What is Darkthrone, pa? Imagine this question being proposed to a Darkthrone fan by his posterity in thirty years from today. What is his answer, if there is such, and more properly, can we define a direction for a depiction of any sort? May be a trite subject and not always relevant to most but it does show accurately the progression the music industry continues to face from one decade to another. Thirty years ago it was ‘pieces of heavy metal hit against each other’ that forever marked and stamped this style of music that has now progressed to something that could justly be called a ‘random buzz sound round the bee’s nest’. And then there is Darkthrone.
So much a friend of this Norwegian black metal band – admittedly extensive users of tremolo and at times highly distorted production, for which reason they have often been caricatured in most imaginary ways – I am that I would not place them in a league at all similar to that of the regular cellar toilers of the black metal scene.
For the mentality has to be etched into your heart, you do not achieve it by forging replicas; Darkthrone have it in their blood to create music of this kind, and it is dubious to assume all the others are doing it out of the fire burning in their hearts. As Fenriz has said in an interview, ‘we understood that we were seeing something special in metal music, and it was sort of a religious feeling, but we were wondering when we saw more people coming forth, how can all these people have a black metal feeling?’ Rightly wondering so. The pre-requisite for the dedication, the devotion: that certain way of thinking, as a middleman would easily notice, I assume, has to be authentic – in order to create what may be entitled the genuine article, there must be an inner compulsion for it. Additionally it demands finesses and taste, and none more aesthetically uniform and impressive black metal ensemble have I met, not a black metal band echoing (and oftentimes living!) more shattering reveries of darkened shades, of wrath, of sheer enjoyment; not a black metal band as devoted as Darkthrone. Sure, their music might not be technically imminent as a connoisseur would see it, and may be faintly whimsical at times (cf. Panzerfaust, for instance), but by the sap of the gods, the compositions are capable of making one hell of an impact; even the demos and first album are worthy reminders of the ever present Darkthronean greatness.
And now’s been released Plaguewielder, Darkthrone’s eight or ninth album, depending on how you count these devilish platters. It is an album taking one step forward from 1999’s Ravishing Grimness, at the same time joining hands with all Darkthrone albums. After 1996’s bone weak Total Death, uphill is the only way to go.
But does the progression direct so much at an uphill? Seeing from the shrewd comments of the other half of the band, Nocturno Culto, calling from his home in the backwoods of Norway, at least they strongly suggest people think so. I give him the freedom of marketing their album, as any sensible person not blown out of all proportions would. He catches the drift at once, giving all positive answers about the response toward Plaguewielder, the recording session, their personal state of satisfaction on it, and what ever one may find between the empyrean and the beneath. Giving answers that are altogether as round as the juggler’s balls at the circus.
But then, how about the critiques delivered by some hardcore fans saying that it could be a good thing for Darkthrone to change their recording routines, that the ‘plug your instruments, rock the material on the reels and go home’ seems not to come to abundant fruitition any more; how does Nocturno Culto react to these assessments?
“Oh, people really say so?” the guitarist-vocalist utters in a tone which is something between inquiring and uninterested. “Yeah man, the entire concept, or some of the concepts anyway, with Darkthrone is that we play very organic music. The thing is that we want to have a certain sense of black magic in the studio. Obviously, if you are going to use two or three months in the studio – all the magic is gone. A lot of tiny, tiny mistakes do occur in the studio but we let it pass because we want the feeling and the black magic when we are playing and recording in the studio. That’s really important for us.
“Also, that’s how we have worked all the time from fucking day one. On Soulside Journey we used six or maybe seven days in the studio, with our last album Ravishing Grimness we used four days. This has been the case all the time, on every fucking album. So, it’s nothing new. If we were going to pull this set of DJ’s on the record, in our opinion it wouldn’t be Darkthrone anymore. I guess all the people just have to question their opinions at the surface and figure what are the honest opinions beneath them.
