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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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Lower Dens - The Competition Music Album Reviews

The Baltimore synth-pop band’s latest might be their most explicitly political and theoretical work, tackling nothing less than the socio-psychological ravages of capitalism.

The Baltimore band Lower Dens are no strangers to fitting sophisticated political thinking into pop songs. 2015’s Escape From Evil imagined a queer utopia built from the sounds of the past, and frontperson Jana Hunter’s rich voice made that future sound both vivid and elusive, an inspired marriage of sound and message. Their latest record The Competition might be their most explicitly political and theoretical yet, which is to say it is also their most didactic.

It’s called The Competition because, according to Hunter, the album considers the “socio-psychological” impact generated by the aggressions of capitalism and the free market. Conceptually, it’s almost an extension of Escape From Evil: Where that album mined pop history to track a course toward a queer future, The Competition is mired in the muck of the present, finding beauty and horror in the everyday. Sonically, it shares a lot with Escape From Evil, steeped in the sounds of the ’70s and ’80s, evoking at once the heat of Throbbing Gristle and the sheen of Roxy Music.

It’s a lot for one album to take on, and while Lower Dens tackle their themes with commendable ambition and skill, they run into some rough spots. Forced through the sieve of the overarching concept, some of the songs, both in sound and content, come off as overwrought and obvious. Take “Empire Sundown,” the closest the album comes to a call to arms. Hunter sings about the urgent need for revolution—“They take everything but they/Can’t tell us how to defend ourselves/The tide is gonna turn”—but the robotic drawl of their voice and chug of the drum machine denudes the effect. Amidst a frenzy of flashing synths on “Simple Life,” Hunter reflects on the the class divide, a little clumsily: “Chain ourselves to circumstances/I needa/Gotta know/If we ever had a chance.”

There are moments where the beauty of the music matches the seriousness of the writing. In “I Drive,” featuring the singer :3LON, Hunter spins a tale about the hegemony of heterosexuality wrapped up in the pure pleasure of retro pop. And on “Young Republicans,” which is about the death drive of the right wing, Hunter delivers the album’s sharpest line (“Born without souls or blood or skin/We’re young republicans”) with elan.

The strongest songs are the simplest: The Competition’s highlight is “Real Thing,” which came out three years before the album was even announced. It’s a heartbreaking track, made to sound like a sock-hop standard, redolent of the Boomer ennui of The Big Chill. Using all those symbols, Hunter tells the album’s best story: of the love one goes searching for outside the confines of traditional marriage. “I’m married to a terrific guy/I’ll never leave until I die/But I just love to get out and get it on/I don’t wanna live possessed by a memory,” Hunter sings at the start, before a beautiful tangle of guitar synth joins them.

What makes this song so effective—so affecting, maybe—is pretty basic: The power of Hunter’s voice, the clarity of the writing, and the richness of the sound stick in the way the album’s more labored songs can’t. It’s a political song, in so much as it inverts expectations, it hijacks tropes and makes them something new. But it’s exceptional for a whole other reason, too. It’s a great love song—one that just cracks you open.

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