- Review by Sarah Stubbs
REVIEWED: Darkthrone's 'Old Star'
For all their gloomy affectations, diehard black metal fans must have been wishing upon a few lucky stars; because their diabolical dreams have just come true. 'Old Star', the highly anticipated latest album from the legendary Darkthrone, has just been unleashed and is about to set bleak Northern skies ablaze.
Enduring partnership Darkthrone first formed in 1987 as an old school death metal outfit but were unable to resist the dark allure of the soon-to-be-notorious, freshly hatched aberration that would become black metal. Among the pioneers of this most deviant of movements, the steely-willed Norwegians somehow emerged mostly untainted from the sticky morass of infamy and controversy surrounding it, forging ahead to become one of the most influential and admired luminaries of the genre. Amidst such hallowed company as Carpathian Forest and Immortal, the devilish duo have been instrumental in mutating the style into multifarious forms and shapes and their latest album is no exception. Continuing the tone set by 2017’s ‘Arctic Thunder’, ‘Old Star’ harkens back to traditional heavy metal and invites comparison with early trailblazers such as Venom, Celtic Frost and Bathory. Dragging, doomy riffs hinting at Black Sabbath’s darker oeuvre combine with the abrasive elements of extreme metal, all echoing with the icy atmospherics and crude vocals of black metal at its most raw. Pre-release, Fenriz described it as ‘BLACK OLD HEAVY METAL, with slow thrash, classic doom and slow death metal…. our most 80’s album ever’, and he and bandmate Nocturno have certainly delivered on that promise, offering up a veritable cauldron of infernal delights.
The album opens on a feverish high with ‘I Muffle Your Inner Choir’ which revisits the characteristic high tempo drum-work Darkthrone perfected in their celebrated classic, Transylvanian Hunger, the eagerness of the boisterous blast beats tempered with husky, deep-throated vocals and an ordered sequence of darkly melodic underlying notes. Along with ‘The Hardship of the Scots’, with its screeching guitars and one hell of a rocking chorus, the tone is set for the pure, heady heavy metal that follows. Sharing its name with the album itself, ‘Old Star’s’ cragged, thudding beats, grit-encrusted chords and coarse grainy vocals sweep the listener into its rough, dirty embrace. The resulting aura of doom-weighted gravitas, along with the connotations behind the title, could be taken as a veiled reference to Darkthrone’s veteran status, raising the spectre of the industry-weary, jaded rock star who has seen too much.
‘Alp Man’ amps up the doom factor with thunderous chords expertly shot through with perfectly timed, crashing cymbals, calling to mind storm clouds, crackling with lightning, gathering on the horizon. ‘Duke of Gloat’, with its turbo-charged tempos has a more muscular, hard rock feel to it, seasoned with some high-pitched, peppery solos thrown in at opportune moments. With aggressive beats gradually descending into a blues-like distortion and grimy, sludge-laden riffs as leaden as trolls dragging their giant feet through mud, a sense of gloom permeates until an abrupt bridge section plunges the listener into an almost punk-like intensity. Final track ‘The Key is Inside the Wall’, a rock song with a gloriously atmospheric, tarnished black metal edge, is an epic, final exploding supernova – its call to ‘create your own destiny’ a hopeful conclusion to counter some of the earlier doom-infused melancholy.
While Darkthrone flaunt their impressive skills with style and panache, balancing tricky technical exposition within perfectly balanced song structures, this tightening of the reins can almost feel too controlled and is perhaps at the sacrifice of the untethered, echoing hell-scape that first defined their bone-chilling sound, leaving some fans longing for a touch more of the original obsidian darkness. However, bands need to evolve their style to stay relevant and engaged, and much as we might feel nostalgic for the more savage impulses of untamed youthful excess, the transformative deepening into maturity of these ‘old stars’ has opened up new constellations and led to an ultimately impressive achievement.
Although only six songs are served up, each track on Old Star is a satisfying, fastidiously-managed feast for the senses, rich with diverse styles, musical techniques, and near-genius flirtation with genres. Settle in with a suitably aged single malt and prepare to savour the work of masters at the peak of their powers, channelling all their experience at the hoar-frosted helm of black and proving that this particular pair of grizzled celestial majesties are far from ready to scatter into cosmic dust.