How Darkthrone Killed Hitler: The Post-Modern Path from Soulside Journey to Eternal Hails
We don't usually host guest posts round these parts. Actually, we never do. But with the new (and excellent) Darkthrone album, Eternal Hails now out it seemed appropriate to release this great piece by Jonathan Shkedi – writer, musician, frontman of the ferocious Svpremacist, and die-hard Darkthrone fan – about the fascinating evolution of Darkthrone as a band over the years and the way Eternal Hails fits into that monolithic catalogue.
Just before getting to Jonathan's essay, however, this is your reminder to check out our multiple interview projects (including Pillars of the 90s, if someone can convince Darkthrone to do that one that'd be great, thanks) and other cool shit. And if you'd like to keep abreast of the latest, most pressing developments follow us wherever we may roam (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Spotify), and listen to our shitty podcast (YouTube, Spotify, Apple), and to check out our amazing compilation albums. You can support our unholy work here, if you feel like it.
On to Jonathan's Darkthrone odyssey:
Let’s begin at the end, because there's a chance you might not get that far: In my humble and completely irrelevant opinion Eternal Hails is the weirdest Darkthrone album to date, in keeping with the band’s legacy of innovatively exploring the sounds of yore. It’ll probably get a lot less weird soon enough. Now go fucking listen to it and make up your own mind.
Let’s be honest: Writing about a new Darkthrone release is a mistake. Similar to discussing the works of a prolific writer or painter, it’s hard and perhaps foolish to try to deconstruct a 30-year career comprising 19 albums, solely from the narrow perspective afforded to us by the current, almost random moment in which we happen to catch it. Sure, each Darkthrone album is worth deconstructing to an extent (or better yet just listening to), but while obvious masterpieces such as Soulside Journey, A Blaze in the Northern Sky or The Underground Resistance provide plenty of room for discussion, they take on a separate and different meaning when compared to other albums, and when viewed as part of one long career arc.
So sure, we can talk about Eternal Hails, but the truth is that discussion would be purely speculative. Darkthrone is, in a sense, a band that does’t exist in the present tense, or rather does not have a "current moment." I don’t remember who it was that gave the duo the misleading title of “world’s biggest garage band” (please don’t let it be Fenriz himself) but, holy shit, is that a stupid definition. True, these are a couple of dudes who work alone, never play live and don’t really involve outsiders in their process. They’re also a pair of the most consistent and hardworking musicians who have been continuously developing their own unique sound for 30 years, never really staying put for too long. In addition, Darkthrone is the one metal band on this goddamn planet that has never stopped consciously reinterpreting the genre’s past and present, based on an ever-expanding understanding and ridiculously wide knowledge of metal’s musical history. Would you refer to a prolific (and coincidentally or not, agoraphobic) writer like Philip K. Dick as a “garage writer,” or rather as a mind so creatively sharp that by the time you’re done figuring out his last novel there are already three new ones available?
The choice to never play live and instead focus on a steady flow of recordings leaves Darkthrone listeners always face to face with the band’s past discography and probably (if you’re a fanboy like me) with some guesses about future recordings. You won’t find live videos of this shit on YouTube. Darkthrone does not tour the world flaunting an expert’s control of their current music. Once a Darkthrone album is released, it becomes part of the band’s past, another building block for the band’s soon-to-be-written future. Of course quantity isn’t really the issue here. When the band chooses a theme or a general sound and explores it over the course of 3-5 albums, it does not record 3-5 identical albums but instead uses every tune on every album to further explore its current theme. Eternal Hails is thus not the first, and probably not the last chapter of this never ending serial mystery which the band has shared with listeners over the course of a long, long career.
A First Slap to the Listener’s Face
Let’s look at the band’s debut LP, Soulside Journey, which is by itself a radically different album when taken as a single work, and when viewed sequentially as part of the band’s discography. In itself, Soulside Journey is a hugely original death metal album (and one hell of a debut), plucked straight from the genre’s golden era. It is an album so perfect and influential, yet so wildly removed from literally anything Darkthrone has recorded ever since, that the death metal purists will maintain it is Darkthrone’s only good work, while black metal purists might claim it is the only death metal album worth listening to (purism is, obviously, for losers). Soulside Journey is a 150% death metal album, by a band whose next three releases will proudly have the title True Norwegian Black Metal printed in huge letters on their back covers. Only one year after this debut, listeners of Darkthrone’s new cassette (fuck you if you had a CD player in 1992), A Blaze in the Northern Sky, could easily think they accidentally got a recording by the wrong band. The complete and total change in sound between the band’s debut and sophomore albums remains perhaps the strongest slap to the face that Darkthrone listeners have ever received by a new recording, but while the strength of the blows may have softened later, the hits never stopped coming.
