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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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Death Cab for Cutie - The Blue EP Music Album Reviews

Save for a few intimate highlights, Ben Gibbard continues to move in lockstep with his band’s bigger, bolder, more arena-ready sound.

2018’s Thank You For Today was Death Cab For Cutie’s first album completely divorced from guitarist/producer Chris Walla and the first where they didn’t really try anything new. Offering proficiency and easy nostalgia over emotional investment, it was a safe-bet vote for fan service over the flawed experiments of Kintsugi and Codes and Keys. On its best (or at least its most familiar) moments, longtime fans could close their eyes and briefly forget that “Black Sun” ever happened.

The dullest Death Cab single in their history by a wide margin, “Black Sun” was the band’s attempt to endear themselves to KROQ neighbors Muse and Imagine Dragons, inflating their lyrics with meaningless portent and their arrangements with blown-out solos and production befitting a guy named Rich Costey. The disconnect with Gibbard’s bashful vocals made “Black Sun” the equivalent of a Duplass brother donning a CGI-sculpted muscle suit for a Marvel movie.

And yet on The Blue EP, Gibbard seems to have taken the commercial reception of “Black Sun” as a mandate for more of the same. Where he used to find indirect ways to sneak brute force into his writing, here he moves in lockstep with the band’s bolder sound, writing in the biggest and broadest strokes. A rock band gets big enough and they eventually write a song like “Before the Bombs,” which pits an anonymous couple against some unspecified atrocity in an unnamed part of the world. What is “the only thing” the bombs couldn’t take away from the doomed lovers? I’ll give you one guess.

Meanwhile, “Kids in ’99” offers a retelling of the Olympic Pipeline Explosion in their hometown of Bellingham, Washington. It has an obvious precedent in “Grapevine Fires,” a highlight from 2008’s Narrow Stairs, their last near-great album. But where the latter slowly smoldered, “Kids in ’99” leaves little room for Gibbard to expand beyond a disappointingly dispassionate, literal rendering of the event—he’s “thinking ’bout those kids back in ’99” without ever indicating what he thought, or why. “Man in Blue” is more in line with Thank You For Today, melodically sweet and lyrically inert and proof their robust sound isn’t going anywhere, regardless of who’s behind the boards. (They produced this one themselves.)

Every Death Cab EP contributes at least something essential to their catalog, and “To the Ground” nearly compensates for the rest of Blue’s flaws. Death Cab have long been fixated on Krautrock, a style of music that relieves Gibbard from having to be the focal point for a band that’s basically just him in the public eye. So it’s surprising that “To the Ground” contains some of his most vivid lyrics since Transatlanticism, as he watches a totalled car become one with the earth: “Down in the charred remains/Stripped the chassis clean/And the bramble grew through the frame/’Til it swallowed everything.” “Blue Bloods” is likewise a best-case scenario for late-period Death Cab, reconciling the underrated mean streak of Gibbard’s work on Barsuk with his current budget: “All these East Coast blue bloods that come out west/And I watch them argue about who loved you the best,” Gibbard sings, his thoughts “tied together like boulders with a piece of twine.” It’s a nice metaphor for a concept that never quite holds, and a tease at the ever-elusive “return to form.” Could Death Cab For Cutie make a whole album like this if Gibbard really wanted to?

But you know who doesn’t seem to miss old Death Cab For Cutie? Ben Gibbard. He sobered up in 2011 and took up “ultrarunning,” and now he’s a magnetic presence in peak physical shape leading a hit parade on stage after years of being an inessential live act even during their artistic peak. He can ignore Codes and Keys altogether. He’s been on a Chance the Rapper album. “Northern Lights” might recall the band’s glory days about as much as Silversun Pickups do Smashing Pumpkins, but it gets regular spins on alt-rock radio because it’s the new Death Cab For Cutie single. If Gibbard can’t or won’t access the emotional stakes that might help Death Cab’s new music transcend mere brand stewardship, I don’t blame him.

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