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Of all the major second wave black metal bands to emerge from Norway's fertile breeding grounds during the early 1990s, only a handful -- Mayhem, Emperor, Enslaved, Ulver -- have achieved the same exalted status and world-wide recognition as the legendary Darkthrone; and arguably none has been as consistent or prolific in the decades that followed. Unlike the majority of their peers, Darkthrone largely refused to tinker with their refreshingly straightforward and savage black metal formula once it was established, leaving it to others to evolve the genre into astonishingly eclectic directions, ranging from the symphonic to the avant-garde, and even beyond the boundaries of heavy metal itself. Instead, for Darkthrone's longstanding central duo, Nocturno Culto (vocals, guitar, bass) and Fenriz (drums), the aesthetic preservation and ongoing exploration of their chosen style's intentionally raw and unsophisticated original template has been a career-long obsession, and this has arguably established their legacy as black metal's most reliable driving force.
But it didn't start out that way, of course -- not by a long shot -- since, after adopting the Darkthrone moniker in 1987 (previously, they were prophetically named "Black Death"), vocalist/guitarist Nocturno Culto (aka Ted Skjellum), guitarist Zephyrous, bassist Dag Nilsen, and drummer Fenriz (Gylve Nagell) were writing death metal songs! Based in the Oslo suburb of Kolbotn, the fledgling group recorded four demo tapes over the next couple of years (Land of Frost, A New Dimension, Thulcandra, and Cromlech) and was eventually signed by England's Peaceville Records, for whom they recorded their 1991 debut, Soulside Journey. As suggested earlier, this contained technical death metal in a similar vein to then dominant Swedish groups like Entombed, Edge of Sanity, and Tiamat, and was severely at odds with the small, but dedicated heavy metal community coalescing around Oslo's now infamous (and extinct) Helvete record store. It was at this nondescript location, operated by Mayhem guitarist Euronymous, that the seeds were sowed for the so-called "Inner Circle" of Norwegian black metal, whose subsequent activities (involving numerous counts of arson, suicide, and the murder of Euronymous himself at the hands of Burzum's Varg Vikernes) inadvertently drew more international attention than the inaccessible music itself ever could. It was also at Helvete that the members of Darkthrone fell under black metal's irresistibly evil spell, and, no doubt influenced by Mayhem's primal racket -- not to mention first generation black metal bands like England's Venom, Switzerland's Hellhammer, Sweden's Bathory, and Brazil's Sarcófago -- they began applying corpse makeup and turned their backs on death metal forever.
And so it came to pass that when Peaceville took delivery of the masters for Darkthrone's sophomore album, A Blaze in the Northern Sky, in 1992, legend has it that they thought this was a joke; such was the inexplicably crude violence perpetrated by its sometimes epic-length black metal odes to all things wicked and obscure. But once they discovered that the album's lo-fi standards were in fact entirely planned (and after much acrimonious haggling between both parties), the album was duly released against the label's better judgment, this being that it was doomed to fail (and bassist Nilsen apparently agreed, since he recorded his parts and promptly quit the band). But instead, Blaze became a turning point, philosophically and literally, for both Darkthrone and the entire black metal genre, which it helped to reignite, and was immediately embraced by extreme metal fans, after piquing their interest in the style's uncompromisingly vicious and unrefined roots.
Thus vindicated, Darkthrone devoted all of their energies to their new, demonically inspired musical direction, so that subsequent albums like 1993's Under a Funeral Moon (the last to feature guitarist Zephyrous, who reportedly simply "vanished") and 1994's Transilvanian Hunger (their first recorded as a duo, with added lyrics contributed by Varg Vikernes) became increasingly controversial of sound and content. Specifically, a few of the latter's liner notes were deemed by some critics to be anti-Semitic, and would result in recurring future headaches and denials on the group's part for years to come. These escalating tensions also coincided with Darkthrone's departure from Peaceville before signing a new deal with Norway's own Moonfog Productions, helmed by their friend Satyr, of Satyricon. There followed a trio of LPs that were welcomed with alternating displays of enthusiasm or sheer hatred, but rarely ambivalence, including 1995's formidable Panzerfaust (openly acknowledged as an homage to Hellhammer and early Celtic Frost), and 1996's Total Death and Goatlord -- both of which lacked their predecessors' quality, and the latter of which essentially consisted of a re-recording of Darkthrone's abandoned, would-be second death metal album, clumsily "roughed up" to ape black metal form. Fans were not impressed, however, and as word spread that Nocturno had been virtually absent from the sessions for these recent albums, Darkthrone's career seemed to be in serious jeopardy.
But the cult of Darkthrone at the end of the 20th century had grown stronger than ever, as evidenced by the release of not one but two tribute albums in 1998 and 1999, that, along with the duo's first extended break in a decade, eventually spurred Fenriz and Nocturno back into action via 1999's Ravishing Grimness (a slight return to form, despite boasting uncommonly "clean" production) and 2001's somewhat inconsistent Plaguewielder (marking a return to dirtier, blackened thrash sounds). Having regained their momentum, though, the band would press on, arguably rediscovering their songwriting "mojo" with their next two albums, 2003's Hate Them and 2004's Sardonic Wrath, which made suspicious use of a few synthesizer intros, but otherwise remained commendably "trve" to the band's traditional analog black metal style, with added emphasis placed on concocting simple yet memorable guitar riffs reminiscent at times of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. In line with this display of historical appreciation, mid-2004 also saw the release of the self-explanatory compilation CD, Fenriz Presents: The Best of Old School Black Metal, featuring classic tracks from Celtic Frost, Sarcófago, Mayhem, Destruction, and others -- as the drummer took it upon himself to sift through the wreckage of those cursed and chaotic years, post-"Inner Circle: to praise the music on its own terms.
Back on the Darkthrone front, a pair of inconspicuous EPs (2005's Under Beskyttelse av Morke and 2006's Too Old, Too Cold) preceded the band's next and, amazingly, 12th album, The Cult Is Alive, which surprisingly found them reunited with Peaceville Records, a decade after their separation (leading to the inevitable CD reissues). Even more surprising was the album's adoption of certain punk rock elements that immediately had cynics accusing Fenriz and Nocturno of selling out to "black & roll" -- especially after they proceeded to embrace the experiment even more seriously on their 2007 follow-up, F.O.A.D. and its accompanying EP, N.W.O.B.H.M., which effectively paid sonic tribute to just that. (Around this time, Nocturno Culto also completed and released a feature film about black metal and life in Norway titled The Misanthrope.) In essence, these music releases made it clear that Darkthrone's twin masterminds refused to be confined into any specific stylistic box, just to appease old fans and preconceived expectations; and so their ongoing fascination with old-school punk, traditional heavy metal, and classic first wave black metal characteristics (naturally), continued to be advanced, unapologetically, via 2008's Dark Thrones & Black Flags. That same year, Peaceville celebrated Darkthone's 21st anniversary with Frostland Tapes, which collected all four of the group's early demos, the original Goatlord demos, and a rare 1990 live concert in Denmark -- one of only a handful ever performed by this studio-bound duo. The thrashy, speed metal-minded 2010 album Circle the Wagons and 2013 punk-doom-centric Underground Resistance saw the band moving even further from its black metal roots, while 2016's Arctic Thunder, their 16th studio LP, signaled a significant return to darkness. The Wind of 666 Black Hearts, a collection of demos recorded in 1991 and 1992, surfaced later that year. ~ Eduardo Rivadavia
- Oslo, Norway
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