Review: Darkthrone – Eternal Hails……
“Basking in an eternal, beautiful present”
In Norse Myth, the world was created by lakes of fire and ice meeting in the nothingness before creation, and melting out into an ocean. The first giant, Ymir, was slain by the first gods who melted free alongside him, and they fashioned our entire planet from his carcass. Our world is one constructed from the first and grandest death of all, matched only by the death of all that it heralded, the apocalyptic Ragnarok. Again, the emissaries of fire and ice come to fight off the gods, split the continents and sink it all back into the frigid sea. Death begets life and life begets death again. This very Scandinavian fatalism naturally casts a certain pall on the region’s biggest export, classic black metal.
Sometimes, I feel as if metal is on life support. All genres and styles die, even when they’re still present as zombie versions of themselves. Disco died, punk died, indie died, not in the sense that they’re never made anymore, but in that they don’t shape the music world like they used to. You can see it in the landscape, the lyrical tropes and musical tricks planted by their founders that later get fostered and harvested by their followers, leaving behind a tundra that becomes every day more barren and depleted. Our old-school revivalist bands mine deeper and deeper for novelty in narrower and narrower plots. The bands that can truly evolve and transcend these boundaries seem bound to do so by becoming something not altogether metal anymore. Have you heard the new Boss Keloid or Khirki, by the by? Or how about that Backxwash that has everyone aflutter?
Anyway, this piece is about Darkthrone. Few are so dedicated to the consuming contemplation of Metal As It Was than Mr. Fenriz Nagell, the heavy metal hermit of numerous Norwegian nowherevilles. One thing you have to appreciate about Fenriz is his dedication to anti-showmanship. Beyond a complete disinterest in playing live, which is the cornerstone of his evident belief in the beauty of the unchanging construct of art, he and comrade-in-kvlt Nocturno Culto were one of the trendsetters for black metal as all-passion-zero-polish histrionics. Compared to the reckless egotism of Norwegian black metal’s assembly of notables, which seems to have only become more pronounced over time, Fenriz and Nocturno remain as unassuming as they might have been before the ’90s scene surrounding them was doused in gasoline and set alight with global notoriety.
However, whereas Darkthrone was once setting the very blueprint of black metal from their basement, they have of late realigned themselves to explicit, naked revivalism, but with a certain fatalistic awareness that there was nowhere else to go. 2010’s Circle The Wagons said it best: “I Am The Graves Of The 80’s”. Between the choice of preserving their black metal sound and experimenting in new directions, Darkthrone has started to split the difference and take a third option: mutating themselves into different permutations of all their favorites, taking stops to grab chunks of Motorhead, Venom, and Mercyful Fate, plus scads of bands too obscure for me to even register. The entire project reminds me of controlled breeding experiments to re-evolve extinct species from the stock of common descendants. Now their (soulside) journey takes them to the territories of Candlemass, Saint Vitus, and Trouble for doomier proceedings on Eternal Hails (no, I will not be typing the sextuple ellipses every time).
Just calling it ‘doomier’ is a bit reductive, though. It is, at different turns, more epic-styled or more morose about itself, but naturally in the classic ’80s style. Musically it is a re-exploration of doom pre-Electric Wizard, before fuzzy drones and pentatonic vamping took over the scene, but the production job actually brings in some of that stoner-esque grime to good effect. When I say it sounds ‘muddy’, that’s not to say muffled and indistinct, but instead textured like gravel, wet with a tinge of reverb, and utterly caked on. Compared to 2019’s Old Star, it’s a little less blaring as well, with some more restraint from the drums during the moments where things get truly ethereal. There’s a very choice piece of “Hate Cloak”, probably the closest we have to a lead single, where leads sigh in from the fog, smouldering calmly around the jagged riff in the same way an arctic aurora curls around a mountain silhouette.