This is not about laboriously reviewing albums you’ve already heard. You don’t need to read what you already know about the fantastic trilogy beginning with A Blaze and supposedly (yet not really) ending with Transylvanian Hunger. What is worth mentioning though, is that it is not really a trilogy. Following three genre-defining masterpieces that find the band delving deeper and deeper into their own unique and freshly defined lo-fi insanity (let’s call this “Darkthrone sound #1” for now), the duo does not really stop, but instead provides two more albums that add a kind of fucked up reinterpretation of that trilogy’s sound, while perhaps even providing clues as to the band’s future sound. 1995’s Panzerfaust may follow the general songwriting guidelines of Transylvanian Hunger but it really sounds nothing like it. It’s a cleaner yet filthier, somehow actually angrier sound, as if to say “thought you could write us off as lo-fi black metal, did you? Well here’s a ‘properly’ mixed recording with shrieks that will penetrate your pathetic arteries with the force of all three previous records combined.” One step forward, one sure, steady and angry step back. But then, amazingly, as if to say “don’t get carried away”, Darkthrone records Total Death, an album that to my ears does the exact opposite thing – developing the band’s songwriting in new directions (a little more mid-tempo parts and even a touch of thrash), while sounding like it was recorded inside a burnt trash can with one set of earphones acting as the sole recording mic. One or two steps forward and again, one sure and angry step back. Remember this theme.
So, what do we have so far? Six LPs in six years, two genres, one monumental and genre-defining trilogy, one more album testing the genre’s limits with a new sound, and one more album that goes back to that previous sound while testing for some new songwriting directions. It’s funny to think that this intensive part of the band’s career is still considered by many to be its golden era when really, both chronologically and musically, with these six albums Darkthrone is only just beginning to tell us its musical story.
The Second Slap
The year 1999 finds Darkthrone returning after a three-year hiatus, with another slap to the listener’s face. Let’s take this one slowly. In the songwriting department, Ravishing Grimness offers some new elements: the slower gloomier riffs are now played more with tremolo-picking and less with long sustained notes like in, say, the song “Paragon Belial” (and this play between picking styles will only continue to serve an ever-growing integral part of the band’s sound).
However one could say that these “new” elements are in fact not a far departure from previous releases but instead a natural progression in the band’s evolving sound. The real blow, however, lies in the sound department. The days are those of Satyr’s Moonfog, and while Darkthrone joins the label as the truest, harshest, furthest thing from its roster of semi-electronic black metal experimentalists (Thorns and DHG to name but two examples), that revolution of “clean” (or, devil forbid, “produced”) sound does not really skip over Darkthrone altogether. This is apparent immediately upon hearing the brilliant whip sample on opening track “Lifeless,” literally lashing the listener’s ears repeatedly throughout the song, providing a type of intro not only to the album itself but in fact to a whole new theme.
While this album is another sure step forward for Darkthrone, we now know that the complex motivation behind such steps forward is only to find new musical tools with which to safely and angrily retreat, one or two steps back. That whip sample is like Darkthrone saying “you might be hearing our music more clearly and cleanly than ever, but remember – we’re not here to enjoy ourselves”. Looking back, it is this writer’s personal (and surely contested) opinion that while kind of a masterpiece, Ravishing Grimness is better understood not as a peak in the band’s career but rather as a type of “transitional album,” testing new grounds for a sound that would be truly executed to perfection in the band’s following trilogy of albums. That trilogy, Plaguewielder, Hate Them and Sardonic Wrath, sees Darkthrone taking that new sound and chucking out any remnants of cleanliness or pleasantness. Much like with Panzerfaust, Darkthrone serves us with the ultimate “fuck you” sound, and while their genre mates carry on tinkering with electronics, Fenriz and Nocturno Culto use their new sound to repeatedly stab the listener’s ears with three albums chock full of crystal-clear hatred, only blending more and more punk into their sound, for the meticulous inception of what I feel comfortable referring to as “Darkthrone sound #2”.
