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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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Sam Fender - Hypersonic Missiles Music Album Reviews

Though the upstart British songwriter is a capable storyteller when he zeroes on a single topic, his debut is only intermittently transcendent.

Raised on a council estate in North Shields, England from the age of 10, Sam Fender took solace in the music of Bruce Springsteen, finding common ground between Springsteen’s Asbury Park and hardship in his own hometown. Now 25 and a songwriter himself, Fender landed a deal with Polydor and won the Critics’ Choice award at this year’s BRITs before he’d released his first album. When he takes a swing at “pop machine” artifice, or milquetoast peers like James Bay or Ed Sheeran, it’s not just outsider posturing—except that Fender now finds himself on the inside. Label executives have heralded Hypersonic Missiles, his debut album, as the second coming of Bruce. But though Fender’s commitment to addressing serious social issues sets him apart, the well-intentioned Missiles is only intermittently transcendent.

The album’s best songs come from the most honest, intimate places. Fender wrote “Dead Boys” in response to friends’ suicides, and the words are terse and direct: “We close our eyes/Learn our pain/No one ever could explain/All the dead boys in our hometown.” It has the fewest lyrics of any song on the record, a restraint that underscores the stigma surrounding male mental health. “The Borders” initially sounds like a stiffer War on Drugs, but its lyrics about the pain of dysfunctional family life are more grounded than Adam Granduciel’s soul-searching. The song ends with some legitimately chilling final lines (“You pinned me to the wall and smashed a bottle/Your eyes the door to hell and all within”), proving Fender is a capable storyteller when he zeroes on a single topic. It’s the kind of intimate, emotional writing that may resonate with other young men questioning their assumptions about masculinity and vulnerability.

Fender runs into trouble when he tries to tackle everything at once. The title track climaxes in a thrilling Boss homage (complete with Clarence Clemons-y saxophone solo), but stumbles on the way there as Fender’s protagonist groans, “The tensions of the world are rising higher/We’re probably due another war with all this ire.” The lowest moment is a folk ballad called “White Privilege.” Taking a different approach than the Macklemore songs of the same name, “Privilege” pairs dense harmonies with an onslaught of societal grievances: Brexit, social media, liberal arrogance, political correctness. The critiques are often shallow and, unlike the better songs here, devoid of empathy. Fender says the song was written as a series of characters, but the lyrics are so muddled it’s hard to tell when the perspective shifts.

“Privilege” at least represents a risk, while Hypersonic Missiles eventually retreats into previously released singles and songs Fender wrote as a teenager. In his own estimation, the album has “a couple of stinkers” on it, including Hozier pastiche “Call Me Lover.” That song’s peaks and valleys actually help to set it apart: Elsewhere, Fender treats surveillance states (solid 2017 debut single “Play God”), one-night stands (Strokesian romp “Will We Talk?”), and landlord gripes (misbegotten gospel exercise “Saturday”) with identical shouty intensity. The only real non-single highlight from the back half is closer “Use,” which enters intriguing, Nina Simone-inspired territory when Fender dips his voice.

Fender may yet live up to the praise he’s received, but the lack of focus and mostly formulaic arrangements on this record won’t get him there. Snow Patrol collaborator Rich Costey’s antiseptic, airless mixes don’t help, robbing even the flourishes (strings, backing choirs, more saxophones) of their potential. In the blandly apolitical landscape of modern rock, Fender’s blend of social commentary and huge choruses offer the suggestion of real conviction. When he tells stories about human beings rather than philosophizing about the human condition, he sounds like he’s on his way to greatness. But Hypersonic Missiles on its own is unsatisfying, and the overconfident presentation risks stifling his voice before he’s found it.

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