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  • Darkthrone Albums From Worst To Best
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Next month, Darkthrone will release The Underground Resistance, their 16th studio LP (or 15th, depending on how you catalog these things). It’s been 26 years since their formation (as Black Death), 22 years since their first LP (the technical death-metal album Soulside Journey), and 21 years since they abandoned technical death metal to play primitive black metal, the genre they helped to define, in Norway, alongside Mayhem and Burzum and a host of lesser (or later) luminaries. Also worth noting: It’s been 20 years since the band’s rhythm guitarist, Ivar “Zephyrous” Enger, parted ways with Darkthrone, and thus two decades of the band existing as a duo: Gylve Nagell and Ted Skjellum, better known as Fenriz and Nocturno Culto, respectively.

That’s a long time for any band to remain intact — attrition claims most before they hit the decade mark — much less a band in such a turbulent scene: If you didn’t know, Norwegian black metal musicians are unusually prone to things like suicide, murder, and incarceration.

Like Zelig, Darkthrone were around for all of it — the church-burnings, the homicides, the bigotry — though they remained uninvolved with and untouched by nearly all the sensationalism, the madness. Darkthrone were part of the “Inner Circle” at Helvete, the record store run by Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth, the Mayhem guitarist and architect of the Norwegian black metal scene. They were close friends and collaborators with Varg Vikernes, who played bass in Mayhem but made his own musical name as Burzum, before (and after) killing Euronymous. They were featured prominently in some of the scene’s best-known ancillary documents: Peter Beste’s book of photography, True Norwegian Black Metal; Aaron Aites’s and Audrey Ewell’s documentary film, Until The Light Takes Us; and hundreds — maybe thousands — of publications: newspapers, zines, blogs, magazines … Darkthrone are everywhere. (Heck, even before they were part of the Inner Circle, they were everywhere: Their logo — which has remained consistent since Soulside Journey, and is probably the most famous and coolest metal logo this side of the Slayer slashes — was drawn by Tomas Lindberg, lead singer of At The Gates and Disfear.)

The band is best known for what has been called the Unholy Trinity — three consecutive LPs that came to define black metal: 1992′s A Blaze In The Northern Sky, ’93′s Under A Funeral Moon, and ’94′s Transilvanian Hunger. Those albums changed not only the sound of black metal, but its look, too: While most metal album covers at the time were elaborate, colorful fantasies stuffed to claustrophobic capacity with gore, sci-fi, or Lovecraftian imagery, the Unholy Trinity featured stark images of solitary humans (who were painted white and garbed in black, and who looked like ghosts or vampires), like decayed frames from silent horror movies.

Get past the cover and into the grooves, and the sound was equally unexpected, dark, and degraded; the music featured on the Unholy Trinity albums sounds almost like an air recording or a cassette demo. This was a deliberate decision on the part of the band. Nocturno Culto had obtained a copy of Polish death metal band Vader’s 1989 demo, Necrolust, and both he and Fenriz were inspired by the sound. As Fenriz has since noted: “It was not the usual copy [of the Necrolust demo]; Ted got a fucked-up copy, with lots of hissing in the background. We loved that.”

It was a sound that hearkened back to the rudimentary recordings of ’80s metal bands like Hellhammer and Venom, and the sparse production style would come to be known as necro. The necro sound has since become a defining quality of much black metal; even now, more than two decades later, it is prominent in the music of a growing wave of black metal artists who release music primarily (or exclusively) on cassette.

On the Unholy Trinity, Darkthrone abandoned the sounds of day and looked backward, finding new inspiration in bands like Mercyful Fate, Motörhead, and — most prominently and most importantly — Sweden’s Bathory and Switzerland’s Celtic Frost, the two first-wave [1] black metal bands whose blueprints Darkthrone would study like scripture, from which they would build a new church.