A quick or superficial listening might prompt the listener to include monstrous punk album The Cult is Alive within that “#2 sound,” as it isn’t that different from those preceding three, as far as sound goes. A deeper look, however, and certainly one informed by listening to subsequent Darkthrone releases, reveals that glorious record to be more of a “transitional album,” once more setting the stage to an imminent (and wild) stylistic change to the band’s music. Two hints to the future of Darkthrone, that in retrospect seem to be pretty easily noticeable (ain’t hindsight lovely?), rest comfortably within this unique album’s misleading feverish punk sound:
1. Oh, hi there, heavy-metal guitar solos.
2 The track (and single!) “Too Old, Too Cold” which is, if I am not mistaken, the first time Darkthrone ever recorded a song with lyrics aimed directly at the genre’s listeners and musicians.
While lyrical references to Black Metal as a concept had previously appeared on such songs as "Unholy Black Metal" or "In Honour of Thy Name," that is not the same as what we have here. Let’s dissect. On this tune, when the band sings of having “nothing to prove” or proclaims “You call your Metal black, it’s just spastic, lame and weak” (duly noted, by the way), they’re really saying “We’ve had enough of this. We’re the best at it and that’s been proven for a while now. Let’s go do something else.” And now, boys and girls, this might be a good time to recall our opening premise: It’s always a mistake to try and figure out a new Darkthrone album. I will shamefully admit that upon first hearing “Too Old, Too Cold” I almost burst out laughing (and not in that good way). Today, I view it as one of the most important songs or indeed, important moments of this prolific band’s career. Sure, upon first listen, there’s something pretty odd about a band in its 12th album suddenly doling out intra-textual reflections on their own genre. The sort of vibes you would expect to get listening to a Kanye West album (if you’re lucky) or maybe Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All (If you’re very lucky). However, armed with the mighty hammer of hindsight, knowing what followed this moment in Darkthrone’s career, we can begin to understand that “Too Old, Too Cold” isn’t Darkthrone trying to settle scores with other bands or entering into a game of “who’s got it darkest.” It is in fact a powerful statement of intent by a band about to set off on a mission to bravely conquer completely new ground, with a new sound and a radical escalation of their old “one step forward, two steps back” routine.
Blow by Blow
In 2007 Darkthrone released an EP, which is weird enough in itself. Titled NWOBHM, this release offers a slap to the listener’s ears the likes of which he or she hasn’t felt since 1992. It actually hurts at first. Directly following in the self-aware footsteps of that monumental single (“Too Old, Too Cold”), Darkthone (anti)christen this EP with the well-known acronym for New Wave of British Heavy Metal, but declaratively provide the sub-title “New Wave of Black Heavy Metal.” That’s Tarantino-level shit (and I do mean that as a compliment). And yes, I’m sorry to have to use profanities but I’m just going to say this once so that we can all move on as if it never happened: with this release, Darkthrone bravely opens a new, brilliant and exciting part in its career, as the world’s only Postmodern Norwegian Black Metal band. Let’s move along.
As in 1992, listeners of Darkthrone’s new album may have been confused to think they are experiencing music by the wrong band. They may also have been not at all confused, and instead understood that they’ve just received knowledge of the world’s best heavy-metal-inspired punk band. Let’s not talk about how good this and subsequent releases are (they’re 150% very good), and instead try and focus on what Darkthrone actually does on those releases. Once again listeners are served a tight, genre-defining “trilogy” (the fourth release of which we’ll soon get to), but this time the change experienced is not only musical, but a conceptual one as well.
Darkthrone uses the lyrics in almost every song on each one of those records to explicitly discuss their appreciation of old metal, and this textual approach actually extends further than lyrics, into goddamn side-notes, detailing every riff’s ancient metal lineage. Do you see what’s happening here? Having perfected their “one step forward, two steps back” approach over two decades, Darkthrone tries to fool us into claiming something like “it’s all backwards steps, isn’t it? Originality in Metal is finished, it’s all been thought out and recorded already. We’re not bringing anything new to the table, simply rehashing Metal’s glorious past”. I hate to say it, but that is some cunning bullshit trickery. These albums see Darkthrone perfectly understanding their own unique way of striding forward as an artist without actually worrying too much about how they can keep one leg rooted firmly in the past. They are using an endless library of metal to pretty much turn their own sound completely upside down, all the while claiming not to be inventing anything new, yet in fact founding a whole new sub-genre completely of their own making (#Tarantino). Yes indeed: BLACK HEAVY METAL, or by the count offered here: “Darkthrone Sound #3”.
