Home Music Satyricon: Dark Medieval Times/The Shadowthrone reissues

Satyricon: Dark Medieval Times/The Shadowthrone reissues

Satyricon has long since outgrown their initial standing as also-rans in the early ‘90s Norwegian black metal scene, but it’s to that crucial year of 1994 that Napalm Records’ reissues take us. When Dark Medieval Times was first released by the duo of Satyr Wongraven and Frost in March of 1994 on the band’s own Moonfog label, it was into a very different black metal landscape than the one that Satyricon had formed and developed over the past few years. The influential black metal bands of 1991-93 had been Mayhem, Darkthrone and Burzum and although Darkthrone’s Transilvanian Hunger ― without doubt one of the genre’s landmark albums — was released just a month before Satyricon’s debut, Dark Medieval Times, in hindsight that album, despite its influence, had marked the end of an era.

As the Satyricon album reluctantly emerged into the daylight, Darkthrone’s lyrical collaborator on Transilvanian Hunger, Burzum mastermind Varg Vikernes, was awaiting trial for the murder of Mayhem’s guitarist/scene kingpin Euronymous, and within a couple of months he would be convicted, leaving only Darkthrone standing of that first generation. Then, in the aftermath of a falling out with the Peaceville label in the UK, Darkthrone would themselves sign to Satyricon’s Moonfog label; so, the band went from being junior members of a scene dominated by its gods to being, with contemporaries Emperor and Enslaved, among the big names of the younger generation of Norwegian black metal. And Norwegian black metal, once a shadowy cult known only to a few, had by now — only partly, it has to be said, because of the music — become an internationally recognized and notorious subgenre of metal and was ready to become something like a brand with the emergence of bands like Dimmu Borgir a little later.

Compared to both Emperor and Enslaved, Satyricon took longer to develop their own distinct style, but nevertheless, Dark Medieval Times remains an essential document of black metal in 1994. While the album was being recorded, black metal was, despite the growing attention, still an essentially underground movement, and the album is imbued with the atmosphere of secrecy, mystery and darkness that was central to the earliest years of the scene. Musically, it draws most obviously on Darkthrone’s work, with songs like the superb title track and “Skyggedans” marrying riffs which could have come from A Blaze in the Northern Sky (1992) or Under a Funeral Moon (1993) with synth elements that owe more to Fenriz (of Darkthrone)’s solo project Isengard than they do to the “symphonic black metal” of Emperor.

The result is strongly atmospheric, but sometimes, as on the closing “Taakeslottet” slightly formless and chaotic, despite the striking riffs. This feeling is enhanced by Satyr’s hissed, hushed vocals and the almost random clean/acoustic sections that punctuate the album. The sense of formless mystery is at its strongest on the bare, acoustic guitar and flute of “Min hyllest til vinterland,” a beautiful piece of music that, as it turns out, would be a cul-de-sac in the band’s work ― ironically, as the acoustic parts are probably the best and certainly the most original pieces on the album. The heavier songs have a potent, epic sound, but oddly, the sound of Dark Medieval Times overall actually bears more resemblance to the contemporary work of Polish black metal band Graveland than it does any of Satyricon’s Norwegian peers.

Released later that same year, The Shadowthrone shows the band really finding an identity, but perhaps losing something in the process. The gains are immediately obvious; from his variable rasps and hisses of Dark Medieval Times, Satyr has now developed the commanding, clear but expressive harsh voice that makes him one of black metal’s most distinctive vocalists, while Frost’s drumming is far more to the fore, far more technical and less self-consciously primitive than it had been on the band’s debut. The synth elements are now integrated more fully into the songs too, the opening, eight-minute plus “Hvite Krists død” showcasing the band’s fully developed epic, cold sound with its blend of harsh guitars and celestial synth, plus a much surer handling of the song’s complex structure than had been the case on the debut.

On the other hand, the loose, stark haunted-castle feel, which made the first album special, had gone and would never quite return. The songs on The Shadowthrone are almost all long, complex and dynamic, but tend to blend into each other more than those on Dark Medieval Times had. Which is not to say they aren’t good songs; tracks like the dynamic, intense “Woods to Eternity,” the swaggering “Vikingland” and the martial epic “Dominions of Satyricon” sound impressive enough on first listen but only grow in stature over time. Indeed, for many fans of early ‘90s black metal, The Shadowthrone remains the band’s greatest achievement; but it carries the seeds of their future, less orthodox work, within it. With Dark Medieval Times, Wongraven had established himself as a musician and composer with a wide-ranging, restless vision, but on The Shadowthrone he narrowed that vision down to its essentials.

There are many black metal bands — older ones like Darkthrone, but also younger contemporaries like Kampfar and 1349 ― who would establish a sound and then mine it to its core over years of work, but even at this early stage, that was clearly not going to be Satyricon’s path. The spirit of experimentalism would rear its head again in the band’s next album, the incendiary Nemesis Divina, before taking over and completely rebuilding the band’s sound from the ground up in Rebel Extravaganza, to this day a dividing boundary line between fans of one kind of Satyricon and another. But for listeners of the orthodox, black leather/white makeup/winter landscapes end of the spectrum, these two albums may be all the Satyricon they need. Even for fans who believe that the duo’s best work still lies ahead of them though, it’s hard to disagree while Satyr screams about the King of the Shadowthrone while guitars soar around him and Frost pummels his drum kit to a pulp.

Satyricon’s first two albums find the duo trying on the mantle of ‘True Norwegian Black Metal’™ and finding that it fit just fine, for a little while
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Formative years

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