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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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Terry Riley/Kronos Quartet - Sun Rings Music Album Reviews

Utilizing space recordings and scraps of poetry, the minimalist titan and his long-time collaborators grapple with humanity’s place in the universe.

To call Terry Riley a minimalist is to ignore a large part of his history. Yes, the iconic American composer and his seismic 1964 signature composition In C all but codified the modern classical genre, but Riley has been adding teeming elements to his music ever since, most ambitiously with his writing for Kronos Quartet. Beginning with the string quartets of 1985’s Cadenza on the Night Plain, Riley and the members of Kronos have enjoyed a decades-long dialogue. Along the way Riley’s music has absorbed many other timbres and rhythms, including jazz, rock, waltz, electronic polyrhythms, and Latin music (and that’s not counting the many sounds contained within their epic Salome Dances For Peace), in a way that’s decidedly maximal yet still feels streamlined.


The scope of Riley’s Sun Rings transcends terrestrial music altogether, turning an ear to the sounds beyond Earth and utilizing recordings sent back home by Voyager I and II. The cosmic is inherent in Riley’s most exquisite works, but in making it explicit on Sun Rings, that theme becomes pedestrian. When they played the piece at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2004, the musicians waved their hands to set off motion sensor-triggered whooshing sounds; it was cringingly archaic. The performance was set against a backdrop of space visuals, but the multimedia piece would have seemed outdated even on a 1980s episode of Nova. Numerous performances have followed in the subsequent decade, giving them opportunities to refine some aspects of the piece. The presentation of Sun Rings in full here—one movement from a studio recording previously appeared in Kronos’ 2015 Terry Riley box set—feels decidedly more mellow, if still a little underwhelming.

A sampled voice discussing “whistlers” (or very low frequency or VLF electromagnetic waves) introduces the piece as sounds swirl. NASA transmissions and outer-space noise have been a part of electronic music since the 1990s, but hearing them folded into Riley’s work in the 21st century feels stiff and a little cheesy. The subtle, thrumming rhythms and hovering melodies of the quartet make early movements like “Hero Danger” a pleasant, albeit mild, listen; the warbling electronics approximate what a Kronos Quartet remix from the Orb might sound like. The murky metallic humming that courses beneath the elegant melodic lines of “Planet Elf Sindoori” almost tip it into the nebulous realm of dub.

But the zigzagging, overwrought theme of “Beebopterismo” wholly disrupts the spacey ambience that precedes it. The quartet saws away in a bizarrely intrusive, busybody fashion, as if trying to simply make their presence known. For all of that showiness, the strings are soon drowned in a wash of garbled electronics. “The Electron Cyclotron Frequency Parlour” similarly toggles between refined, elongated passages that swim amid the sonic detritus of the Voyager recordings and a more frantic and dramatic theme that lashes against it. That’s not to suggest that some balance isn’t struck, as the noisy, clanging charge of “Venus Upstream” fares far better.

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Reveling in the strange, otherworldly textures of outer space may have made Sun Rings a placid enough home listen, but it’s as Riley turns his gaze back to Earth and strives to make grand, overarching platitudes that the piece sputters and buckles under its own weight. Luminous choirs emerge on centerpiece “Prayer Central,” but as voices recite lines from “A Child’s Bedtime Prayer,” the atmosphere turns cluttered. Riley’s desire to “represent the voice of humanity in its struggle to understand the meaning of our place in this unfathomable universe” becomes too much for the piece to bear across its 16 minutes.

The finale, “One Earth, One People, One Love,” drives that point home like a spaceship crashing into earth. “Do you really know where you are at this point in time and space and in reality and existence?” asks a voice, as Alice Walker recites the titular phrase and bits of percussion flutter around in the mix. Such samples would be a virtual godsend were you making an ambient house track in the 1990s, setting up a big, profound, guilty pleasure of a break. But Riley and Kronos oddly tiptoe around such a payoff. Instead of delivering a maximal release, they give us minimalism at its least effective.


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