Label: Peaceville Records
Trying to second-guess Darkthrone at this stage in their career is a fool’s game. It’s been ten years since the Norweigan legends shifted from black metal in to metalpunk territory with The Cult Is Alive, and since then they’ve moved in a more heavy metal direction, culminating with 2013’s The Underground Resistance. Over twenty years on from laying down the blueprint for raw black metal, Darkthrone’s modus operandi can now be summed up simply as “doing whatever the fuck they want.” Which is all well and good, but can they keep doing that whilst still releasing music that’s worth your time and money? After all, the metal scene is full of classic bands who are now, frankly, embarrassing themselves, deluded in to thinking they can release an album of half-arsed material and their fans will love it.
Which leads us to Arctic Thunder, the latest record from the duo of Fenriz and Nocturno Culto. It’s been described by the band as a more ‘serious’ release, which could be something of a risk for a band who have shown a move away from the grim and kvlt, instead moving towards the sheer joy of the best heavy metal. And to be sure, early listens show that Arctic Thunder is not a readily accessible album; there’s no obvious standout, no “Leave No Cross Unturned” or “I Am The Graves Of The 80s” to act as a track to focus on. What it does mean, though, is that Arctic Thunder works best when considered as a whole, with each track part of the bigger picture. That bigger picture is that Arctic Thunder is 80s heavy metal filtered through a prism of Celtic Frost and proto-black metal, raw and hateful in both sound and atmosphere.
On initial listens, it almost comes as a disappointment – almost. Darkthrone’s most successful moments over the last ten years – for me – have been when they embrace the more enjoyable aspects of metal, and let their sense of humor shine through. As alluded to above, there’s not a lot of that here; this is Darkthrone at their most serious in a decade. Instead, the bleak, introverted atmosphere takes a few listens to fully appreciate. The decision to have Nocturno Culto handle all vocals contributes greatly to this atmosphere; his gravelly technique gives the songs added grit and darkness, and it’s hard to imagine Fenriz singing on any of these tracks without his style undermining the atmosphere.
Once the album’s been given a few spins though, and expectations have been properly adjusted, Arctic Thunder starts to show its true strengths. There are (as is to be expected) some excellent riffs throughout the album, with the metalpunk-meets-Celtic Frost of “Inbred Vermin” being a particular highlight. The consistency of atmosphere also helps the album; whereas some of Darkthrone’s previous records have almost come across as two different records combined together (due to the different singing and song writing styles of Nocturno Culto and Fenriz), Arctic Thunder feels much more coherent, making it far easier to sink in to and lose yourself in than almost any other Darkthrone album of the past ten years. And there’s a healthy sense of variety throughout, too – the album may rarely stray far from grim, almost melancholic blackened heavy metal, but there are plenty of differing tempos and shades of black in there.
Given that it’s such a strong album, especially in the second half, picking out highlights feels almost counter-productive, but the title track is certainly worth highlighting. It’s the closest the album comes to accessibility, with a more up-tempo feel and a riff that’s unlikely to leave your head for days. “Throw Me Through The Marshes” is another stand-out, following straight after the title track, with a murky, dirty doom riff and atmosphere that shifts effortlessly in to faster, more violent speeds without losing any sense of malevolence. The aura carried in some of the riffs in “Deep Lake Trespass” is pure Norweigan black metal is an unexpected delight – unsurprising in one sense, given that Darkthrone had a heavy hand in writing that particular book, but as it’s not one they refer to this blatantly often any more, it’s not entirely expected.
There are a few rough edges though, and not always in a good way. A lot of the songs don’t so much have proper openings or endings as they simply start or finish, most notable on “Tundra Leech”, which gets the album going with one of the slowest riffs on the album after the briefest sections of feedback ever recorded. Likewise, the album closes on a slightly unsatisfactory note, with the ending of “The Wyoming Distance” being about half the length I’d like it to be. Still, these are relatively minor complaints when considered in the context of the strength of the album as a whole.
Ranking where it stands in Darkthrone’s considerable discography is difficult, largely because Arctic Thunder represents another subtle shift of sound for the veteran duo. It’s not as big a change as some that have gone before, but it should cement the idea that Darkthrone aren’t a black metal band, or a metalpunk band, or whatever. They’re a metal band, playing whatever style they damn-well like, and making it absolutely their own. It might take a few spins to fully appreciate, but Arctic Thunder is another strong offering from a band who seemingly don’t have a bad record in them.