1. A Blaze In The Northern Sky (1992)
Darkthrone is black metal’s most archetypal band, and they’re also the source of many archetypes belonging to the genre — almost all of which were born, fully formed, on the band’s second album, A Blaze In The Northern Sky.
Most immediately, there is that cover art: a high-contrast black-and-white photograph of rhythm guitarist Zephyrous; only his corpse-painted face, wind-blown hair, and clawed hands are visible. He looks undead, airborne, like he is descending quickly on terrified prey. It was the first of four Darkthrone album covers to employ that stark, minimalistic approach: Nocturno Culto is the demonic figure in the trees on the cover of Under A Funeral Moon; Fenriz is the grim apparition on the cover of Transilvanian Hunger; and finally, on the cover of Panzerfaust, it is just the full moon and Norwegian forest in winter. After that, Darkthrone would experiment with other styles, but black metal’s visual aesthetic had been cast in stone — since 1992, seemingly every black metal band in the world has released at least one album whose cover art owes a debt to A Blaze In The Northern Sky.
Then, there is that sound: primitive, raw, no-fi. Recorded in 1991 at Creative Studios in Kolbotn, Norway — where Mayhem’s first release, the savage, no-frills Deathcrush EP, was recorded — Blaze buzzes unsteadily and violently. This is the birth of the necro sound. Bassist Dag Nilsen parted ways with the band during the recording of Blaze because he was unhappy with the band’s new direction; he wanted to continue playing technical death metal (he did contribute to the album as a session bassist). The band’s then-label, Peaceville, reacted negatively to Blaze when Darkthrone submitted the masters, initially thinking it was a joke, then insisting the band remix the album. (The band refused, threatening to split with Peaceville and release the album with Deathlike Silence, the label run by Euronymous. Eventually, Peaceville relented, releasing the album as delivered by the band.) But on Blaze, the band’s necro sound hadn’t reached its most unrelenting extreme — the album was recorded in a studio, after all, not on a home four-track (or a boom box) — and that works to its benefit. The tone is harsh and ugly, but the strong individual performances cut through the squall.
Finally, there is that music: Almost immediately after its release, Darkthrone absolutely disowned Soulside Journey — in a 1991 interview, Fenriz called his band’s debut “a silly, trendy death metal record … we hate everything concerning death metal now!” That seems slightly hyperbolic: Blaze has clear traces of death metal in its DNA, in its riffs (including a snippet of music recorded during the Goatlord sessions on “In The Shadow Of The Horns”). But here, Nocturno Culto’s vocals have morphed; gone is the guttural death-metal groan he displays on Soulside Journey; in its place is a dry, ominous hiss. It is here that Darkthrone first explore their love of D-beat punk and ’80s metal.
Darkthrone’s sound underwent an organic evolution beginning with Blaze, and thus, the album does not truly capture the band’s quintessence: Transilvanian Hunger is their most recognizable album, and perhaps the one that best exemplifies their longstanding influence; Panzerfaust takes their necro sound to its furthest extreme. But there is no album in Darkthrone’s catalog that is so immediate, so powerful, so timeless as Blaze. Never again was their sonic blend quite so diverse — in the album’s commentary track, Fenriz happily points out influences ranging from W.A.S.P. to Diamanda Galas — while still presenting a unified voice. It’s an album that could have been released in any of the last three decades and it would still sound equally fresh and relevant, even though it was an absolute shock to the metal community’s collective system upon the time of its actual release. In that 1991 interview, conducted only days after the band had completed the recording of Blaze, where Fenriz was writing off death metal as a whole and Soulside Journey in particular, he said, “That was the old DARKTHRONE, we just finished our new BLACK METAL album. For us, our second album is the first.”
In that instance, Fenriz’s hyperbole has, in hindsight, come to seem like understatement. A Blaze In The Northern Sky truly is the first. And its descendants are legion.