It was always the 80’s for us, man. – Fenriz
Since A Blaze In The Northern Sky, the raison d’être of Darkthrone has been clear. Dig up the graves of the 80s for inspiration, inject a heaping helping of Celtic Frost, and, above all, still make it Darkthrone. They pay plenty of homage, of course, slipping little Easter eggs in for the particularly nerdy fan to sniff out (hello!), but they never copy. It’s the trademark of this wicked necromancy they perform–after all, one cannot raise a corpse from the dead without leaving a little of themselves imprinted on the reanimated.
Across now twenty albums, we can bear witness to the band learning to harness their necrotic talent. It’s not been without some growing pains, but what some might refer to as “resting on their laurels” isn’t that at all–they’ve just gotten better at executing the formula. Look at the run from The Cult Is Alive to The Underground Resistance. They’re playing with crust punk, speed metal, d-beat, 80s (always 80s) hardcore, in addition to the ever-present Celtic Frosting. Each album plays with the recipe until it culminates in the one-two punch of Circle The Wagons and The Underground Resistance.
Mayhap it was figuring out a new studio, mayhap it was intentional, mayhap it was Maybelline, but Eternal Hails… hit as something distant, more atmospheric. The doom element was still increasing, but that crisp production of Old Star gave way to something a little more muddled, a little more mysterious. Meanwhile, they’re teasing in some synths in the mix–something they haven’t really touched on since the Soulside Journey days. Granted, they only pop up at a few moments: the brief introduction, that drop in “Wake Of The Awakened,” and of course the eerie, concluding tones of the mellotron.
To those that don’t give a flying festoon about any of the above, or haven’t been into Darkthrone’s recent direction: I doubt Astral Fortress will be the “a-HA! Now I get what they’ve been going for!” moment. For those who’ve been cautiously optimistic about their recent output: It is an affirming listen, one that tends to lend a more appreciative listen of the last few records. For those who’ve been anxiously awaiting the Doomthrone equivalent of Circle The Wagons or The Underground Resistance: Well, if we aren’t here, we’re certainly close.
In another display of “testing-the-waters” experimentation, the album opens with acoustic guitars–not new territory for Darkthrone by any means (One of the best things about “In The Shadow Of The Horns” is the unnerving plucking at the end), but the style of play and the mood around it evoke Metallica’s use of acoustic for a more harrowing melancholy on Ride The Lightning. This, coupled with Darkthrone’s continued embrace of the “slow is heavy” school of thought, highlight a curious aspect of the band. The duo have always preached about bucking trends, and they’re doing it in the best language they know how: through the legacy of heavy metal itself.
The studio output from Saint Vitus, Trouble, Candlemass, and Pentagram bucked the trends of the mid-to-late eighties. While the majority of metal bands were striving to be faster and more aggressiver, these bands rotated counter-clockwise; They were drinking from the mother root of Black Sabbath. Slow and heavy brought weight with it, like a rich molasses that wasn’t to be appreciated by all in its time. Hell, there were thrash fans that dropped Metallica faster than a Morsüre record as soon as they heard the acoustic on “Fade To Black.” And lest ye forget, Iron Maiden bringing synths in (after swearing them off the year before) for Somewhere In Time got them slapped with the “sellout” tag by a pool of fans that desired something else from the band.
Perhaps it is coincidence that three such dividing aspects seem to be what Darkthrone are focusing on these days. Perhaps its intentional, perhaps its a Freudian slip, perhaps it’s a case of digging too deep in search of occult meaning. Consider the way Nocturno Culto brings Fenriz’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics to life. They read on paper like something out of a Heavy Metal Lyric Generator™, but the way in which lines like “Know your enemy! I have no pulse!” “Cannot see, the forest for the fear!” and “Dry out in the caves of apathy, while I enter the sea beneath the seas of the sea!” drip with conviction. It’s almost as if they’re channeled from beyond; Fenriz continues to hold the honor of Satan’s Poet, and the slower delivery of the music allows the lyrics to sink in a bit more. It’s nonsensical on the surface, but coupled with the music it all begins to make weird sort of sense in the same way bands with a lesser grasp of the English language tapped into a bizarre poetry incidentally.
