Darkthrone vs Darkthrone: A Review of Old Star and Beyond
Who hasn’t heard of Darkthrone? For the few of you who don’t know what this excellence is, read on. Formed as Black Death in 1986, they put out Soulside Journey, their only death metal album before this Norwegian band changed their sound to black metal, and their name to Darkthrone, becoming one of the most influential black metal bands in history. While they’ve had three other members throughout their history, the creative force of Darkthrone consists of longtime members Fenriz, who had been with the band since conception, and Nocturno Culto who joined 1988.
Between 1992-1994 the band released A Blaze in the Northern Sky, Under a Funeral Moon, and Transilvanian Hunger, the trifecta of classic black metal perfection. The albums were the blueprint for what black metal should sound like: distorted guitars with rapid tremolo picking, shrieking vocals, and production that sounded like it came straight from a circa 1990, 3-year old’s Playskool tape recorder. The combination was atmospheric, heady, and unlike anything previously heard. The direct result of these masterpieces, is the influencing of every black metal band that came after them, and their quintessential album covers propelled every corpse-painted black metal musician wannabe into the snowy forest at night to hold up invisible oranges while whispering about all things “trve” and “cvlt”.
Panzerfaust was released next, in 1995, through Moonfog Productions, Satyr of Satyricon's record label. It's most famous track, "Quintessence" is notable for having lyrics written by the infamous Varg Vikernes along with a killer riff. Darkthrone released five more albums between this and 2004 through Moonfog, including Total Death, Ravishing Grimness, Plaguewielder, Hate Them, and Sardonic Wrath. While the differences in these albums are purely in which of the duo did writing duties and where production took place, these albums all stayed the black metal course and further defined Darkthrone's early style.
All of this changed when the band released The Cult is Alive in 2006. The Cult is Alive incorporated elements of crust punk (think Disfear, Nausea, and Extreme Noise Terror) sprinkled generously atop their signature sound. While this was an exciting divergence for many a fan, it angered the trvest and cvltest of the fans who nyeh’d the new sound all the way back into their candle-lit dungeons. Still, this album ushered in a new legion of fans and a new era of Darkthrone.
Released next, in order between 2007 and 2016, were F.O.A.D. (Fuck Off and Die), Dark Thrones and Black Flags, Circle the Wagons, The Underground Resistance, and Arctic Thunder. As these albums progress, we see the influence of punk, traditional heavy metal, speed metal, thrash, and doom metal make its way into the Darkthrone sound. This isn’t a surprise if you know anything about Nocturno Culto and Fenriz. They are both huge fans of metal music, a fact most obvious in Fenriz. He’s more likely than not to be seen wearing his battle vest and he has an impressive Spotify playlist called Fenriz Metal filled with over 608 songs (as of the time of this review), including everything between Agent Steel to Dream Theater to Obituary to ZZ Top.
This brings us to the present day. On March 20, 2019, Darkthrone announced they were releasing their first album since 2016’s Arctic Thunder, Old Star on May 31st. I pre-ordered the album, but, since it was in such high demand, I unfortunately didn't receive my copy until two weeks after the release date. The demand was high and the band decided to release it to everyone at the same time, which means that review copies were received the same as everyone else's. While I literally died twice patiently waiting, I was revived by the smell of the packaging when I finally picked it up at the post office. Let's talk about Old Star.
Composed of six songs over the course of 38:10 minutes, quite simply, this is Darkthrone’s towering monument to doom and classic heavy metal. Beginning with “I Muffle Your Inner Choir”, you are greeted with a tremolo riff by Nocturno Culto and a killer blast beat by Fenriz, sounding every inch of the black metal they influenced the world with. Right around the three and half minute mark, the tempo switches. The riffs become slower and meatier, and the blast beats are replaced with slower timing and ample use of cymbals, transporting you back to doom metal of the 80s. Towards the end of the song, they bring back the tremolo and blast beats to finish strong.
Next up is “The Hardship of the Scots”. This was the song they released first, ahead of the album’s release, and it sounds like the perfect mix of doom, thrash, and old school heavy metal. Through the next tracks, “Old Star”, “Alp Man”, and “Duke of Gloat”, it continues on in this fashion. Slow, steady, riff-heavy, and beat-strong, I just sat back and took it all in, enjoying it all thoroughly.
The album closes with “The Key is Inside the Wall”, a seven-minute thrill ride. It starts doomy slow but a minute in, Fenriz lays down a fast d-beat accompanied by a classic heavy metal riff by Nocturno Culto. They go back and forth like this until halfway through the song, when a voice announces, “You create your own destiny,” and then it’s all classic heavy metal and thrash that builds up to a strong finish, for the song, and for the album.
This album, without a doubt, is the definition of epic. This band never lets up, even after thirty years, they remain the powerful, talented, and amazing musicians that they are, and it shows. I mentioned that Old Star is Darkthrone’s monument to doom and classic heavy metal, while that’s true, you can hear their signature black metal sound underneath it all. This is consistent with every album Darkthrone made after their black metal era, and is what helps give them their signature sound.
So, why does Darkthrone change it up so frequently? Because they can. They never play live, never tour, and have complete control over their music. They make music because they enjoy doing it and not because they have to. Every album they create begins with a blank canvas in which to express themselves and to play the kind of music they enjoy without worrying about what anyone thinks of them. Darkthrone once again prove themselves to be metal legends in crafting this phenomenal album. Old Star will forever be marked as a monument of creativity and ingenuity, as well as a tribute to the classic metal genres we all grew up on.