Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Darkthrone - The Underground Resistance (2013)
Newsflash: musicians change. Bands change. It's a kinetic universe. Even the planets are fucking moving. Even the dead ones. You either change with them, change of your own accord, or you stagnate. 'I'll gladly take stagnant over something...different!' Really? I was wondering where that smell was coming from. Yeah, I realize that Motörhead somehow scored itself an exemption clause to this rule, but Nocturno Culto and Fenriz have been evolving, devolving, and sidestepping for well over 20 years now, and to their credit, just about every choice they've made has proven pretty entertaining. Ever since I first picked up a copy of Soulside Journey on cassette, wholly ignorant of what the future would bring, theirs was a journey worth signing up for. In fact, I can say without any hesitation that I've enjoyed every Darkthrone record to date. Yes, even Goatlord. Even Plaguewielder. And, yeah, the 'punk' years, the 'speed metal' years, when the death-gone-black duo started digger into their record collections, and expanding their quest for inspiration beyond their copies of Deathcrush, Morbid Tales, Under the Sign of the Black Mark and Apocalyptic Raids 1990 AD. So be it. Without this period of experimentation, I wouldn't have gotten Dark Thrones and Black Flags, one of my favorite of all their works, and one of my favorite metal albums of the 21st century to date.
Darkthrone has gotten goofier. More endearing. Self-referential, beyond a doubt. They're not putting out records like A Blaze in the Northern Sky anymore (they've been there and done that). Neptune Towers is ancient history. The Underground Resistance is perhaps the friendliest record these two have released beneath this moniker, and as billed, it continues to carve out the members' nostalgia for antiquated metal by mashing it into their Celtic Frost-ed fundamentals and seeing what happens. Sure, to some degree this is influenced by Fenriz' fanaticism for the sounds of the 80s. His roots love. His 'bands of the week'. But you have to give these two credit: through the process of retroactive evolution, they're churning out something refreshing and welcome. Just about everyone with a pulse who pays attention to metal news heard all the presages and doomsayers about how they'd be searching for an 'epic heavy metal' style after the largely speed metal-inspired Circle the Wagons. In truth, while there are faint whiffs of early Manowar, Thor, Manilla Road, Cirith Ungol, and post-black/thrash Bathory, this fruit actually doesn't fall far from its 2010 tree. Surprisingly, the more 'epic' this record got, in terms of the more baseline heavy metal riffs and sillier clean vocals, the less I actually liked it...
Which leads me to a shocking conclusion, well before the actual conclusion: The Underground Resistance is the first Darkthrone studio album I would not qualify as 'great'. It's 'good', and I've been having a blast listening to half the tracks here, but certain overlong numbers and one particularly weak (if well intended) tune create a lot of inconsistency whenever I'm listening through in the proper order. I dug that they'd returned to the 'less is more' philosophy of their formal years (having first evolved into their black metal sound), but it's a double edged sword. With just six songs, you've got to fire on all cylinders, and I felt that the album's decision to back load its bloated content gave it a lopsided feel. Not that the cleverly titled "Leave No Cross Unturned" doesn't have its moments, but it sure as shit doesn't have fourteen of them, and even the superior "Come Warfare, The Entire Doom" could have used a slight hedge clipping. Not because the riffs are lacking, or that they've not pulled off some lengthy tunes in the past, but these don't exactly pad themselves out in any meaningful way. I kept waiting for buried thrills, and found none.
Yet the primary offender, "Valkyrie", comes earlier on in the proceedings. This, more than any other, is an honest attempt to create that epic heavy metal feel so publicized by the band and its slathering fans. It's the furthest from the Darkthrone comfort zone, in that it consists of pure speed/heavy metal with some doom and punk elements. No blackening. Fenriz' vocals throughout are almost entirely clean (there are some raving, harsher barks to give it personality), and unfortunately rather tuneless. I get what he was going for, and these sorts of quirky hooks worked for him in Isengard or on earlier 'throne tunes like "The Winds They Call the Dungeon Shaker", but there is nothing in there to snag me, and coupled with the really bland and boring guitar melodies and the rather underwhelming chord progressions, it fails to leave an impact in the midst of harder, Culto-fronted crushers like "Dead Early" and "Lesser Men". That's another thing, too. The N.C. sounds so goddamn good through this record, his ravenous T.G. Warrior-like rambling so archaic, like a tomb opening after a century of neglect, that the cleans sound absolutely ludicrous in contrast...
That's not to say they're all a bust, because on "The Ones You Left Behind" the biting cleans are delivered with a grisly harmonic arrangement that works in the context of the song, but it seems as if too little emphasis was put on making them consistently catchy. In terms of the riffs, there are easily a good dozen or so on the disc that stick out, like the blistering, full-bore speed metal stylings in "The Ones You Left Behind", "Come Warfare, The Entire Doom" or "Dead Early". Nothing revolutionary, mind you, and in truth if you heard them on any obscure heavy metal record from the early to mid 80s you might just ignore them, but it's how they mix and match them with their slower, muscular Celtic Frost grooves that creates variety and balance. The highlight for me personally was the melody embedded into the bridge of "The Ones You Left Behind", which just hit me from nowhere and had me pressing the repeat button numerous times. The grand finale, "Leave No Cross Behind" also has some real scorchers in their, but I think the ideas might have been better served in 2-3 separate, shorter tunes, because they don't seem to transitional all that smoothy or emotionally.
In addition to Culto, who has really been on fire of late with this and his work in Sarke, the production is an obvious highlight. The guitars are enormous, with great reverb on the melodies and in the chords themselves that attain the larger than life, airy aesthetics of 80s metal. This is one zephyr primed for headbanging. The drums are crystal clear while retaining that live studio quality most of their records are known for, and the bass is copious. Corpulent. Not always written well, since most of the lines fall behind the rhythm guitar and stay there, but at least you can feel that low end once "Dead Early" picks up momentum, and it never ceases whenever the riffs are pounding along. I may personally prefer some of their darker mixes from the 90s, because I tend to enjoy the nuances (and even the sloppiness) of those grimy and formative years, but those seeking a blast of in the face heavy metal will not be disappointed by how fulsome and level The Underground Resistance sounds at any volume. As for the lyrics, they're as usually pretty good, trying to come off 'dumber' than they really are, but packed with striking images that makes you think (the one exception being "The Ones You Left Behind" which is more about shouting and rhyming the 'ing' suffix).
Ultimately, this album would have been a lot better without "Valkyrie", and with "Leave No Cross Unturned" chopped and rearranged into two different songs, but I still had a good enough time that I don't feel my money was ill spent. Of course, I'm an incalculable manwhore for this band and their side projects, so your own mileage may vary, but if you loved the shit out of Circle the Wagons then it's a safe recommendation. I didn't get a whole lot of the Manilla Road/Omen flavor I was sort of expecting, and there aren't any tunes as infectious as a "Hiking Metal Punks", "Eyes Burst at Dawn", or "...Dungeon Shaker", but its worth it just to listen to N. Culto's howling and a stellar mix redolent of rhinoceros-driven chariots across a Roman Empire battlefield. Or were they elephants?! Regardless, if you're on the way to pick this up and you happen to see Imperator Vlad of the Flat Earth Black Metal Society hiding out in the shade of a tree or awning, buy the guy a cheeseburger or some bus fare. You'll be alright, buddy. The world's moving on. Here's a ticket.
Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (vaporizing intellectual leftovers)