“A fact is that this album is different. Some people will always complain about some things, and some people might think this is a sound too good for Darkthrone, but I think the point is not to have a bad sound. The thing is to create atmospheric music – which we think we are able to do just with the sound itself if we want to. On the other hand, if you are going to have a very clean production, all of the atmosphere will presumably be gone. Plaguewielder has as some consider a good sound. I can agree that the production is good, but it’s not clean. If you compare Plaguewielder to Mayhem’s Grand Declaration of War for instance, then you can hear that Plaguewielder still has a fucking hard sound.”
A thing of its own is the cover design, which for the first time incorporates truly expressionistic colours in the artwork. Says Nocturno Culto on the cover: “It was actually the designer’s idea. I just gave him keywords of what I wanted. He also read the lyrics and went out with us on the photo session, so he got quite a good picture of what this is all about. I was actually very surprised when I first saw the covers and noticed it is in colours. I didn’t like the artwork at first that much but I kept it for several days and thought about everything and I think the final result is very good. I know some people are complaining about that as well. Everybody complaining can actually form a choir and they can sing out, produce a record by themselves instead of all the complaining, and then sell their record to us.”
At this point I will again bring into discussion the Darkthrone purists, by whose demands it must be rather laborious to make music, all of whose tastes it must be practically impossible to please. Albeit no self-respecting band makes music with fans as their first priority, Nocturno Culto’s take on the purists is notwithstanding a little less grave than one might assume, as he reasons the decisions made as ‘everybody has to understand that everything we do is all coincidences’. Somewhat to the relief of the most past-inclined, he tells, “We are in fact going in the studio in October of 2002, and some of the lyrics are actually ready for the new album. We have also decided that the next album will be in black and white, and that we will actually record it in a smaller studio as well. So everything is changing. Plaguewielder is Plaguewielder; the next album will again be totally different and as said in non-colours. The design will be done in a professional way but it’ll still be in black and white. The sound will perhaps satisfy the hardcore fans more, as it will be bad and coarse, haha. So for those who are concerned about the future, don’t despair because the next album will be amazingly cold and grim, rest assured.”
That is the cycle, the plan, the past, present and tentative panorama. Should we put an amen here?
Demise Oh Demise
As Nocturno Culto tells, though without exactly consulting with Fenriz, the lyrics on Plaguewielder are all about death – written in a cryptic and primitive style which Nocturno Culto goes as far as to say is ‘an art’. He speaks of the song-writing process between Fenriz and him and how the lyrics contra music are written, and so we are lead on to the music. And more specifically, the music of Plaguewielder. It has gone a little more professional and intricate, not being just like ‘one Hellhammer song, one normal song ’ or just tremolo all the way through.
“Yes, it’s more technical,” Nocturno Culto says, “and that is something I actually understood after a very short time when I started doing the vocals – that some of the music on Plaguewielder is not going to be very traditional Darkthrone music. It’s more technical and more metal oriented stuff. As a whole I think the album is definitely black metal but as such it is also definitely not like earlier Darkthrone.”
What inspired you to this time venture with style and tempo so much?
“That is also coincidences,” he cops out. “When I am making a song it will be what it will be. We don’t plan to do a concept album or anything, we always get different results. Ravishing Grimness is a record that is also kind of an entire package to get. I feel the same way about Plaguewielder because as a whole the album is a monument, you know. That can’t be said about Total Death and that can’t be said about A Blaze in the Northern Sky because those were musically very varying albums. Things are different.”
As the lyrics are so much about death, it isn’t much of a surprise that this mood is also a leading incentive for Darkthrone to write the music.
“It’s like we’re worshipping death,” Nocturno Culto chuckles. “That’s the only mood we have. I’m constantly thinking about death, and when you’re worshipping death as much as we are, it is bound to become an inspiration. I also have to say that I get inspiration from Darkthrone itself. The band has taken 13 years of my life – which is quite much – and both Fenriz and I are connected more with Darkthrone now than we used to. It is a major part of our lives.”
A question that needs to be asked is, aren’t those in the band afraid that people are seriously starting to like Darkthrone if they keep on making snazzy albums like Plaguewielder and Ravishing Grimness?
