11. Plaguewielder (2001)
Even though Darkthrone has certain very identifiable artistic periods — the primitive black metal of 1992 – ’94; the punk-influenced thrash of 2007 – ’10 — Fenriz has said that only two Darkthrone albums are essentially the same: “Ravishing Grimness and Plaguewielder, from ’99 and ’01 [respectively].”
He’s not wrong: Both Plaguewielder and the album that precede it have similar backstories and constructions. Each contains six songs, music for five of which was written by Nocturno Culto, with Fenriz contributing all the lyrics and one full song per album. Both albums were recorded while Fenriz was undergoing “severe depression,” which played a role in his minimized participation. On both albums, Culto’s songs are epic and melodic black metal of the atmospheric variety, while Fenriz’s contributions are basic metal-charged rockers. Both albums were recorded at Studio Studio in Toten, Norway, and they sound fuller and cleaner than the raw metal for which Darkthrone is best known. The primary difference is the drumming: On Ravishing Grimness, Fenriz slowed down his rhythms to a pace that didn’t seem to be related to the music; on Plaguewielder, Fenriz’s performances are more upbeat. It has been suggested that the change in style was forced by Culto, who was reportedly not happy with Fenriz’s playing on Ravishing Grimness. While the specifics of that fracture remain behind closed doors, Culto has admitted that he made certain suggestions regarding the percussion on Plaguewielder:
Sometimes I have to decide things for [Fenriz] because at times we disagree, but [on Plaguewielder] the music itself forced us to play more technically. I told him that when he is doing small technical stuff on the drums, in the tempo that Darkthrone are playing, I think it’s brilliant. I actually tell him that a lot and say that maybe it’s right to do those tiny things because he is doing those so fucking great. But he despises the drums a tiny bit.
Plaguewielder is considered by most Darkthrone fans to be the band’s absolute nadir — owing in no small part to the album’s cover(!), which is the first and only Darkthrone sleeve to feature a full spectrum of colors (as opposed to stark black and white with occasional blue tones), and is — to be fair to the haters — truly, incomprehensibly offensive to the eye. In retrospect, though, the album has few critical flaws, and nothing at all that merits disdain: Culto’s vocals and guitar work are fantastic, and his riffs are uniformly engaging; the sharp, robust production brings to the fore details of the performances that might have been lost given a more necro approach; and Fenriz’s drumming sounds pretty goddamn great. The greatest sin committed by Plaguewielder is simply that it feels a bit generic: There’s no shortage in this world of ably performed atmospheric black metal, and Plaguewielder brings nothing new to that subgenre, while also sort of burying its creators’ musical identities in the process. Like Ravishing Grimness, the album is probably more worthwhile for keeping the band alive when they were on the verge of death than it is for any musical contributions, but it’s not without its thrills (album closer “Wreak” is a stunning epic). If Ravishing Grimness and Plaguewielder are indeed the same album, then a savvy editor ought to come in, chop that beast in half, and release a six-song Ravishing Plague LP that might not rank with Darkthrone’s best work, but would certainly provide a much more flattering portrait of Darkthrone’s unjustly maligned midlife crisis.