But the Unholy Trinity represents only three years of a career that now approaches the three-decade mark, and for two of those decades, Fenriz and Nocturno Culto have established a massive, weird discography, as well as a cult of personality. The two men are like two sides of a vinyl LP: inextricably connected yet utterly unique. Nocturno Culto is quiet, aloof, distant; he lives in Trysil, the forests of Norway, six hours from his bandmate. Fenriz is excitable, loud — an endlessly quotable music obsessive who lives in the city, Oslo. Fenriz has called his band “the Steely Dan of black metal,” partly because both Darkthrone and Steely Dan share a reticence toward live performance (more on that later), and partly because both are duos whose core members play numerous essential roles, and the absence of either member would mean the immediate dissolution of the band. Fenriz plays the drums, writes the lyrics, does the interviews (hundreds of interviews per year, he claims); Culto plays the guitar, the bass, sings, writes the riffs, and handles all aspects of the band’s business dealings (they’ve been on two labels over the course of their career: Peaceville, from 1990 to ’94; Moonfog from ’95 to 2004; and back to Peaceville from 2005 to present day). Occasionally, Culto will do an interview, or Fenriz will play guitar; recently, both men have split songwriting and singing duties straight down the middle. To separate their contributions at this point would be to destroy the songs entirely, much like the music of Becker and Fagen. It’s kind of hilarious, too, to consider Steely Dan’s legendary studio perfectionism as an analogue to Darkthrone’s legendary commitment to lo-fidelity. As Fenriz said in one interview:

i don’t know of any other drummer that deliberately decided to UN-LEARN drums. i am not very interested in drummers, i quit playing drums with ambition in 1993. i don’t like playing drums and i ONLY play drums when we rehearse the song and after playing through the song once we start to record. so i play drums maybe 10 hours a year. and didn’t play anymore than that the last ten years and that’s a fact. i prefer bass and vocals, but i also do not rehearse those instruments, i get a hellova lot of NERVE out of not practicing, i’m walking on thin ice and i crave it!!

These days, the band rehearses a couple times a year, if that. They had almost completely stopped playing live by ’92, and they played their last gig ever in 1996 (a one-off event). In ’92, Fenriz was vocal about his distaste for live performance, saying: “We don’t play live anymore because of sound problems, silly trend audience, stagedivers (shoot ’em) and other financial and equipmental problems.” Since then, he has become a vehement, vocal opponent of live music (although he claims to still attend shows as an audience member on a fairly regular basis).

To be sure, the demand for Darkthrone live shows is there. In a 2011 interview, Fenriz told Metal Maniacs that the band had been offered $200,000 (plus expenses) to play the 2007 Wacken Open-Air Festival in Germany. In 2008, he says, they were offered $150,000 to play Hellfest in France. But the band members keep their day jobs — Culto is a schoolteacher; Fenriz works for the Norwegian postal service — so they won’t have to make any artistic compromises, including playing live.

Fenriz is a genuine (and self-proclaimed) music nerd — along with Darkthrone, he’s played in more than half a dozen other bands (most notably Isengard, Neptune Towers, and Fenriz’ Red Planet); since 2009 he’s run his Band Of The Week blog, which spotlights obscure metal bands that he’s found via his extremely obsessive listening habits (As he notes, “Each year I go through 350 – 500 releases, whether it’s a single, double album, demo, or DJ mix …. Every day I listen to at least 10 hours of music.”) And Band Of The Week has been instrumental in launching the careers of some of the most talked-about metal bands of the last few years, including Ghost, Christian Mistress, and In Solitude, among many others. He closes nearly every interview with shouts out to the arcane bands he’s listening to at the moment, the bands he wants you to hear, too.

That love of music is evident in every incarnation of Darkthrone. (The band’s name is a combination of references: a Celtic Frost song called “Jewel Throne,” with lyrics reading, “I am the king, sitting in the dark,” along with a long-defunct Danish metal magazine called Blackthorn.) The band’s work from 2007 to present day brings to life their oft-obscure, ancient heroes — Fenriz has loudly denied any influence dating later than the ’80s. But their career has been magnificently strange and diverse. In compiling this ranking of Darkthrone’s albums, I took into account only their studio LPs. I also largely ignored the band’s lyrics, which are frequently incomprehensible, although it should be noted that Fenriz is truly one of black metal’s greatest and most thoughtful lyricists, and he’s only gotten better and more interesting with age. His general themes can be broken into three periods: early (occult, death); middle (depression, isolation); and late (a meta-discussion of metal scene politics). As Fenriz himself notes, “The lyrics have changed, of course, because I’m really scared of people who haven’t changed their stance since they were 14. Perspective is everything, as Aimee Mann says.”