“No, not really,” Nocturno Culto laughs, seeing the apparent intention of the question. “You just have to put everything in perspective. Maybe Plaguewielder is different, but still – what we do is plain metal stuff and there is actually no ambition at all. We don’t try to get new people to like us, and I don’t think that many ‘new’ people like us, as we’re still playing quite bare and primitive straight-to-the-bone metal. I think that many young people today, and women of course, will have more colour, sound effects and keyboards in the music, and as we don’t have that, some people will never like us.”
In spite of this, the albums are selling quite well, if anyone cares. Nocturno Culto tells that thus far Plaguewielder has already sold more than Ravishing Grimness. At their time they were also the best-selling act on Peaceville, but this is something the importance of which Nocturno Culto slightly downplays: “The thing is that in the early 90’s it was much easier to sell a record, whereas today it’s difficult because people can make their own CD’s and pirate copies, and then there’s the Internet and you name it, so there is a lot greater competition between bands. Today you have to work much harder to sell albums.”
To get back on Plaguewielder, it seems Fenriz plays in a style a bit more vivid this time. Was this upon his own decision?
“Ehh…” Nocturno Culto hesitates. “Sometimes I have to decide things for him because at times we disagree, but this time the music itself forced us to play more technically. I told him that when he is doing small technical stuff on the drums, in the tempo that Darkthrone are playing, I think it’s brilliant. I actually tell him that a lot and say that maybe it’s right to do those tiny things because he is doing those so fucking great. But he despises the drums a tiny bit.”
That I have heard.
“When he is doing the more varied stuff on the drums he doesn’t show off. When he is playing he isn’t trying to show the entire world what a great drummer he is. The purpose is on the music.”
He went quite to the extreme with the not showing off on the early to mid-90’s albums, I add.
“Yeah haha, take Transilvanian Hunger as an example.”
Indeed. A reminder of that particular album is the riff on Wreak that appears round 4:17, which Nocturno Culto says was put on Plaguewielder intentionally, to serve as a sort of commemoration. For the guitarist, Transilvanian Hunger is a ‘very important album’. When we speak more in detail about the previous Darkthrone albums, it comes clear that Under a Funeral Moon and Transilvanian Hunger are Nocturno Culto’s favourite releases in the band’s past, and that it is those times that he has nostalgic feelings for. The reason? The times were, as he aptly puts it, ‘fucking pure black magic’.
What of the leaving of former bassist Ivar then – a sudden dark cloud on a clear sunny day when all were set to have a picnic in the park?
Nocturno Culto explains: “Ivar left after Under a Funeral Moon, and we had a really bad situation which in fact could have ended in a tragedy, but fortunately it didn’t. He left in anger but calmed down after a bit and I’m still on speaking terms with him. Musically he didn’t contribute much to the band, it was more the person he was, his attitude and everything he did for us. He was a big part of Darkthrone, and if he some time in the future said that he wanted to play in Darkthrone again, we would definitely take him back in.”
Widenings on the Binoculars
Satanic moors are one thing, expanding the view another. I pose Nocturno Culto a few questions that should be taking the spectator a good way closer to a better view from the hills. Firstly discussed is the possibility that there is overexposure of Darkthrone via the interviews in magazines and other media through which the band is brought quite close to our faces.
“I’m very worried about that,” the guitarist sighs heavily. “It’s a very difficult choice really, to do a lot of interviews. I’ve talked with Fenriz about this several times – about whether we should do interviews or not – and the initial plan was not to give a single interview on Plaguewielder and just release a lot of pictures instead. But it didn’t turn out that way, so maybe we’ll do that in the future. I think to be over-exposed is not a good thing. But what Fenriz and I are doing these days, the interviews… every band does that, it is a very normal thing to do. However, in the future I think we’re going to lessen it. The problem then is are we going to radically limit the interviews? That’s a thing we’ve talked about and we think that’s a really bad idea. As a solution people tend to suggest that we can always do just the big magazines but we think this is a bad idea as well, because everybody should get a Darkthrone interview if they want one.”
