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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 a past life, spending entire days in front of the record player. Soon, Uncle Stein is no longer invited to the house.

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 a past life, spending entire days in front of the record player. Soon, Uncle Stein is no longer invited to the house.

When he starts elementary school, Gylve quickly falls in with the older kids, the class clowns, and discovers the magnetic pull of having a good sense of humor. As the ’70s draw to a close, a new genre of music is exploding, giving wild, communal voice to his young outlaw mentality. There’s a band in America whose members wear makeup and stick their tongues out on stages lit by flames; there’s another group from Australia penning youthful odes to breaking the rules. The guitars are loud, the lyrics are filthy, and the teachers don’t get it. “It’s like the dreams you had when you dreamt you were in a candy store and could take all that you wanted,” Fenriz will later reflect. “But metal was real, it was there.”

It becomes his entire life. Eventually, his love for Kiss and AC/DC gives way to Iron Maiden and Slayer. At 15, he decides to start his own band. Gylve acquires a drum set, like all the crucial things in his childhood, through his Uncle Stein, and he invites his friends to record some songs under the name Black Death. Their music is sloppy and ridiculous. (Example lyric: “I was sitting in the living room watching the telly/Then something evil formed in my belly/Pizza, pizza, pizza monsters are bad.”) Reviews in the underground zines show no mercy. A writeup in Slayer Magazine—written by one of his most trusted penpals, no less—is mostly comprised of laughter and insistences to burn the tape in a garbage can.

It does not deter him. Instead, the young metalhead learns a valuable lesson. In the not-so-distant future, he will proudly refer to Darkthrone as “The Most Hated Band in the World.” He’ll use interviews as opportunities to namedrop his favorite bands lost to obscurity, besmirching the tenants of modern, commercial metal. As a teenager, he is slowly falling into those ideologies; in his forties, this is what he’ll mostly write songs about. But for now, his primary drive is just to make more music and get better as quickly as possible.

Gylve finds his match in 1988 when mutual friends introduce him to a guitarist from Oslo named Ted Skjellum, a misanthropic teen who will eventually call himself Nocturno Culto. They talk about music on the phone for an hour and decide to meet up at the train station afterward. Gylve tells Ted to “look for a strange bloke with rattail hair and a scarf.” He looks a bit like a pale, sickly, Scandinavian Slash. “It was not very difficult to point him out when I arrived,” remembered Ted, who, with his long blond hair and a chilling voice, would take on vocal duties in the band.

The first great song they make together is called “Snowfall.” By this point, Black Death have changed their name to Darkthrone—based on a song title by Celtic Frost, the brilliantly inventive Swiss band who would serve as their most lasting source of inspiration. The group consists of Gylve and Ted, as well as guitarist Ivar “Zephyrous” Enger and bassist Dag Nilsen. They have an illegible logo that looks like a tangled pile of twigs coated in ice and dripping blood—among the first in a style that would become the standard for extreme metal. At the center, near the top, is a pentagram.

The sound of the band is eerie and intense and fairly derivative. They find their voice as a death metal band, a style of music that’s popular in Florida and Sweden, defined by low, growling vocals and dissonant melodies that require a substantial amount of technical proficiency. Even without vocals, “Snowfall” shows the potential of the genre, winding through its movements like a compact showcase of the chemistry that would define Nocturno and Fenriz’s music together, conjuring images of barren landscapes and wind through shaking branches. They sound serious because they are serious. Upon completing the recording, Fenriz drops out of high school to devote himself to music, as if he had been simply waiting for the right song to convince him.

Off the strength of their demo, Darkthrone start attracting attention. They accept a deal with an English label called Peaceville—because they want to share a label with their favorite death metal band, Autopsy—and set off to record their debut full-length at Stockholm’s Sunset Studios—because they want it to sound like their favorite death metal album, Entombed’s Left Hand Path, which was recorded there. The album they make, 1991’s Soulside Journey, is a thrilling if uneven record. As soon as they’re finished with it, they start recording a more ambitious sophomore album, which they plan to call Goatlord. The music on Soulside Journey is gaining traction—far more than any other metal out of Norway at the time—but the band is changing their interests.

“We hate that LP. It’s a silly, trendy death metal record,” Fenriz says in one of the few interviews he granted during the band’s early days. “Our first album is called A Blaze in the Northern Sky and it’s out before ’92. It’s gonna be one of the most evil and darkened albums ever! You’re all gonna hate it!”

This is the moment when Darkthrone decide to become a black metal band. Where death metal is a labyrinth littered with quicksand pits that suck you under, black metal is an icy wind that pulls you heavenward. Death metal sounds like the plumbing of some hollowed-out lurching machinery; black metal is sheets of glass fed through a wood chipper. Death metal bands sound like they practice; black metal is a ritual. Death metal riffs are burbling and low; black metal riffs are played on the highest strings, quickly like staccato notes during the tensest part of a slasher film. If you squint, it’s kind of beautiful.

It’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly changed between Soulside Journey and A Blaze in the Northern Sky, pushing Darkthrone to embrace black metal completely. They downgraded their gear and sanded their riffs down into simpler, gnarlier shapes. And unlike Soulside Journey, A Blaze in the Northern Sky was recorded close to home, in a studio in the back of a shopping mall in Kolboton, Norway. Half of its songs were revised ideas from their death metal days (“Paragon Belial,” “A Blaze in the Northern Sky,” “The Pagan Winter”), while the stronger half comprised brand new compositions in the black metal style (“Kathaarian Life Code,” “In the Shadow of the Horns,” “Where Cold Winds Blow”).