With that, let’s begin our descent into the amazing catalog of black metal’s essential band. Start the Countdown here.


[1]That distinction — first-wave and second-wave black metal — is an important one. For our purposes, “black metal” will heretofore be defined as second wave and post-second wave: Darkthrone, Burzum, and Mayhem are the seminal bands of the second wave, and most of the black metal that is popular today — everything from Krallice to Agalloch to Deafheaven — is an extension or derivation of the second wave. The first wave is not so much a genre as an evolutionary link defined only in retrospect. But I’ll let Fenriz tell you about that himself (from the great Until The Light Takes Us DVD bonus features):

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Comments (44)
  1. This is an awesome

  2. I can’t believe this stupid gallery. There are 15 slides and writeups, which I’m hoping will appear shortly. Sorry for the inconvenience.

  3. This is unreal. By FAR my favorite list so far. Personally I can’t imagine Goatlord anywhere but last, but the top of this list is absolutely spot-on.

    To the uninitiated: let this be your sacred text. Follow it’s teachings and discover the necro fucking glory of Darkthrone for yourself.

  4. What, Stereogum, placing a bands most beloved album first on their list? The Mayan Apocalypse HAS occurred!

  5. I <3 Fenriz. Great list!

  6. YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS

  7. Soulside Journey as their worst album? Seriously!? I’d put that within the top 5. Maybe it’s their worst if you only like black metal but to me that’s a release that can stand up with any Entombed album. That guitar tone killed my family.

    • I don’t think it stands up next to Entombed’s best, but even so, it’s just so weird and out-of-place in Darkthrone’s discography. Everything else (except Goatlord) is a direct and traceable evolution from Blaze, but Soulside feels like the work of another (Swedish) band.

      • Putting Soulside Journey last was just lazy. It’s hard to believe that you did something so lazy when comparing that to the rest of this list. You pulled together some great references and quotes. You even put Goatlord higher than anyone could have expected and that will be a difficult position to defend. I hate to nitpick because you’ve done such a good job with everything else. I just want to see that album recognized for what it was. It could’ve easily sat comfortably amongst the middle albums.

        • Miska, I’m not even gonna say it wasn’t a lazy choice, although w/r/t actual effort, it wouldn’t have been any harder for me to just put it in at 7 and bump everything else down a spot. Look, any music-ranking system is arbitrary, but for me Soulside really only makes sense in first or last place, because it’s SO much different than everything else in the band’s catalog. The band members changed their names after Soulside Journey. They disowned Soulside Journey. Even in retrospect, it’s anomalous — it’s a decidedly of-the-moment-sounding album, where Darkthrone’s mission statement has since been “death to modern metal.” It’s a very good Swedish death metal album (though a far cry from the timeless Swedish death metal albums), but Darkthrone were not a Swedish death metal band.

          • I don’t think an artist has any right to disown a work they produce. Even if they regard it as a mistake. If you make something commercially available, it will represent you for the rest of your life. I think it’s great that they re-tooled their aesthetic and put a lot of work into re-imagining their image. Considering how they started out it’s nothing short of a miracle what they were able to accomplish. Still, they recorded Soulside, and it happened to be a very good example of that style of music (of course it doesn’t approach Entombed…), a far better example of Scandinavian death metal than most of the middle period albums were exemplary of Norwegian black metal. It’s actually very higly regarded in the death metal community. Just last year, Decible Magazine put it on their top 100 greatest death metal albums list: http://rateyourmusic.com/lists/list_view?list_id=363433&show=25&start=25 I think it deserves to be in the middle somewhere. It really is a good album.

            What I really fear is that the reason it got stuck at the bottom was because black metal tends to be accepted by the mainstream music press and Pitchfork hipsters to a much greater degree than does death metal. What do you say about that?

            You point out that Darkthrone changed their names after Soulside, but the problem is that they didn’t change the name of the band. If they had, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Really, don’t you think it’s odd they didn’t just start a new band? Since they didn’t, that suggests to me that they wanted to continue the artistic vison they started with their earlier incarnation. Strangely, that didn’t really come through in any way. I just don’t get it. It’s the second most bewildering example of metal band retaining the name, but nothing else from an earlier incarnation (Napalm Death being the number one example).