Then, as some people always try to make something deep and profound out of Darkthrone, does Nocturno Culto think it is right of people to assume Darkthrone is a very intelligent band?
“Intelligent band? No. It’s really hard for Fenriz and I to agree with stuff that people think, as we are standing both feet in the middle of it all. So it’s really difficult for us to observe Darkthrone from all sides like other people are doing. All the people are seeing Darkthrone from the outside, and I really wish I could do that for just one minute, to see how it looks. It’s hard to comment on things like that.”
When it comes to personal tastes in music, Nocturno Culto is on the same lines with Fenriz, sliding onwards on an electronic trajectory.
“Well, some of it is always that. I mean, you should really hear some of the underground trance people and their fucking freaked out minds. What they create is much darker, much more hatred-influenced and altogether amazingly grim stuff; I think that stuff actually blows a lot of the black metal bands away. They’re insane, and many of the underground people there are actually old metal people. You can hear they are musicians and that they are creating stuff that’s really good and has a lot of quality. Some of them are so dark you wouldn’t believe. But there is also of course a lot of other musical stuff I listen to; I listen to a lot of things. But I always focus on or try to listen to something that gives me the right atmosphere: I don’t listen to happy music, to put it that way, haha.”
As for the metal underground, he says: “I still follow the underground. I actually like the underground more than the famous things. I’m listening to a lot of new underground bands, I think they’re great. It is in the underground where the real and pure music is.”
Not just a token of half-hearted devotion, as is witnessed by his name-dropping when we’re discussing the topic more in depth. A thing someone might find amusing is his “fuck them bastards” flaying of the mainstream and glitterati metal publications.
On the other hand, he is already praising the forthcoming Satyricon album. Oh well.
Modern-day Appliances of
Making a Metal Band Work
Darkthrone have always been more clandestine than any Cornwell, more shadowy than any Steele, so the talk of videos and live shows in connection with the band may seem slightly disconcerting to some fans. However, one may better get accustomed to the thought, as this is where the aspirations are pointing. Nocturno Culto tells: “About the video I have some vague plans only, and it won’t be a typical musical video. It will be a video of about an hour in length, filmed in black and white with bad production. A lot of music and a lot of strange filming of Fenriz and I and where we live in should be included. It should become a very artistic video.
“Also, I’ve tried to convince Fenriz to do some live shows in 2003, but he’s a very difficult man to convince. Both Fenriz and I share the same view that Darkthrone isn’t really a live band, that Darkthrone suits best to be enjoyed by yourself. However, after so many years I think that we should do maybe three or four major shows in Europe one summer. All the people who have been with us, the metal friends, deserve to get a great live show.”
Referring to the gig in Oslo in 1996, the band’s latest recollections about playing live must not be very thrilling.
“Well, just remember that it was a very strange feeling to play for 1,100 corpses, haha! Very strange really.”
Has the situation changed, then?
“Absolutely,” Nocturno Culto exclaims. “It has changed a lot. People aren’t afraid of showing their enthusiasm any more. But at the time we played the gig people wouldn’t have cheered to any band. When I saw Slayer for the first time in Norway in 1988, I wasn’t in the front row going totally crazy. I just stood beside the mixing table trying to suck in all the atmosphere, and I guess that’s what people did also in ’96. But it really pissed me off at the time because, fucking hell, we did a lot of work to get this live show.”
Any good story concludes with a positive clang to the ending note. Darkthrone too have a bright-shining future ahead (any moron would twist this into a debate whether a brightly shining future is appropriate for a black metal band). For Nocturno Culto, the whole mechanism isn’t that difficult to figure.
“We are mainly doing this for ourselves, to satisfy our own needs of dark music. If we didn’t have any record contract anymore, if people said ‘now, we won’t have you ‘all die’ men surround us’, then we would still play Darkthrone, releasing demos and whatever. So we won’t quit for many years. Even if people didn’t want to release a record with us after the Moonfog deal, then fuck them, we’d still continue anyway. For us the important thing is to play in Darkthrone. That’s what creates the inspiration, to keep us on with our miserable lives, haha.”