The album’s wide range of material makes it all the more compelling. Fenriz’s drumming is simplified and sharpened—no more rolling toms, no jazzy flourishes. He recorded all his drum and a few vocal parts (some gurgled incantations, a shoutout to his bandmate in the second track) in just a few days and then passed out drunk while Nocturno did his vocals in a room filled with black candles. According to at least one report, they wore corpse paint while recording.

While A Blaze in the Northern Sky lacks the intensity of its follow-ups—the masterful Under a Funeral Moon and the snowed-out hypnosis of Transilvanian Hunger—it is no less of a revelation. At this point, Darkthrone sounds less like their eventual peers—Mayhem, Burzum, Emperor—and more like a nightmarish collage of all the things they love. There are old-school riffs, gurgling spoken-word interludes, noisy solos that grind up against the infernal blast beats in a kind of sonic battlefield. “In the Shadow of the Horns,” their single greatest song, is replete with a devilish sound effect—created by Fenriz stuffing a cowbell with toilet paper—and a guitar part that sounds like Motörhead speeding down the side of a cliff on a motorcycle falling apart. Their brand of black metal had yet to be codified; on A Blaze in the Northern Sky, it is merely a feeling.

Peaceville had no idea what to do with it. It’s late 1991, death metal had never been more popular, and these abstract blasts of noise might not appeal to the growing audience that was still just discovering Soulside Journey. The label suggested a remix; the band threatened to leave. The label conceded. Before the album was released, Peaceville included “In the Shadow of the Horns” on a sampler titled Vile Vibes II. Among songs by contemporary death metal bands like Impaler and Baphomet, Darkthrone sounded even more alien. Rob Curry, aka Death Dealer of the Australian metal band Vomitor, tells a story of hearing the tape on a tour bus and listening to Darkthrone’s song on repeat for the entire four-hour ride.

This would be Darkthrone’s initial legacy: a well-kept secret among touring bands, zines, and extreme metal enthusiasts. In the United States and Europe, black metal wouldn’t make the rounds until later in the decade when gruesome circumstances brought it to people’s attention. A scene had situated around a Norwegian record store called Helvete, founded by Euronymous, the guitarist of Mayhem. Frequented by members of all the notable black metal bands, it became a toxic social circle where the tenants of white nationalism and Nazism spread, largely due to the increasingly radicalized Varg Vikernes of the one-man band Burzum. In 1993, after spearheading a series of church burnings in Norway, he murders Euronymous, goes to jail, and becomes a dark figurehead for metal’s most hateful tendencies.

In the liner notes, Darkthrone dedicate A Blaze in the Northern Sky to Euronymous, “The king of black/death metal underground.” The scene was splintering. Nilson and Nocturno move deep into the wilderness, due to a growing disillusionment with what they describe, somewhat diplomatically, as a boys club. As the decade wears on, Fenriz’s rhetoric begins sounding a good deal like Varg’s, using the word “Aryan” to promote his music and “Jewish” as a pejorative. In 1994, Peaceville refuse to promote Darkthrone’s latest album and their relationship with the label—which they once dreamed of being on—ends unceremoniously.

In a famous Kerrang! article that helped bring black metal to American audiences, Cronos, frontman of Venom, distanced himself from the Norwegian black metal movement that cited him as a primary influence. “When you talk about Satanism relating to Venom, it’s about worshipping yourself, giving yourself freedom of choice of love and hate, good and evil,” he explained. “It’s not about being beholden to a deity. It’s about being the best you can be. All of this is very sad.” By the turn of the century, Fenriz found himself creatively stagnant, falling into depression and isolation.

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If the story ended there, Darkthrone’s first decade of music might feel like an artifact of a troubled time and place. But eventually, they found their voice again, reborn as a duo of just Fenriz and Nocturno. After taking a defensive stance through the ’90s, Fenriz eventually apologized and disowned his behavior both in his words and his actions throughout the 2000s. He tore down the mystery and antagonism that once defined him and the second wave of black metal he ushered in. He granted every interview requested of him and used his platform to spread the word for good new bands. In the liner notes of a career retrospective box set Black Death and Beyond, he acknowledged his regret over the language he used in the ’90s. “There is no excuse,” he wrote.

Nocturno still lives in the woods and has a day job teaching; Fenriz works in the postal industry and exhibits his passion for Norway’s wilderness by taking long hikes, going on camping trips and, briefly, holding local office. The 2010s have been among their most consistent decade, touching on all the subgenres of metal they hold dear, with the notable exception of black metal. Some fans aren’t into it. Darkthrone accepts that. “We change as all on this planet changes,” Fenriz explained. “In a natural way.”

When you listen to A Blaze in the Northern Sky, it’s impossible to ignore all the violence that followed. But deep in its foggy, impressionist landscape, you can also hear the excitement, the inspiration. You can see kids in corpse paint in a recording studio in the back of a shopping mall crowded around the speakers playing a Black Sabbath album for reference as they try to bring a vision to life. You can imagine misfits traveling in vans dreaming about where on earth this sound was coming from. And you can envision a lonely kid somewhere with an entire world opening from the speakers, who might bask in its silence after the record ends, look out the window and see something bright and strange and burning somewhere far away.


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