            Look, I’m sorry I called that decision lazy because it came off as way too negative about what you’ve accomplished here. I really enjoyed reading what you’ve written.

          • There’s no anti-DM conspiracy at work here; I compiled Sg’s list of 2012′s best metal albums and that thing has a pretty healthy sampling of death metal IMO. But Darkthrone aren’t a death metal band! They did one album in that style; it happens to be very good. Objectively: It’s better than Total Death. It’s a better death metal album than Ravishing or Plaguewielder are black metal albums, frankly. But I don’t feel comfortable trying to contextualize it because it just feels like another band entirely.

            I wasn’t trying to diminish Darkthrone’s accomplishments or in any way detract from any listener’s enjoyment of that album. It was the first Darkthrone album I ever heard, and I got it when it came out. (My high school yearbook quote was “As wolfs among sheep we have wandered,” which let me tell you made me immensely popular senior year.) I just don’t think of Soulside — made by four dudes with normal human names — as being especially relevant to two decades of work made by two dudes with heavy metal names.

            Why didn’t they change the band name? Probably because they had a contract with Peaceville honestly, although maybe it’s just because Darkthrone is the best band name in history and it would have been a crime to change it. I’m honestly not trashing Soulside. But it’s not the album I’m reaching for if I want either Darkthrone or early ’90s Swedish death metal, and based on those factors, I shuffled it to the back of the queue. It’s still an excellent album.

  8. Eronymous would be proud.

    Or brooding, or dead or whatever.

  9. Cool. I think this just the right time of year for me to get more familiar with darkthrone.

  10. When I read the historical quotes, I read them in my head in a very deep, grunty tone. It made an enjoyable read even more enjoyable.

  11. I wish you’d stick to bands that I’m more familiar with. I feel like I’ve been cheated out of my nerd-rage.

    • Just pick some random album out of the slideshow to complain about.

    • Plaguewielder at number 11? Did your brains leak out your nostrils? Are you still learning how numbers work? Do only listen to music through your neighbors’ walls? Do you hate Metal? Have you even HEARD Plaguewielder?!? It’s obviously their seventh-best album. Any true Darkthrone fan knows this. My cat knows more about Darkthrone than you, and she’s only heard like half of their stuff (but she’s really getting into them.)

  12. Mike, this is a magnificent effort and a tremendous read. Bravo, man.

    BUT you got the order all wrong. However, I knew that would be the case. It’s done so well that I’m not all that worried.

    Euronymous would not approve.

  13. Wow, a russian novel of a work, and hard to think of a band more deserving!

    This is excellent work, man. I never thought of the blaze arc and the FOAD arc as two sort of mirrored trilogies, but that makes a lot of sense.

    I wonder–will Fenriz read this?

  14. i don’t know what this is.

  15. Love this. Can somebody please do a Melvins list?

    • Yeah, a Melvins list would be awesome. Also, I never actually acknowledged how well-written this is. You did an awesome job, Michael.

      • Oh mY god. If (when?) they do a Melvins list I will tear that bitch apart. Unless of course I totally agree with it. Melvins have been my favorite band for most of my music listening life. I’d actually love to see what the Stereogum list would look like.

  16. NO ONE. I REPEAT NO ONE KNOWS DEATHTHRONE LIKE I DO! YOU ALL ARE RIDICULOUS THINKING YOU KNOW DEATHTHRONE LIKE ME. ANY BITCHES WANNA DEBATE SOME DEATHTHRONE ALBUMS, HMU!!!!

  17. Thanks to all, BTW, for the kind words regarding the writing contained in this thing. I was proud of it when I hit publish, but now I can’t stop smiling. You guys are the best. (Especially you, Rubber Johnny. Especially you.)

  18. I rebooted my ‘gum account just to say how stoked I am about this list. Extremely well researched and thought-out content that I would never have expected to see on this site. Bravo!

  19. As someone getting more into metal but often at a loss for where to start, I’m loving “Counting Down” entries like this. Can you guys do Converge next? Or can someone just go ahead and tell me where to go next after “All We Love We Leave Behind”?

    • Jane Doe is widely considered their best album, but it was really hard to get used to. I would say that Axe to Fall is a good place to go next, I’d say it’s one of their best and also a bit more approachable than Jane Doe.

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