Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Darkthrone - Astral Fortress (2022)

Each new Darkthrone studio album comes with the obligatory internet tug-of-war over why their new material is irrelevant, and they need to hang up the bullet belts; or why it's genius, and they're still treading some new ground. Here's the thing, though. Darkthrone doesn't give a fuck, and I have to agree with them. Yes, their material might been on an increasingly minimalist path of late, and some might construe that as lacking effort or 'phoning it all in', but it's not their first rodeo. That's exactly where they've been through so much of their career! Was Total Death complex, or The Underground Resistance revolutionary? They were cool because they held true to the band's ideals of slowly expanding and contracting its sound, tapping into primal influences across various metal sub-genres, and always infusing that with their own distinct personality. Astral Fortress is no different, and while it's got the most 'trolling' cover image in their entire discography, that's just another thing to admire about it. They don't always do what I expect, but 95% of the time so far it's turned out pretty damn awesome...

And it's awesome this time too, and that is why Darkthrone has my trust. Astral Fortress does conform a little to the blackened/doom vibe they've manifest through some of their recent albums, but this time they've got a warmer, more direct sound than on the eerier Eternal Hails... The riffs definitely feel like the sort the duo have written in the past, and across the seven tracks, they usually do a few per song, but MAN what riffs. "Impeccable Caverns of Satan" has those great, Sabbath-laden grooves to it, which work so well against Ted's constipated grunts, and the very simplistic Fenriz beats. "Stalagmite Necklace" opens with one of my favorite 'Throne riffs since forever, and the way the vocals echo off against the shuffle of the drums is just timeless, it feels like it could have hailed from any dark shed or sub-cellar of the last four decades, and the little synth touches are just perfect in enhancing the atmosphere. The most ambitious piece here is probably "The Sea Beneath the Seas of the Sea", with its ridiculous title and 10-minutes of evil, churning molasses riffs that once again bring to light that strong doom influence with not a small amount of the Celtic Frost/Hellhammer sound they were birthed on.

Almost all the other tracks deliver too, though if I had to pick the three I enjoyed the most, it would be those. The jangly noise interlude "Kolbotn, West of the Vast Forests" does feel extraneous, but in a weird way it feels like some breath of icy breeze is striking some strings or chimes out in the frigid environment of the cover photo, I just think it could have been better used as an intro that wound better into a proper metal track. They bounce back with the harmonic glazing of "Eon 2", another very good tune with a nice folksy surprise within, but it doesn't bring back any of the same tropes from the instrumental. Otherwise, the mix on this album is supreme...it's very bare and some might argue dry, but the way Culto's vocals hover off the simple riffing and timekeeping, lightly struck drums makes for an unexpectedly haunted experience. All the instruments sound good in isolation, though the bass as usual isn't an important factor, just thumping along enough to notice it. The guitar tone, the few acoustics, the drums, all adherent to the simplicity and effectiveness of their design, and Astral Fortress grants me what I so wish for every time I listen to this or any other black metal band...escape.

Maybe it doesn't throw me a lot of left field hooks like some of my favorite Darkthrone moments throughout their career...like hearing "The Winds They Called the Dungeon Shaker" for the first time on Dark Thrones and Black Flags, thinking 'what the fuck is going on?' and then gradually becoming so smitten that it's one of my favorite songs period. Or that earliest transition from the otherworldly, murky death metal of Soulside Journey to the icy Swiss-style nihilism of the sophomore, which seemed so unapproachable at the time but has long-since proven mandatory. Astral Fortress is not borne of such revelations, but it's another journey within that greater journey that I am privileged to be alive and take with two of the most honest, down to Earth dudes in all of metaldom. The most absorbed I've been with one of their albums in 15 years.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]


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