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Darkthrone - A Blaze in the Northern Sky Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit a tense, beautiful, lo-fi landmark from the second wave of black metal.
In the fall of 1971, a child is born in a remote village in Norway. He will one day rechristen himself Fenriz, after the Earth-swallowing wolf, Fenrir, who appears in Norse mythology and the Satanic Bible. But for now, he is Gylve Nagell, being raised by his grandmother, spending inordinate amounts of time alone. The pivotal moments of his childhood occur while listening to records, music introduced to him by an eccentric uncle named Stein. Pink Floyd catches his ear; a few songs by the Doors hold his attention; but it’s the English progressive rock band Uriah Heep that blows his mind. He’s entranced by the heavy organ sound, the cryptic lyrics, and the mysterious men with long hair who appear on the album’s cover. He cherishes the triple-fold LP like an heirloom from…

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Ceremony - In the Spirit World Now Music Album Reviews

After some nebulous false starts, the former hardcore band has finally found space to carve their own lane in the crowded field of ’80s-indebted groups.

As each new album takes them further from their powerviolence days, former hardcore outfit Ceremony recognize the pitfalls of genre pivots. On 2012’s Zoo, they toyed with garage rock; on 2015’s The L-Shaped Man, they indulged explicit Joy Division hero worship. They are also sick of hearing about how they don’t sound punk anymore and would appreciate if you could please shut up about it. (“Not reflecting on the evolution of the band is what keeps us motivated,” guitarist Anthony Anzaldo said in a press release.)

If The L-Shaped Man was Ceremony‘s first attempt to channel not only the spirit, but also the sound of their idols—the band takes their name from one of Ian Curtis’ final songs—then In the Spirit World Now is their first foray into New Order territory. The guitars remain, but new wave synthesizers take center stage. Mileage will vary depending on your affinity for post-punk and motorik-esque beats, but after some nebulous false starts, the group has finally found space to begin carving their own lane in the crowded field of ’80s-indebted groups.

Ceremony are hell-bent on not making the same record twice, and when they make good on that promise, it’s easy to forget that they were once a hardcore band. Lead single “Turn Away the Bad Thing,” with its gleaming dream-pop interlude, is a cathartic highlight with a mysterious turn from an uncredited female guest vocalist. In a different vein, “Presaging the End” finds Anzaldo flexing his adoration of Prince with a crispy funk line that would have been unfathomable four years ago. In the Spirit World Now would benefit from more of these experiments, especially in its amorphous second half.

Instead, the album is defined mostly by squiggly synthesizers. At best, they add much-needed texture, serving as a backbone for some of the catchier songs. At worst—as on the title track—they sit so high in the mix that they're a distraction. More than half of the songs here were written with synth as a lead instrument, but those arrangements don’t always translate to memorable music, and the electronics sometimes feel like an afterthought.

Nevertheless, frontman Ross Farrar sounds far more exciting behind the mic than he did on The L-Shaped Man. The Curtis imitation is gone; over the course of 32 minutes, Farrar delivers the sort of shouty double-tracking you might expect from Parquet Courts, and even sneers like Alex Turner. While his laconic verses about free will and desire can seem like free association, they’re still his most fun since fan favorite Rohnert Park. For that, he’s indebted to young alt-rock guru Will Yip, who handled production, helped to guide Farrar’s voice, and contributed some melody ideas.

Ironically, Farrar’s most captivating words aren’t sung, but rather spoken by the American poet Brooks Haxton, who oversaw the completion of Farrar’s poetry MFA at Syracuse University last year. Afterwards, Farrar asked his mentor to lend him his voice. Three dry readings of stanzas from Farrar’s poem “California Jungle Dream States End” paint a more vivid image than most of his lyrics, which can feel clipped and sometimes lose their impact as the rest of his band chug along listlessly. “Love saying, without you even less, as I felt my will jettisoned, a thing out in the street,” Hoxton intones near the end of the record.

For the first time in some time, Ceremony are mingling their shifting influences in a way that rarely feels like an attempt to rebottle the magic of their forebears. But the fact remains that most of what happens on In the Spirit World Now has been done before. Anyone can play some chromatic riffs or make synths squawk. This band knows how to break new ground, yet they sound as though they’re trying to summon songs that will miraculously slot in with their old material. It’s a balancing act that’s holding them back.

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