The songwriting on Eternal Hails continues the emphasis on pensive, weary marches that characterized Old Star as well, but the sweeping, epic gesture of 2013’s The Underground Resistance has a somewhat renewed presence. It’s still deliberately more dreary, too tired to reach the same heroic heights. “Wake Of The Awakened” feels like the first riff is tunneling downwards, with the buzzy dissonance adding turmoil every few measures, until it breaks through into a more open, droning doldrum. Centerpiece “Voyage To A North Pole Adrift” takes a spin on doom’s distant blues roots with a 1-2 shuffle rhythm, but speeds back up in the central passage for some Annihilator-style Alison Hell action. Very spooky, very diabolical, very rusty and chill to the touch.
As ably as Darkthrone can maintain the frigid temperatures native to their realm, there are unexpected pockets of warmth as well. Opener “His Master’s Voice” sails in on icy winds, but the final stretch turns anthemic, summoning up some Viking Bathory or perhaps even early Manowar gusts to take it home, and “Hate Cloak” also summons some of that disciplined, fist-banging directness for its main body. “Lost Arcane City Of Uppakra” is an oddity all its own, a mostly major key stomper that speeds by in 3 minutes, leaving the rest for a circular synth coda to peter away. In fact, although the straight-up doom influence is the most prominent new feature, there’s still a varied intermixing of loping black’n’roll and weighty, gravitas-laden classic metal as well. Condensed down to 5 tracks that average 8 minutes each, the arrangements are still economical, with a few good riffs and softer, almost atmospheric breaks. The patience on display is impressive considering that the riffing toolbox isn’t too far removed from the punky 80’s material they were putting out just an album or two ago.
And yet it all feels like more than a nostalgia act. It feels like a foray into serious retrospection, recombining to find the ultimate essence of every strain they’ve encountered so far in their vinyl-spun travels. Darkthrone, in their 35th year, feels less like a zombie, re-animated after rotting and falling apart with each step, and more like Imhotep in The Mummy, actually getting stronger as he incorporates more harvested organs into his corpus. For the grim pacing, patient songwriting, and vocals that come off more as a stoic grumble than a battle cry, Eternal Hails feels like a record only an old man could make. Fenriz and Nocturno are both about to hit 50, as it happens, and are clearly more than satisfied with being black metal hermits on the mount, pondering the deepest mysteries in the inky black sky. Eternal Hails, as a result, comes off as prudent, practical, at peace with itself and as indifferent to the world as the world seems to it.
It is not just that this tribute will last eternal, it is a tribute to the eternal, or at least to the idea of it. Touching back to the idea of live and dead music, to me, heavy metal feels more mortal than ever. Listeners to the Toilet Radio might notice every few episodes, the hosts will spend a segment talking about how not just the business model, but the entire cultural landscape that made metal important enough to be even remotely mainstream has been iterated away by decades of social entropy. The guitar is no longer the predominant instrument of youthful obsession, the dark and dangerous imagery feels so played out in its surface forms that even renewed efforts to deepen the Satanic trappings into philosophical territory come off as overambitious.
In those moments where I feel especially gloomy about our dumb little genre, I think about this article by sports/sci-fi auteur Jon Bois. He can’t predict the future of baseball, because as he sees it, there’s no future for it to go to, and there doesn’t need to be. “It is fine for something to be wildly popular for quite a long time and then fade into something less popular, all the while unchanging, forever extant. It is where and what it is supposed to be.” He is Zen in his acceptance that loving a piece of culture often means finite boundaries to explore, but infinite time to explore them. I am especially moved by his analogy of baseball’s significance as a satellite in space, once a pinnacle of collaborative achievement that literally showed us new horizons to explore, but now has reached a territory it cannot return to or even be detected from.
For Darkthrone, heavy metal is an old star, forever ablaze in the northern sky. Across my past few posts here on TovH, I’ve often felt at war with myself over what I need metal to be if it’s going to feel like a vital genre and carry any torch into the future, instead of being just an echo of itself, on and on. Darkthrone has spent their recent run of albums asserting, effectively, that being an echo is what metal is destined to be, and Eternal Hails, instead of being the epitaph and eulogy it might seem at first glance, might be better taken as a declaration of fearlessness in the face of eternity.