Monday, May 17, 2010

Darkthrone - Transilvanian Hunger

Darkthrone - Transilvanian Hunger
1994, Peaceville Records

When I think of modern black metal, or black metal that has been stripped of the all-too-self-conscious revisionist leanings of the metal historians, metal that doesn't try overhard in its own inherent proclamations to lay claim to being 'influenced' by Quorthon's early fumblings or the 'theatrical' blasphemy (is there any other kind?) of Venom, I always return to this seminal album. To be sure, Darkthrone were already well on their way to establishing themselves as the legitimate primogenitors of something original with their second album, and they further cemented their necro convictions with the utterly raw and brilliant 'Under A Funeral Moon' (try getting past the production for once and listening to the actual music - especially the interplay of bass and guitar), but it is this album, I think, that finished their blueprint for Norwegian black metal (I remember Fenriz originally saying at the time that they were only going to record three 'black' albums and then break up), and fulfilled their ambitions for creating a new sound that was so monstrously misanthropic, cold, sterile, and hate-filled that it would leave a mark on music that could never be equaled or surpassed. Quite simply, I believe they achieved this on 'Transilvanian Hunger'. This albums stands out among all their others, and completes, I think, their most original phase. After this they would mix the style/aesthetics of cold black metal with Celtic Frost/Hellhammer grooves that, while being original in their own right, somehow didn't seem to carry the weight of conviction that is burned into these songs. I know of no more misanthropic music than this - for here we have a handful of incredibly talented musicians basically turning their backs on the music 'scene' and 'industry', if not the whole of mankind: their masks/paint have become their true identities, their convictions as to the style of their music have become solid reality, and feeling (I believe) completely confident in their abilities and the path they had chosen, they decided to write some of the most emotional, beautiful, obscure, mysterious, despair-ridden, sorrow-filled music ever brought into being or recorded. By playing, one can sense, solely for themselves, using a melodic language that was now strictly their own - so strange, so subjective and personal - Darkthrone created an album of universally applicable music: they brought into the light a landscape freed from the inner darkness.

The production on this album is absolutely 100% perfect and surely must be seen as the benchmark by which all other 'cold black metal' recordings are to be judged, if you were in the frame of mind for 'judging' (I leave that to the pundits and 'critics'). Recorded, supposedly, on a four-track (Fenriz's 'Necrohell Studios'), the production covers the music in a freezing miasma of dejection: you must pierce through this funeral fog in order to even hear what's going on....but there, right beneath the surface, hides some of the most inspired black metal guitar work ever conceived: layers of ice, the roar of tearing Northern winds, the falling of snow, the howling of wolves, the crisp cold of the night air, the falling away of the Norwegian fjords beneath you as you stand on a mountain side, the steel glint of the mocking stars high above, the sound of the midnight breeze walking through the dark forests; all these various emotions or sensations: an all-consuming hunger, a hatred towards the light, the swooning storm of unconsciousness, slowly sinking, the deafening silence of depression's nadir - all these I hear, or feel, in the guitars. But it goes way beyond these invocations/evocations - there is something so utterly alien, so 'anti-human', so abstract and expressionist in the melodies presented on this album that you can not help but seriously wonder about their frame of mind (or their sanity) when they composed this - and also, how much Burzum they were listening to, if any. Much like the early Vikernes material, this music tends to concentrate on a repetition of simple (but highly evocative, mysterious, spectral, almost overwhelmingly eerie) melodies, and in doing so I am convinced a difficult choice had to be made as to which chord progressions to use. For the most part, if examined closely, the structures used here are not overly complex, and so the most important characteristic of these songs is not the manipulations the melodies are put through but rather the defining, singular, black essence of each theme and the way it blends with the production to form a mesmerizing wall of sound. At its most potent, in the crucible of art for art's sake, through sheer subjective solipsism, this technique reduced the constituents of evil, misanthropic inspiration down to their barest contours and presented these naked, unadorned, chaotic, inchoate, shreds of obscurity in what can only be termed their purest form. This is a purity almost 'religious' or spiritual in its effects, and at its summit it produces a wondrous stillness of the senses, a quiescence of the soul...

For the last year I have despaired of writing this review - how, I felt, could I ever put into words how this album makes me feel - what it stirs up, what it brings to the surface within me? I could write for hours and hours about this album, detailing all its fine points, ruthlessly cataloging all the images or impressions it forms within me, and then where would I be? There would still be the unspeakable, the ineffable - that which can not be communicated, but which I feel somehow must still be translated across...and I would be left where I had started. Such is the power of music - or rather, this is why there is music and we do not delegate all of our attempts at communication to speech alone. All I can say, in the end, is that I recommend this album as I could never recommend another. If the entire history of the Norwegian black metal movement somehow disappeared tomorrow, vanishing into time and space, and all I was left with was this one album, I would not be disappointed - I would be fulfilled, satisfied...