Friday, June 7, 2019

Darkthrone - Old Star (2019)

While Darkthrone's different 'phases' have cultivated individual audiences to themselves, some not too keen on the others, this is one band I've found enjoyable to follow wherever the wind would take them. From the frigid earnestness of their seminal death and black metal records through the nostalgia-tinged, often tongue-in-cheek side treks into punk, thrash, speed and heavy metal, they've always branded each album with their trademark personality, self awareness, and lyrics more clever than they might seem on the surface. I just don't feel as if they've ever failed me in this regard, and still get just as much pleasure listening through The Cult is Alive or Dark Thrones and Black Flags as I do A Blaze in the Northern Sky or Soulside Journey. In fact, I've long considered that they purposefully created their own counter-culture to the now-traditional necro black metal style they themselves were heavily influential upon, and I get a fat kick out of that.

Arctic Thunder stumbled for me a bit, not as a 'bad' record, but the first case in recorded memory where I felt some of the catchy nuances were missing, it didn't really string together the sort of personality that their earlier material thrived upon, with a lot of riffs that felt half-formed and just on the edge of catchiness without crossing it. Thankfully Old Star sets them right again, not a record bound for modern classic status, but a thoroughly consistent, enjoyable listen, especially at higher volumes, which sets out on a particular sonic path and then sticks the landing. While a lot of the initial reports and reactions I've read herald this as a 'return to form', meaning the band is back to its 90s black metal roots, I'm going to disagree there. Sure, you could place this back in around 1998 as a natural successor to Total Death and not sense that any major deviation to trajectory, but Old Star is heavily inspired by the classic heavy/doom metal riffing that they played around with on efforts like The Underground Resistance. Perhaps not quite so quirky or melodic, but it's given a more stolid and mighty countenance to create this huge, accessible sound. I'm not implying that you're about to hear Darkthrone cycling every half hour on your local corporate rock radio channel, but this one has a straight to the face, level production that many of its predecessors lack.

Everything sounds phenomenal, from Fenriz' simple, effective rock and roll beats and fills, through the dominant rhythm guitar tone, to Nocturno Culto's timeless, broad rasps and the lowly hovering bass lines, hardly adventurous but giving the rest of the mix just enough weight. I'd point out "The Hardship of the Scots" as a poster child for the aesthetic blend here, almost entirely a heavy/doom style track which busts back out into the Norwegians' Hellhammer-inspired churning and bending throughout the bridge. Others like "Duke of Gloat" go the opposite route, more or less a pure 90s throwback Darkthrone cut but with that same, formidable production pounding you in the skull. It's also astonishing how the band can still take a set of fairly stock, predictable riff patterns and then somehow refresh them just by putting their own touch, production and vocal style on them, and then whoosh, I don't feel like I've heard them all a hundred times before, even when I have. That's one hell of a skill for a band not renowned for anything bordering on technicality or complexity. It's also one of the reasons they've long been high up on the short list of my favorite bands ever, and if Old Star is any evidence, that status isn't going to change for a very long time.

Lyrically the album continues the pattern of simplistic verses containing clever little subversions, all wrapped up into song titles that you HAVEN'T heard a hundred times before, primarily in English, as usual these days, but with a handful of Norse lines. Granted, a lot of folks will probably never read them, but while they are far from poetic wizards, the grisly-yet-thoughtful layman's appeal to their words is among the best in the entire scene. If Chadwick St. John's cover artwork seems familiar, it's because he uses a similar, gruesome, detailed pencil-like style that you might recall from Grafvitnir's Obeisance to a Witch Moon or Arckanum's ÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞ. Great to see here and very fitting to the atmosphere of the six songs. Overall, Old Star is a step above Arctic Thunder and The Underground Resistance; the former because it left such a dry taste in my ears, and the latter because its handful of  genius tracks are counterbalanced by some of its more muddled ideas. This isn't the first Darkthrone CD I'm going to grab off the rack, but it's very well constructed, gets a little better with each of the initial listens, and if you're down for a mix of, let's say Total Death and Circle the Wagons, then I think you'll be more than satisfied.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]  (while Atlas cringes)

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