From the most superficial perspective possible the public conversation surrounding black metal today embodies the same stagnant ridicule the sub-genre has compelled from its inception. Imagery, symbolism, ideology, fidelity all still manage to enshrine the ‘dangerous’ reputation of a now very widely-splayed and milked genre of music. To the knowing fan, or the overt enthusiast, it is no more frightening than a high cholesterol count. Few bands have mirrored the absurdity of fearsome reaction and zealotry back upon the mainstream music world than Norwegian duo Darkthrone, who’ve managed to serve as a vital and relevant entry point into the world of extreme metal for millions since the early 90’s. Easy-going and often jocular as their presence has been for the last couple of decades the ability to reinvent themselves stylistically, and create massive waves of influence as they do it, is perhaps the most interesting takeaway from their now eighteen full-length sporting discography. Is ‘Old Star’ a majestic crown-jewel or yet another solid brick-built addition to their towering legacy? Uh, it ain’t bad at all and whatever level of excitement folks will feel for it might depend on any set expectations.
There are numerous reinventions and a few (admittedly arbitrary) trilogies that allow for some distinction between the eighteen records I’ve taken it upon myself to listen to in preparation for ‘Old Star’. We’ve gotten one black/heavy metal album from the duo every 2-3 years since 2013 and that’d be the most important reference point for Darkthrone‘s sound on this record. The second half of ‘The Underground Resistance’ (2013) took an ounce of epic heavy metal and made Celtic Frost sludginess out of it and much of ‘Arctic Thunder’ (2016) followed that thread but found ways to inject more of the bands own personality into their mix of doom, black metal, and what they’d called ‘slow thrash’ at the time. It might sound reductive to link those two albums together in such a way, especially considering what a strong jolt of riff-driven 80’s metal ‘Arctic Thunder’ was, but ‘Old Star’ more or less follows suit and builds upon their broader love of 80’s heavy metal, doom metal and first wave black metal. Just as they’d reached a final point of refinement between punk influenced black n’ roll on ‘Circle the Wagons’ (2010) so now they appear with some mastery of the blackened heavy metal style that’d kicked off since.
If it were any other band this’d be an open-and-shut case in terms of comparative influences yet even when (drummer) Fenriz is absolutely clear what their influences were in terms of songwriting there is a three-dimensional shaping of ‘Old Star’ between songs penned separately and those written together. On one hand we’re graced with Fenriz‘ own songs (“Hardship of the Scots”, “Alp Man”, “The Key is Inside the Wall”) which find him writing riffs that’d appear straight from experimental doom n’ thrash records from Sacrilege, Deathmass, and Dream Death (see: “The Key is Inside the Wall” especially) as often as they pull from less transparent 80’s heavy metal riff ideas. I’ve always considered this style ‘zombie thrash’, a short-lived post-‘Hallows Victim’/’To Mega Therion’ idea from the doom metal scene in Pennsylvania and Maryland that’d died off right around the release of that first Penance album in the early 90’s. On the other hand we have Nocturno Culto‘s parts which tend to have a bit more of a technical, non-linear mind with classic and modern black metal guitar techniques put under an ’84 Celtic Frost microscope. The one point where I see something decidedly less ancient from Fenriz‘ hand is probably the black n’ roll breaks in “The Key is Inside the Wall” but the Kvelertak-esque riffs within could be considered a shot back to their own 2007-2010 era. Their common ground couldn’t be less complicated but the style achieved between them is nigh impossible to replicate outside of the duo.
The ‘beats’ of the full listen create an even set of six full wavelengths, normalizing the experience of ‘Old Star’ into the naturally blended collaboration Darkthrone are known for. There are no incredibly mind-rending epic heavy metal highs as in the previous two records and the incorporation of doom metal pacing and riffs is the trade-off that’ll likely divide the interest of fans. The lazy 80’s arena rock riff that drives the first couple minutes of the first single “The Hardship of the Scots” is clever in the sense that it is differently engaging than anything previous and has this twinge of ‘Cold Lake’ filling the space between the heavier Tom G. Warrior moments. The title track fuses early Trouble-esque riffs with what I’d call slow motion ‘Beyond the Wandering Moon’ to a similar effect where the references feel pulled from taste but they’re undoubtedly unified by the classic Frost feel that has been evident in Darkthrone‘s sound since 1992. Were I not such a dedicated fan of groups like Dream Death I’m not sure if I’d ‘get’ this jog-paced album enough to consider it a passable experience, much less a great one. Do I like it, then?
Looking past 1991 is difficult for me with respect to this band’s legacy because ‘Soulside Journey’ is absolutely one of my top ten favorite death metal albums of all time. Beyond that point, my own history with Darkthrone fandom hasn’t been a major point of enthusiasm since roughly 1996 as anything beyond ‘Panzerfaust’ (1995) and the ‘Goat Lord’ (1996) rehearsal archive has been hit-or-miss. ‘Sardonic Wrath’ (2004) was a milestone that goes on underrated as it preceded a popular paradigm shift towards a (very influential) set of ‘back to our roots’ albums from the band which I’d say peaked, again, with ‘Circle the Wagons’. From that point I’m more in love with Darkthrone‘s taste in music, and their championing of classic heavy metal, than I am with their execution of those influences. I’d certainly rated their last two albums just as high as can be expected with this one but I’d never found myself pining for more Darkthrone over the last three years and in some respects Nocturno Culto‘s material and presence in Sarke (see: ‘Viige Urh’) is a more interesting and professional vision compared to ‘Old Star’. I wouldn’t go as far as to say this style is redundant by way of a direct comparison but I’d almost hoped for more of a shift away from the ‘easier’ realm of Celtic Frost influences rather than an application of gravity to the style of ‘Arctic Thunder’. Reductive as that might seem I don’t see this as a low point in Darkthrone‘s discography, in fact it is an obvious peak in their exploration of black/heavy metal attuned to the paradoxical ‘thrash-doom’ hybrid. I’d buy it simply because there aren’t enough albums that provide that riffing tunnel-vision that ‘Journey Into Mystery’ brought back in the day.
The messaging is ultimately the right funnel for the experience and plain as day this is an album of riffs, textures, and skin-numbing doom/thrashers. I’m not personally blown away by those riffs but I so appreciate the style of ‘Old Star’ that I can still give moderately high recommendation of it. It is at the very least a peak in songwriting that tends to happen with every second or third release where the duo have focused on a certain sound. Some greater stylistic goals had to have been met with this very slick and ruddy-edged mid-paced metal record and I’m largely satisfied listening to it. Moderately high recommendation, much higher if you’re an unusually enthused Dream Death fan. For preview I’d recommend “The Key is Inside the Wall” as the biggest standout for my own tastes and then take a sharp detour towards the sublime doom of “The Hardship of the Scots” if you hadn’t already worn the track out.
Nature abhors a vacuum. 4.0/5.0
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