Speaking of “The Sea Beneath The Seas Of The Sea,” the song captures exactly what Darkthrone have been working toward. The subtle touches of guitar effects and the synth at the end feel organically integrated. Gone is the iffy, toe-in-the-water approach. The band bring all the elements together seamlessly over what may be some of their strongest doom riffs yet. Writing doom is tougher than it seems on the surface–capturing a sense of melody over a plodding tempo and managing to inject an ear worm is what separates good doom from bad (or worse, lazy) doom. The gradual pickup, the awakening if you will (and you will), at around the 2:30 mark is key–the riff change over the doubled down tempo drives the point home and keeps things interesting with an emotive solo as the tempo drops down again. The little lead bits feel more intrinsically woven into the songs; it’s delightfully difficult to determine where the riff ends and the leads begin. Additionally, Fenriz’s intuition as a drummer is highlighted here in his fill work. The stripped-down kit days of Under A Funeral Moon are long gone, yet the man still knows how to play across a full kit without coming across as flashy as his youthful exuberance in the Soulside Journey days. Every fill, every hi-hat crash, every roll of the toms serves the songs with wizened restraint. And the way in which the synth lurks into prominence toward the end of the song before giving way to another solo over a doubled-down mid-tempo? It flows so naturally, so organically. Kudos on this tune, Gylve, doom tracks that check all the boxes like this don’t come around often.
Fans of the punkier, speedier Darkthrone will appreciate the one-two beat crescendoing riff on “Kevorkian Times,” even if it comes across as weighted by dungeon chains. Sure, we know Darkthrone can play it faster. The intentional restraint shows the aged wisdom of a band that know full well Hellhammer’s “Aggressor” could be delivered faster but appreciates the fact that it is not.
In another of those “is it intentional or am I reading too much into this” moments, Astral Fortress throws an ambient second-to-last track into the mix. A Celtic Frost homage to psychotic terror of “Tears In A Prophet’s Dream,” seems like likely explanation, and looking back to the band’s primary muse does wonders for the pacing of the album. While Eternal Hails… lived up to the ellipsis with its ambient, mellotron-laden conclusion, Astral Fortress sets the ellipses before the payoff. “Eon 2” starts with a ride-into-battle gallop that gives way to a triumphant, Maiden-esque twin lead over a driving mid-tempo. That clearer production pays off as the psychedelic phaser of the guitars lightly plays in the background before suddenly dropping into another acoustic strum, this time reaching little further in the past to the likes of Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” While Darkthrone’s necromancy may have been teasing at digging deeper than the eighties over the last few albums, it is nigh-impossible to speculate that they are reaching a little further into the past to keep their music feeling like a freshly exhumed and reanimated corpse of the past. Considering that Celtic Frost’s final track on To Mega Therion hinted slyly at the strange operatic mish-mash glory of what was to come on Into The Pandemonium, it is impossible not to ponder a Darkthrone that leans more into twin leads and an appreciation of 60’s and 70’s prog rock (with plenty of classic Frost thrown in to taste!)
Perhaps I’m wrong and reading too much into it, but that’s part of the excitement of the band for me. Dissecting and speculating, being equally affirmed and surprised. So where does Astral Fortress land? To me, it feels like a confirmation of their current arc. Should they abandon the “Doomthrone” arc after this one, I feel I’d be pleased with its conclusion. At the same time, I feel like they could ease a little more into unknown territory for the band while still playing off this sound. Bring a little more twin leads into it, try to harness a bit more of the storytelling in 60s and 70s prog, tap a little more into the groove of classic doom riffs without relying as much on the pre-programmed doom aspects of Celtic Frost (tap into that simplistic, single-note riffing of Pentagram’s “When The Screams Come”, for example). Old Star may still boast the strongest riffs and best production of the doom era, and Eternal Hails… the strongest atmosphere and albumcraft, Astral Fortress brings the two together seamlessly. Whether or not Darkthrone have hit their target for this era remains to be seen. While it doesn’t quite hit the immediate “That must be it!” feeling I get from Circle The Wagons or The Underground Resistance, it’s pretty damn close, and offers enough to keep the curiosity of “what comes next?!” more than satiated and bring the ideas they’ve been playing with together under a more unified front and realizing a more singular vision of what this era of Darkthrone has the potential to offer.
Not bad for a pair of old goats dead set on speaking through the necrotic tongues of the metals of yesteryear. Darkthrone continue to age gracefully on Astral Fortress, and, most importantly, they do it in a way that is still no less than 100% Darkthrone. Amongst cries of selling out or “resting on their laurels,” Ted and Fenriz feel as conjoined as ever in realizing just what Darkthrone has the potential to become. They do so one step at a time, setting their own perameters and promptly breaking them as the music demands. They swear allegiance to no trend, fealty to no movement: They are the rare band that, twenty albums down the line, are still deservingly commanding of attention–if not in what they can do for the future of metal so much as what they can do for Darkthrone and for what came before them.