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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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Charli XCX - Charli Music Album Reviews

With adventurous production and revealing writing, Charli XCX’s third studio album reflects an artist ready to commit to self-examination.

Long before she had firsthand experience with pop music’s star-making assembly line, songwriting camps, and royalty splits, 14-year-old Charli XCX thought that people made music because they were brainwashed by robots. “Who writes the songs/The machines do,” she sings with bug-eyed terror on her unreleased 2008 debut, 14. The lyrics are a little ridiculous, but Charli wasn’t exactly wrong in the assumption that there are complex mechanisms lurking behind most chart-topping songs. She witnessed them in the 2010s, after she signed to a major label and began penning hits for Icona Pop and Iggy Azalea, content to give her most straightforward pop songs to others. On her own albums, whether the gothic True Romance, the punky Sucker, or the avant-garde Pop 2, she subverted mainstream pop conventions, projecting the image of a rave-happy club kid. Always at Charli’s core was the contradiction of loving pop music, yet needing to rebel against the pop machine.


Her third studio album, Charli, invites back many of Pop 2’s contributors, as if hoping to recapture its predecessor’s magic. But the record feels conflicted about its intentions. Take Lizzo-featuring “Blame It On Your Love,” a reworking of Pop 2’s transcendent “Track 10” that loses its impact by trading dial-up screeches for a widely appealing, Stargate-produced EDM drop and a dembow-inflected groove. This and the frivolous yet fun chart-pop song “1999” (featuring Troye Sivan) don’t jell with the rest of Charli’s warped club tracks and intimate ballads. Like many self-titled albums, it’s a reflection of the artist: in Charli’s case, one who wants to veer down experimental, transgressive, and queer pathways but constantly contemplates what it would be like to fully enter the mainstream.

Much of Charli’s sound is an extension of the corrosive electronics on Pop 2, with producer A. G. Cook at the helm of both. He and his PC Music cohorts (Planet 1999, umru) embrace the synthetic and shiny: Glossy, arena-sized ’80s rock drums, rippling power synths, squeaky J-pop arrangements, and the relentlessly positive sound of Swedish Eurodance are repurposed and exaggerated, evoking the eerie sheen of a hyper-realistic 3D render. On “Shake It,” Charli’s voice is manipulated to sound like bubbling water, before the track is infiltrated by a small army of collaborators including Big Freedia, CupcakKe, Pabllo Vittar, and Brooke Candy, like a futuristic remake of Busta Rhymes’ infamous posse cut “Touch It (Remix).” The beat sounds like someone furiously clanging on boiler room pipes, transforming a nasty strip club track into a soundtrack for mutiny. The credits for “Click,” which ends with a montage of jagged and distorted SOPHIE-like sounds not dissimilar to farts, name 100 gecs’ Dylan Brady as responsible for “harsh noise.” Compared to the bouncy electro-pop of “1999” or the trop-pop production of “Warm” (featuring Haim), these moments provide a thrilling adrenaline rush.

Charli’s crisp writing mirrors the vivid production. On “Click,” she turns herself into an onomatopoeic sound effect. The sensory details of “Next Level Charli” establish a scene in seconds: “I go speeding on the highway/Flame burning/Tire screech.” Charli credits Max Martin with teaching her the technique, commonly used by Swedish songwriters, of using words’ natural melody to create catchiness, instead of intentionally rhyming. Lifting the most effective ideas from different schools of production, she’s able to construct her own mutant strain of pop.

The album’s most potent song is the synth-pop anthem “Gone,” which blends vulnerability with outré sound. Through gritted teeth, Charli describes a party full of people who make her feel alone: “I feel so unstable/Fucking hate these people,” she sings, using the image of ice melting in her fist to illustrate her sense of panic-inducing isolation. In response, Héloïse Letissier of Christine and the Queens poses questions that are somehow relatable in their absurdity: “Am I a smoke?/Am I the sun?/Who decides?” Letissier’s abstractions are the foil to Charli’s concrete lyrics: The former evokes the spiraling crisis of the mind, the latter the blood-boiling anger that rises in the body.

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Together, Charli and Letissier reach a cathartic breaking point, a rattling breakdown filled with frosty percussion, dramatic synth stabs, and stuttering vocal chops. In a recent i-D interview, Letissier asserts that Charli’s musical aesthetic, which she describes as a “hybrid” of club experimentation and earworm pop, is “deeply queer.” But in “Gone,” Charli invites another hypothesis for why her music has become so beloved by the LGBTQ+ community: Her ability to evocate a profound sense of unbelonging. When “Gone” explodes, it sounds like two people shattering the box that confined them.

Charli’s goal is self-examination—a new step for Charli, who’s better known for her up-tempo hedonistic bangers than her emotional deep cuts. Throughout the album, she pinpoints her the source of her anxieties, investigating her relationships with substances, with her romantic partner, and with herself. She does this with heart-wrenching specificity on the ballad “Thoughts,” when, in a drugged-out stupor, she wonders if her friends are genuine. And on the electro-bop “February 2017,” featuring Clairo and Yaeji, she recaptures “Track 10”’s candor. “Sorry ’bout Grammy night/Was lying on my mind/Was in a different place/Tortured and drifting by,” she sings to her partner. So when “Official” arrives, it feels breathtakingly hopeful, as Charli sings of the little details (breakfast in bed, a magical kiss) that make her love real. Charli uncovers a singer-songwriter unafraid to display the cracks in her facade, crafting a striking portrait of what happens when a robot glitches.


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