There is a lot to unpack in the 28 songs that make up F.O.A.D, Dark Thrones and Black Flags, and Circle the Wagons, but there’s also really no need for such unpacking. Very briefly though: a majority of these songs deal with metal itself, and can really be seen as nothing short of a creative peak for the band. There’s a structural reason why I feel comfortable claiming this trilogy sees Darkthrone more aware than ever of what it is exactly that they want to achieve. In comparing this burst of new energy with past trends in the band’s discography, one has to notice that this trilogy is not followed by a “fuck you-esque” Panzerfaust or by an experimental The Cult is Alive, but rather by nothing less than what can and should be viewed as the band’s magnum fucking opus: The Underground Resistance.
Darkthrone’s 16th LP is not another intriguing comment on the preceding trilogy, but rather a monumental, perhaps once-in-a-career artistic climax, taking everything the band has learned over these last three albums and shaping it into six of the biggest Darkthrone tunes ever. The album’s final track, “Leave No Cross Unturned,” is the longest in their career, and arguably one of the best. A type of thematic continuation of “Too Old, Too Cold,” it is apparent that the band is fully aware of the size and meaning of this achievement. It’s a pretty straightforward message, too: “Over the course of sixteen albums we have indeed left no cross unturned, and the reason you’re currently listening to a 13-minute homage to old Metal is because, well, no one gets it better than us”.
I want to remind you (hopefully) of the final shot of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, a monumental masterpiece and a journey into the sheer power of cinema, just as The Underground Resistance is a journey into the undeniable force of metal. Having just carved a swastika into the forehead of Nazi poser Hans Landa, Brad Pitt’s Aldo the Apache* looks directly into the camera and says “I think this just might be my masterpiece." This is immediately followed by a title reading “Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino,” the man who just used cinema to go back in time and kill Adolf Hitler inside a burning fucking cinema.
That is what this song feels like. Sure, Tarantino is a bit of an arrogant twat but hey, listening to “Too Old, Too Cold” we are reminded that arrogance is not stranger to Darkthrone (or to any postmodern artist for that matter), and listening to “Leave No Cross Unturned” we are faced with no choice but to admit that arrogance is damn well justifiable.
*(I will not go into detail as I haven’t given this enough thought but is it pure coincidence that like Inglourious Basterds, this trilogy of Darkthrone releases is full of references to Native American themes?)
An album as big as The Underground Resistance is sure to be followed by one of Darkthrone’s customary methodical hiatuses, and indeed it is three long years before the duo releases its next album. Those of us who have been listening closely already know that we simply do not know what comes next. Before embarking on our final and shallow delve into the current chapter of Darkthrone’s career (for it will probably take an album or two more before we can actually dive deep into it), one more thing needs to be said. The ever-expanding text that is Darkthrone’s career is still being written, and it can be deconstructed along many other axes than the ones on offer in this article. Obviously the band’s 19 records are far more than just back and forth steps on some hypothesized axis of artistic development. They are also 19 projects produced in full collaboration between two amazingly creative individuals who with every passing year just get better and better at working together. We could compare songs penned by Fenriz with those penned by Nocturno Culto, and perhaps reach some interesting conclusions as to each musician’s contribution to the overarching themes of the band. We could compare the pretty distinct group of Darkthrone LPs that feature only six songs, with those that feature eight or nine. We could talk about recording methods, writing practices, album covers, and dozens of additional elements that all converge into what this band is – The world’s biggest and possibly only Black Heavy Metal band. The article you are (no way still) reading is but a humble attempt at offering one of many, many possible analyses of the band’s gargantuan discography.
Arctic Culto, Old Snare, Eternal… Snails?
As stated, writing about a new Darkthrone release in real time is something of a mistake, which means this must be the perfect time to discuss their previous two albums. And what an intriguing discussion it is! Following that three-year hiatus, we are presented with Arctic Thunder. While a great record, it can hardly be described as a slap to the listener’s face. On the contrary, while featuring a slightly new direction, the change on offer this time is quite subtle, and in Darkthrone’s unique tradition, it sort of sounds like… a step back.
