While it's musical value is formidable in of itself, one of the things that has truly always drawn me to the Satyricon debut Dark Medieval Times is the laughable, yet enduring black and white cover art. Before the gates of some foreboding, gray keep, a single ghastly rider rears up his black steed while his cape flutters in some winter breeze. He raises his double-headed axe as if to invite the listener to dinn... er, battle across a bridge of ice, and a field of withered trees. This looks like something a nuanced and competent 13 year old Dungeons & Dragons geek would draft for his 8th grade art class, but fuck it, I WAS that person at some point. I'm sure many of us were. Hell, I still AM that person to a degree. So despite its silliness, I have to think this is one of the most iconic of the Norse covers along with those early Burzum records, or In the Nightside Eclipse.
But what's more, it represents the isolation and majesty that black metal once, and still in some cases, hints at. A group of young, inspired deviants separating themselves from the conformity of their hollow civilization, escaping into fantasy and history, just like the lonely black wizard in his tower, the witch at her cauldron, the dragon in its mountain lair. Satyricon wanted to be feared, just like many acts in this wave, but what is not in question is their musical ability to back up the thematic content. Dark Medieval Times is not so grim, raw and punishing as Darkthrone and Burzum Not so folksy as old Ulver. Not so well orchestrated as In the Nightside Eclipse, nor so infamous as Mayhem. There is not much of a gimmick going on here, so the young Frost and Satyr had to bring the music, and they accomplished nothing less with what is for many their most beloved memory of the duo's career. I can't say that this is a personal favorite of the Norwegian 'second wave', but after only Nemesis Divina, it remains the best of Satyricon.
It's obvious from the beginning that they were going for something immense, epic and larger than life. "Walk the Path of Sorrow" is over eight minutes, complete with a strange symphonic intro that has some looped, martial synthesizers, ghostly choir and crashing percussion, before the drums thunder forth at a mid-paced gait, and the spires of distortion crash along under the steady clime of the keyboards. Before long, they transition into a calm acoustic part, and then back into the fray where Satyr applies his rabid, biting rasp. I can't say that the transitions here are all that smooth, but nonetheless the song continues to inspire as it cycles through a great many phases, like the ambient resilience of the bridge before the 4 minute mark, or the crash of timpani deeper into its depths. Ultimately, this is a strong start to an album, despite the rather brash tactics at segueing into each segment that often feel like jilted, irate icebergs elbowing one another for the same ocean space, while they wait for some unsuspecting cruise ship.
Other songs here feel more focused and manageable, like "Skyggedens", which is only half the length, and still manages to tear through five or six sequences, including acoustics. Or the lush and windy interlude "Min Hyllest til Vinterland", which is not more than a sparse, resonant accumulation of acoustics that slog along like a slow-moving autumn stream. Or "Taakeslottet" with its grimy, tremolo melodies and thundering percussion beneath the verse; one of the most melodic and memorable pieces on the album. Other standouts include the titular "Dark Medieval Times", the other 8 minute whale on the album, with a lot of strong, rushing chord streams, and an extended closing sequence with clean guitars and flutes that lives up to the song's name. Also, I rather enjoy "The Dark Castle in the Deep Forest", one of the most haunting and cheesy of the tracks but nonetheless engrossing, which the band would later title "Night of Divine Power".
The production is not their most elegant, after all this was put out through their own, small upstart label and didn't have the backing of a Century Media like Nemesis Divina. All the guitars, drums and vocals are clear, as are the keyboards, but I found the bass to have only a minimal, uninteresting presence throughout the compositions, and the whole mass is decidedly raw and unpolished. That said, that is actually half the charm of an album like this, and it wouldn't work with a poppy, modern gloss to it. The lyrics were not originally included, but what one can gather from them is that sense of sadness and isolation that I mentioned above, a grasp at the natural world of olde and it's most unfriendly environments, through which the band's despotic spirits wander. In other words: it reads much as it looks.
Dark Medieval Times had its problems. The bands' transitional ability was rusty and still in its incubation stage, and the riffs perhaps not as punishing nor distinct as on some of their later records. I like this mildly more than its close successor, The Shadowthrone, even though they had certainly made a few proficient strides on that material; but this doesn't have a tune like "Mother North" on it that makes me want to rush into some fevered battle and hurl my life away in the charge. It's dynamic, esoteric and makes a bold attempt at creating a rustic, glorious experience through the use of keys and clean strings, but doesn't entirely excel at any one thing. That aside, though, this is well worth the money, because it's a straight shot of imagination that seems almost innocent in comparison to a lot of what you'll hear today, and despite their noted weaknesses, many of the songs still endure.
Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (they will all learn)