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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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(Sandy) Alex G - House of Sugar Music Album Reviews

The enigmatic songwriter’s latest album is full of vignettes that shift to reveal and conceal themselves in ways too unpredictable to be easily faked. It might be his best yet.

Alex Giannascoli’s songs draw weird poignancy from the ordinary. The artist who records under the enigmatic name (Sandy) Alex G mixes the real and the imagined, the possibly-biographical and the probably-fictional in the same breath. His songwriting is detailed but stubbornly opaque, swathed in a fuzz as thick and soft as dryer lint. This unassuming style, initially developed over a half-dozen EPs and albums released independently online, bleeds together DIY rock and homemade folk with snatches of country, industrial, or electronic. He’s become an undeniable, if low-wattage star of 2010s indie rock.

His third album for Domino, House of Sugar, is the clearest and most inviting articulation of his skewed aesthetic. It employs most all of the things that make Alex G songs sound like Alex G songs: sturdy, ragged chord progressions; abstract, existential-leaning lyrics; Molly Germer’s homey violin playing; squeaky, pitch-shifted vocals like the voices you’d give your own bad ideas. The title refers to both the SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia and the gingerbread house from “Hansel and Gretel.” Like a fairy tale, the album is both sweet and sinister, layering different modes to obscure its true intentions. These are songs about feeling discomfort in the gaze of others, vignettes that shift to reveal and conceal themselves in ways too unpredictable to be easily faked. “You and me/These are titles I can hardly speak,” Alex croons over the barn-dance sway of “Southern Sky.”

Mixer Jacob Portrait, who’s worked on Alex G albums since 2015’s Beach Music, brings out professional-quality fidelity without clearing the cloudy textures. House of Sugar is full of little instrumental parts and mumbled background vocals that come through and fall away without necessarily building or resolving, like students in a school pageant. As with earlier albums, it’s studded with experiments: “Project 2,” an interlude of fluting vaporwave synths, and “Sugar,” where melodramatic violin and piano are coated in Vocodered gurgles. They’re less interruptions than camouflage; “Sugar” leads into the open chords and tender Elliott Smith coos of “In My Arms.” “He lay his head/Back on my chest/Once had a wife/Now nobody’s left,” Alex murmurs.

The best moments on House of Sugar are like this, bittersweet and empathetic. “He was a good friend of mine/He died/Why write about it now/Gotta honor him somehow,” he sings in the matter-of-fact opening lines of “Hope,” but the scene fades to a raucous celebration of life: “In the house they were calling out his name/All night/Taking turns on the bed/Throwing bottles from the windows of the home/On Hope Street.” Alex’s late friend isn’t named; the only name is the street, Hope, an emotional coincidence too improbable to believe from anyone else. In his dreamy, surreal landscape, it makes total sense.

The album closer, recorded live at a November 2018 show in St. Louis, is another of these perfectly imperfect Alex G gestures. “SugarHouse” is a song for closing down the bar, but Giannascoli’s words transform the concert crowd into weary gamblers at the end of a long, artificial day: “You never really met me/I don’t think anyone has/But we can still be players together/Let SugarHouse pick up the tab.” They’re the words of a man conflicted about himself, but not his intentions—an appeal to the type of community that comes from the bottom, not from the top. There’s enough space in Alex G’s stories to tell your own.

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