Monday, May 17, 2010

Darkthrone - Plaguewielder

Darkthrone - Plaguewielder
2001, Moonfog Records

I suppose that every time Darkthrone prepare themselves to release another album there are shockwaves of fear - little tremors of uncertainty - that run through the 'true' black metal underground, separate sections or cloisters of people throughout the world who are preparing themselves for disappointment. Hidden away, they drown day by day in their pessimism, wherever they may be, hoping (maybe) against hope that Darkthrone will give in, capitulate, release something that is blatantly commercial, or (even worse?) modern . 'That day must come, sooner or later', they think to themselves, having been taught by years and years of formerly viable (or in any way special) bands giving in, accepting a dollar, letting their stomachs and alimony payments make their musical decisions. Of course it isn't as simple as all of this, and I'm really not trying to judge anyone in any way (the specifics for why a band goes over towards playing pop are always inherently difficult to understand, and unique to that band's position, although they all seem to share a common thread or two), but Darkthrone have not made it a secret that they hold their music to be something completely separate from commercialism, and they have never tried to 'earn a living' from it, supposedly prefering to work normal jobs in order to leave the music unsullied, or being motivated to live outside the music business altogether - aside from the practice of making the music, of course. Ethics like this have a long tradition, in fact, and some of the most moving music in the history of composition has in fact been given over to history by amateurs - or at least by people who considered themselves 'amateurs' - especially over the last thirty years in the various musical genres that have descended from straight rock and roll. In fact, I think in black metal (more than in the other subsections of metal) 'amateurism' has given the movement all of its best moments.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise to you that this album, 'Plaguewielder', is once again a massive, freezing-cold outpouring of Northern darkness, even harsher in many ways than the record that came before it. It's certainly faster (if you want to just consider tempo), as if composed in order to express a deep sense of urgency or anxiety, which was something that was lacking from 'Ravishing Grimness'. While that album mainly moved through sedate, traditional anthems, falling to a sort of wistful melancholy in certain places out of sheer exhaustion, this album breathes new life into the Darkthrone clich├ęs, and Nocturno Culto lets his fingers wander a bit in order to spread new tonal colors around the fretboard, or through the main melodies. I hate to say this, but 'Plaguewielder' just sounds a little more 'mature' than the prior release, 'mature' meaning that they aren't so tied down to formula melodicism, and allow some breathing room for innovation or experimentation. When it comes to the songwriting patterns, however, you shouldn't really expect anything completely new...no, it's almost as if their convictions concerning song structure just couldn't be shaken, no matter how hard anyone tried (to influence them), or how many new ideas as to black metal composition they may originate in their time away from songwriting. Walking alone by himself, Nocturno Culto may come up with an idea for a riff or song segment that he'd like to try, but when it comes down to what he actually writes before the recording process, you can almost always bank on the fact that it's going to be rock solid, traditional, Bathory/Celtic Frost riff-based structures. In 'Sin Origin', for example, he employs a few dissonant chords that jar noticeably with the smooth rock riffs they are enslaved inside, but their ultimate effect on the complete impact of the song is almost negligible. I do like the slow, trance-like picking of chords that finishes this song, however, as it sort of reminds me of Burzum, and the atonal drive towards strange melodies that used to be at the heart of these Norwegian bands. 'Command', the fourth track, is something of an oddity, being almost completely based around the ideas of power and 'solidity' or basic strength (I don't have the lyrics, so I have to guess what Fenriz penned here) - and if the general structure and melody/riff choices are any clue as to the thematic material of this song, this should be about some abstract form of 'domination'...starting out slowly, it soon builds into a blasting frenzy, before subsiding once again into traditional riffing, and then going back and forth between the two tempos. Fenriz unleashes some of his fastest drumming, really, since 'Transilvanian Hunger' - a blurring lightning beat of flying sticks and cymbal crashes. This really just plays out like some form of war metal, I suppose, in the vein of Motorhead crossed with a little Sodom, at twice the normal speed, of course...

It should be noted that the production on this record is just a little better than the sound on 'Ravishing Grimness', allowing the bass to sound out its backing accompaniment with a more powerful array of tones, and even though the drum sound is, as usual, blurred a little in order to hide it beneath the guitars (which almost always take precedence in Darkthrone's recorded output), they are clear enough for one to notice that Fenriz is not limiting himself to simple rhythms and/or fills in order to stay close to any kind of 'tradition'. Overall, the sound is warm and embracing (analog?), which ironically goes very far in revealing the icy shards of Nocturno Culto's best moments on the six-strings. I should also add that his voice sounds absolutely excellent here...

The two best songs on this record are probably the opener, 'Weakling Avenger', and the closer, 'Wreak'...the latter being something of a return-to-form for this band, and which features a very nice tremelo-picked riff that echoes some of their earlier work, which was so much more haunting and ethereal than what they have been coming up with lately. 'Wreak', as all of the songs on this record do, works its way steadily through a few different riff choices or specific segments before settling on a lurching, moving Hellhammer rhythm that Fenriz then spins separate drum patterns beneath, ending at a point just right when you think the drummer is going to splash through a quick fill and then push the song forward yet again - in fact Fenriz's powerful drumming at this point is so catchy that you just want it to break and go to a faster riff...instead we have a burst of silence, and then the howling of wind, and behind that the sound of a fire raging...or is it the burning of churches? In the midst of this life, all this joyfulness in bringing forth music, death descends like a flaming scythe, and cuts away everything that matters...

I suppose I will probably always want this band to go back to what they were doing almost ten years ago, at a time when they created a couple of albums that will always rank among my favorites, but I suppose that just isn't feasible anymore, and while Darkthrone certainly don't want to 'evolve' into something that is completely different from what they are doing now (and have been doing for so long now), they surely also don't want to overtly repeat themselves. Why would they? And so, within the tight confines they have limited themselves to, they now reach out once again, trying to completely explore the purity, powers and/or flexibility of an approach that has been seen by some to be completely inflexible. Oh well, Darkthrone is Darkthrone, as solid as ever, and as always you know they will deliver when you ask them to. This is yet another brick in the wall that divides them from every other band trying to play in this style, and yet another reason why Darkthrone will always be the black metal band to listen to, above everyone else...lay your fears to rest.

Recommended, of course.