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Darkthrone: Eternal Hails

Now on their 19th album, the iconic duo of Fenriz and Nocturno Culto are perhaps the icons of Norwegian black metal, despite the fact that, of those 19 albums, only maybe four are really black metal in the accepted sense, and of those, only one or two are indisputably “True Norwegian Black Metal,” to use the phrase first coined by the band. In a way, all this is splitting hairs, because the fact is that the sound of Ted ‘Nocturno Culto’ Skjellum’s voice and guitar playing and – aside, arguably from on their 1991 death metal debut album Soulside Journey – Gylve ‘Fenriz’ Nagell’s drumming is black metal to the core. Nevertheless, after a run of albums, possibly starting with 2006’s The Cult is Alive, but definitely established by the following F.O.A.D., the sound of Darkthrone has become what the band has anti-christened ‘black heavy metal’ or this time around, ‘epic black heavy metal’, which is definitely a different and less solemn beast from the spindly, icy intensity of 1993’s true black metal classic Under a Funeral Moon.

Nobody who has been following Darkthrone’s career for the past 15 years or so will be expecting Eternal Hails to be a radical departure from their recent work, and they’d be right. Eternal Hails pretty much picks up where 2019’s Old Star left off – which is not to say though, that the band hasn’t continued to evolve. The proto-metal and heavy metal of the ‘70s and ‘80s has long been a touchstone for the band, but on the run of albums from F.O.A.D. up to and culminating in 2013’s The Underground Resistance, the main influence seemed to be the New Wave of British Heavy Metal in general and perhaps Iron Maiden in particular; with the more stripped back Arctic Thunder (2016) and especially Old Star, the mood turned to a more primeval, doom-tinged one. That’s especially true of the new album, where the 45-minute running time consists of only five epic tracks, the shortest of which is still a fairly hefty seven minutes. But although there is an influence that could be called doom, Eternal Hails is a reminder that, although the genre now known as “doom metal” is often characterised by tempos which range from stately all the way down to snail’s pace, doom as established by Black Sabbath and reiterated a decade later by Candlemass is really about atmosphere and dynamics more than the actual speed that a band plays at.

But still, doom influence or otherwise, Eternal Hails is not a radical departure from what came before, and the business-as-usual opening track “His Master’s Voice” is as good an encapsulation of the current Darkthrone sound as any. Launching, after a very brief intro, into the kind of riffy black-thrash onslaught the band has specialised in since their revitalisation on The Cult is Alive, the song at first seems in danger of being just another Darkthrone song among many, but in fact the mixture of memorable riffs, dynamism and above all great performances makes it an exemplary opener. Those performances are worth noting; Fenriz’s drumming, still not exactly showy, but long since having been rebuilt from the no-frills barbarism of the Transilvanian Hunger era, is conspicuously skilful and Nocturno Culto simply has one of the iconic voices of black metal.

The duo for once has allowed themselves something approaching a glossy, or at least detailed, production, and the guitars are sharp, heavy and precise on the riffs and have a kind of thickness and power in the solos. Although it’s very much in the tradition of recent Darkthrone albums, there are occasional elements that should please older fans too. While far removed from the sound of Under a Funeral Moon, there are several moments that hark back to one of their strongest early works, the nearly-but-not-quite-pure black metal of A Blaze in the Northern Sky, where the new, spectral, minimalist black metal element was still blended with heavy, catchy riffs. The single, “Hate Cloak,” remains a thing of dark majesty, featuring the band’s best riffs in years and an ebb and flow in its nine-minute length which looks to the epic music of early doom bands like the aforementioned Candlemass, but could only be Darkthrone; not least when Fenriz’s voice emerges from the darkness to declaim the album’s title. For the most part though, the vocals belong to Nocturno Culto and though there are plenty of melodies on the album, the clean vocals that divided opinion back on The Underground Resistance are nowhere in evidence.

The nearest the album has to a weak track – and that is an exaggeration – is “Wake of the Awakened,” which, though pretty good, feels, until its dramatic and intense mid-section, like a leftover from Old Star, and lacks some of the freshness that marks the rest of the album. At nine minutes and 25 seconds, “Voyage to a North Pole Adrift” is one of the longest songs the band has ever recorded, but it’s perhaps the album’s centrepiece, organically evolving from a slow, gritty, trudging riff through various tricky-sounding phases in a way that is – probably not a comparison the band would like – slightly reminiscent of songs from Faroese progressive folk metal band Týr’s unjustly maligned 2008 album Land.

With Darkthrone, though, comparisons like this evaporate while their music is playing as the sound and its character is so unlike anyone else. The consistent nature of Darkthrone’s music has always been surprising, given the fluidity of who plays what, with everything apart from the drums being shared by either member at various times over the years. Gruellingly icy but somehow strangely uplifting, “Voyage to a North Pole Adrift” is notable for just about every element and the way they cohere together, but special mention should be made for the inclusion of some those atmospheric little twists of guitar that characterised the band’s very different pure black metal sound back on Under a Funeral Moon, even though in those days the guitarist was the long-since departed (the band; he’s still alive) Zephyrous.

The album closes with “Lost Arcane City of Uppakra,” another superb song. For its first five minutes of intense and dynamic black metal, the song then shifts gears into a long, slow, atmospheric passage with an entirely unexpected and lovely, tranquil-sinister synth part and some superbly subtle drumming from Fenriz. It’s a beautifully solemn and grim ending to an impressive record, which throughout feels in once sense like just another Darkthrone album,” but at the same time is also a reminder of just why the band has maintained their position as icons of black metal, while many of their peers dine out on their past glories.

At this stage of the game, Darkthrone has zero to prove to anyone and while Eternal Hails will not appease fans who still want another Transilvanian Hunger, they should still find much to like here. There’s no-one else in metal like Darkthrone and while they remain as inspired and engaged with the material as they audibly are here, their position as figureheads of black metal is in no danger. Eternal Hails is one of the good ones.

Summary
In a long discography that’s increasingly seen Darkthrone become the AC/DC of black metal, it’s good to know Fenriz and Nocturno Culto’s muse isn’t dead yet.
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Power and Polish
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