. and fits with the band’s rough four-year evolutionary gap. Eternal Hails………… both concludes an era and ushers in a new age of Darkthrone.
The production of Eternal Hails…………., following the pristine execution behind the window on Old Star, was one of the the trickier obstacles to navigate. Old Star had what was arguably Darkthrone’s crispest production ever. By comparison, Eternal Hails………….. is thin and wispy–the drums sound muted behind a cloak (of Hate, perhaps?) and the bass is muddled in the mix, save for the aforementioned spotlight moments at the conclusion. However, it makes moments like Fenriz’s skull-rattling tom rolls on “His Masters Voice” stand out, or the Hello Kitty-worthy “ring-a-ting-tings” of the ride on the opening foray of “Lost Arcane City of Uppakra.” Despite these accentuating moments, the record still feels decrepit and aged. It makes me think this is what Darkthrone would do with the production of an album like Nightmare (France)’s Waiting For The Twilight—only the lofty cloud of dreams on which it rides is constructed of polluted nightmares. Nothing better illustrates this point than the back third of “Voyage To A Northpole Adrift.” The melodic, speedy riff that pops up at about 6:20 is littered with these dreamy vibes, elevated rather by the all-too-brief solo work that leaves me begging for more. It’s a dense, heavy smog in the production that coats the record, making it take perhaps more than a spin or two to fully appreciate. The vocals are spewed with Satan’s own poet’s stream-of-consciousness style, as though ever conceived in the shadows–its more about feeling heavy and evil than the central themes found within the words:
“The magnetic north pole adrift
Melting clusters like morning dew
Guardians prevent your trespass
Map out the broken moral compass
Voyage to a north pole adrift
Covered in fallen leaves
Voyage to a north pole adrift
Suppertime on the farm of life”
It’s so perfectly heavy–yet it’s either cryptic or nonsense in the name of sheer heaviness. Hell, when I hear “Eternal…. haaaaaails,” (“Hate Cloak”) or the spoken word bit that comes in at around 8:14 on “Voyage,” I can’t help but think of Manilla Road’s “Arise, all ye faithful, to the sword.” It’s all in the spirit of painting a feeling; concrete analysis of the language itself be damned. Either way, it works, and either way, it is unequivocally:
Much like breaking down any Darkthrone record, deconstructing Eternal Hails………….. is, at the end of the day, a futile exercise. It’s still Darkthrone, doing what Darkthrone does. I’ll be honest, it took several spins for me to come around fully to this one. Admittedly, extra spins that I probably wouldn’t have afforded to a band that I didn’t have the past history, respect, and desire to understand. We live in a time where records are so easily dismissed for some other new thing; given this knowledge, it’s almost refreshing to listen to something over and over again to find a reason to love it as was done before the age of instantaneous accessibility—the age in which bands like Darkthrone still live. Sure, Darkthrone have slowed down considerably as they’ve become wizened with age, but it gives us time to stop and smell the rot, so to speak. To the Darkthrone fans that wrote this off, I urge you, sit with it. Get to know it like you just spent your entire week’s worth of lunch money on the CD copy. Listen to it like you’re curious why a band famous for decolorizing their album covers colorized a favorite painting to add new dynamics to the album’s cover. Hell, even if you take nothing else away from Eternal Hails……………,
It’s fucking Darkthrone, man. What’s in a name? Sometimes, it’s everything.