Several artistic choices underline this trend clearly:
1. After quite a few records featuring a dual vocal attack, Nocturno Culto is back on his throne as the sole vocalist, and he sounds both raspier and clearer than ever.
2. The song lyrics do not deal directly with metal any more (Look for it in the subtext though).
3. The writing on several songs is somewhat evocative of the Moonfog trilogy from the early 00’s. One could even go as far as to say that track no. 2, “Burial Bliss,” is undeniably comparable to every track no. 2 on those three albums (check it out).
What is strange about all of this, though, is that this traditional Darkthrone songwriting coexists with something we haven’t really heard from the band before, a type of Black Sabbath worship, with a great emphasis on guitar tone and interestingly enough, the strongest delay effect on Culto’s vocals to date. Like, strong fuckin’ delay, sort of like a roaring and rolling thunder. Get it? The tradition of Culto’s unique vocals reimagined as the Arctic Thunder. Once again we have two steps back, one to Ted’s vocals and the other to a type of proto-metal heaviness, and one step forward into whatever the hell it is Darkthrone currently wants to do.
So, let us once again ask, what is it that Darkthrone actually does here?
To my humble ears, having conquered the mountaintop of metal (both artistically and thematically – i.e. Hiking Metal Punks), the band now starts digging into that mountain, in a quest to find out what it is made of, searching for the roots of the metal sound that has taught the band everything it knows so well. What had ended three years prior with the metal anthem to end all metal, is now transformed into a type of deep exploration, or excavation rather, into the building blocks of metal. As we are now two albums after that one, I feel semi-confident in saying that with the current chapter in their career, the band seeks to find out what happens when you use old instruments and an old sound production, to write music as it is written “today”, with “today” meaning something like the last 30 years or so. You know, the Darkthrone era, which ironically starts at around the same time as their favorite music dies. Darkthrone start creating music in the late 80’s, around the final stages of metal’s golden era, all the music Darkthrone adores and worships as we’ve learned from their foray into punk and heavy metal from F.O.A.D forward. As I see it, having provided us with their own unique interpretation of the best metal of that age, Darkthrone’s current quest is to go back in time, to the moment before the band’s formation, and continue writing and recording that glorious metal of the 80’s as if they had never heard a single album released after that period. It’s a lot more nuanced and less in-your-face than previous stylistic changes, yet I think we can comfortably start calling this “Darkthrone Sound #4”.
Just as Tarantino creates a cinematic parallel reality where cinema itself alters the course of history, so does Darkthrone try to channel its own metal to construct an alternative history where nothing ever followed the 80’s. This theme is made even clearer when listening to Arctic Thunder’s successor, the mighty Old Star. You’d have to be deaf to not notice that the sound work in Old Star is completely and totally centered around Fenriz’s snare drum, a meticulous restoration of the drum sound of the 80’s. And so, if the Arctic Thunder is Culto’s vocals, it seems pretty obvious that Fenriz’s snare drum is in fact the Old Star itself. Just as that delay effect on Culto’s vocals is actually a new unprecedented thing in Darkthrone’s discography (yet very much in line with the heavy and doomy sounds of the 80’s), so is that old snare completely new to Darkthrone’s sound. Building heavily and beautifully on the doomy elements introduced in its predecessor, Old Star sees the band continuing this complex experiment of identifying and applying the sounds of yore to those songs and riffs that can only be written by this unique duo, cleverly disguised as something we’ve already heard.
Where does Eternal Hails fit into all this? Well, haven’t you been reading? It is by definition too early to say! While one is tempted to recognize similar themes in the new album, I would be very careful of trying to figure out what Darkthrone does on its current album before getting to hear the next one, or two for that matter. All that is known for sure so far is this: Eternal Hails is yet another Darkthrone album, and definitely not the last one. A single Darkthrone album is always good, but is also always just part of a big picture which we don’t yet get to see in its entirety. For now, all we can say to band that has been thinking and rethinking metal for 30 years is this abomination: Thank you for the music. And to everyone else:
Be sure to check out Jonathan Shkedi's band Svpremacist here.