Monday, May 17, 2010

Darkthrone - Ravishing Grimness

Darkthrone - Ravishing Grimness
1999, Moonfog

Darkthrone are one of my favorite bands, and have been for upwards of eight years now, so if you are new to this band or are just curious about this release (having forsaken them years ago) be warned of my enthusiasm for their completely original approach to black metal, and be aware of my bias in this respect.

There is very little I can say when trying to introduce this band, and so I find myself falling back to that tried and true cliche of sneering 'if you don't know about Darkthrone by now, well...there's nothing I can help you with.' Of course Darkthrone are one of the few bands in the entire history of metal whom you can apply such a sarcastic rejoinder to when introducing them - they are the essence of the cult approach both in their music and in their attitude towards their own reputation. If you aren't familiar with this band by now, I really don't know what to say to you. They are absolutely essential in any exploration of the dark side of music, as they have always had an unparalleled ability to summon the perfect level of inspiration in any of their compositions, whether it was the early technical death of 'Soulside Journey' (still one of the strangest and most idiosyncratic death metal masterpieces, in my opinion, taking the approach of Entombed and Dismember (read: Nihilist/Carnage) to new heights of trilling technical ecstasy or bizarre harmonic depths unsounded by any other outfit) or the later utter grim melodic brilliance of 'A Blaze in the Northern Sky' and 'Transilvanian Hunger' (the latter being the best black metal album of all time, in my opinion). In fact, in this reviewer's eyes, Darkthrone are the quintessence of black metal in the '90s - no other band can match their string of superior releases.

But what makes Darkthrone stand out above all others is not their technical wizardry or compositional mastery (even though they have both in spades, so much so in fact that they are satisfied with disguising these abilities if they can) but their seemingly magical capacity for reaching down within themselves, time after time, and coming up into the light with melodies and riffs that are absolutely beautiful in the way that they crystallize the essence of all mystery or dark occult mysticism. For me, Darkthrone is above all an evocative instrument for sounding the depths of the dark side of life. Their melodies are often morbid, perverted, sick, obtuse, malevolent, obscure, psychotic, elusive, and stubbornly pessimistic, but they are always beautiful - and always presented in such a way that you can not ignore their fantastic power. Darkthrone, more than any other band in the genre, has the ability to summon the blackened, blasted, and shadowed forces of 'evil' and then paint the resulting influences of evocation with unerring precision - they are the metal musicians closest to the withered heart of man's tragic fall from grace in the last part of this century, and they have always had the capability to further explore both their own dark side and the lightless underworld of civilization - the influences of isolation, misanthropy, alienation, hatred, violence, sickness, and despair. Darkthrone truly are 'Satan's poets' - the voice of the downtrodden, the forgotten, the souls swirling in the madness of modern life; they are the black metal touchstone, unholy alchemists in that they can take the sordid and grim aspects of life and turn them into purest spun gold.

I know that a number of Darkthrone's followers were concerned given the duo's inactivity over the last few years - many were of the opinion that the band had decided to quietly fade from the scene after the release of 'Total Death'. Thankfully Fenriz and Nocturno Culto have decided to return, this time gracing us with yet another journey into the 'true' black metal sound. Ever since 'Panzerfaust' Darkthrone has seemingly been satisfied to just hone their approach to creating 'primitive, atavistic' music, referencing for the main part their earliest influences and staying very close to their convictions about the potential this music has to offer. What does this mean? Hellhammer, Hellhammer, and more Hellhammer - oh, and throw a little Bathory and Celtic Frost in there to spice up the mixture. While I feel that these convictions left them without much room to maneuver on 'Total Death' (which was indicative, at times, of their boredom with black metal) they have had enough space and breathing room now to take these tools and forge something completely new even while it constantly references the past. They have taken the simplistic, driving, pounding black distortion of Hellhammer and updated it to carry their own sound forward, including (I believe for the first time) melodies and passages that are Scandinavian in influence, similar to Satyricon's past norse folk noir obsessions.

What that means on this release is that they finally sound very comfortable within the confines of their own convictions: sure, on almost every level, that they have taken the right path. This assurance and confidence is evident in every song on this record - the freedom that their compositional beliefs have given them becomes evident in the power displayed in the melodies. While some of the tracks are seemingly simple exercises in back-to-the-basics black metal, concentrating on a few riffs to carry the impetus of the song striding forward (an approach which this band are probably more practiced at than any other, and thus much better) there are a few selections on this album that I feel could stand easily with the finest material they have ever composed - and once again it is not the song structures or a fatuous 'cleverness' in construction that makes them stand out, but the entrancing melancholy beauty of the melodies. The third song, 'The Claws of Time', is such an example, with an introductory/main riff that is singularly evocative - arguably perfect in its slow unweaving of the agonizing emotions of regret, nostalgia, and hopelessness. Similar in this aspect is the fifth (and in my opinion greatest on the album) song, the title track 'Ravishing Grimness', which is in its combination of fast atmospheric strumming and slightly slower power grooves a genuine expression of the concepts inherent in the title and the lyrics: the mesmerizing loveliness of the darkness, the seductive charm of night and misanthropic isolation - the sweet lament of a soul proudly damned to perdition. The main thematic riff in this song is probably one of the most superb distillations of sadness Darkthrone have ever put forth.

Equally impressive is the production on this work - for the first time Darkthrone have been given a clear, clean, and loud sound on a release, and this goes to show (contrary to my first opinions of their production aesthetics) that the evocative power of their songs does indeed lay in the bewitching music itself, untouched by a deliberately 'cult' or 'obscure' production. The engineering on this record is amazing in that it fills the entire listening space using only the few elements of the band's 'live' sound - Nocturno Culto's monstrously cold guitar being the predominant component.

What else can I say? If you are a Darkthrone fan or consider yourself in any way to be a follower of the black metal scene, this is an essential release. If you are new to this band - what are you waiting for?