Counting Down

Darkthrone Albums From Worst To Best

Michael Nelson | January 23, 2013 - 3:12 pm

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):