Thursday, April 24, 2014

Bloody Roots: Revisiting "Panzerfaust" by Darkthrone

Discussions regarding Norway's long lived Darkthrone are generally polarizing to say the least. They are flag bearers for the second wave of Scandinavian black metal, easily surpassed in technicality and fidelity by the likes of Emperor or Enslaved, Immortal or Satyricon. Which isn't to say that Darkthrone is without merit... they are my favorite group of the bunch, due to unwavering ethics and unflinching dedication to bucking trends when it suits them.

Their album "Goatlord", for instance, features one of the most incredibly complex drum performances by Fenriz throughout its running time, which is then ruined (purposefully, I'd like to believe) by the album's terrible production. At any rate, over the course of 20 plus years, Fenriz and collaborator Nocturno Culto have put forth nearly as many albums, never adhering to the template of black metal as determined by their contemporaries.

Most people would point to any of their first four releases as being more indicative of what Darkthorne truly represents, both artistically and musically, if one were to separate the two. But I have always held that "Panzerfaust" captures them at their most brilliant. While it may not be as sweepingly epic as earlier efforts like "A Blaze in the Northern Sky" or "Under a Funeral Moon", its song-craft is undeniable.

While their older work may be at times more technical ("Soulside Journey") and icily chaotic ("Transylvanian Hunger"), "Panzerfaust" is where they truly learned to compose riffs. And riffs come in spades here. With a slight detour in track one, which hints that the album may repeat the frostbitten harshness of their former work, it changes gears and turns into a record made in praise of Celtic Frost and Hellhammer. Track number two, Triumphant Gleam, could almost be the Usurper. Not in the same way that Burzum's War was simply a retooled Necromancy by Bathory, but rather a reflection of the two bands Fenriz was at the time obsessed with.

"Panzerfaust" doesn't relent from there, flirting with orthodox black metal along with a smattering of furious thrash (Triumphant Gleam & Hans Siste Vinter), relentlessly crushing doom (Beholding the Throne of Might, the Hordes of Nebula, & Quintessence), and hints here and there of their initial incarnation as a death metal band. Ending track Sno Og Granskog (Utferd) is pure Norwegian classicism, hinting at folk and spoken word. Which would all be fine and good if the tracks had just been jumbled together, but the order in which they're played are almost compositions in itself. They flow perfectly from start to finish.

Complimenting the tracks is an unparalleled vocal performance from Nocturno Culto, full of vitriol and enraged anguish, shrieks that carry the album in time with Fenriz' instrumentation. The guitars are explosive and epic, tuned low and high in the mix with complimentary basslines that rumble along like a tank. His drumming is tight as hell, pummeling and brutal and he nails what he's described in interviews as the "perfect drum sound". As Fenriz handled all of the instruments herein, including the recording at Necrohell Studios, it makes it all the more impressive. Especially when compared to their follow-up album, "Total Death", which while completely listenable has none of the significant elements that came together to make "Panzerfaust" a perfect album. It's still a little lo-fi, but appropriately so considering the sound the duo were striving to achieve, which in my opinion has never been equaled by any of their contemporaries.

I may be biased to some degree, though, as I always appreciate Darkthrone more when they're rebuking trends, as they did to the nth degree with "Panzerfaust", when the metal underground was pining for a repeat of the black metal they had already mined in their preceding four records. This duo is undeniably unlike any others amongst their peers, and their lack of concern for anything other than Darkthrone's integrity is something I wish more artists of this caliber adhered to throughout such incredibly long and massive careers and discographies. Hail "Panzerfaust" and praise the names of the musical assassins: Darkthrone.

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