Darkthrone – The Underground Resistance (Peaceville Records, 25 February 2013)
Germ – Escape (Prophecy Productions, 29 April 2016)
Good afternoon, or good evening, or good whatever-it-is-right-now. I can hardly even tell anymore, because I don’t think there was any point today at which I even reached a state of being half-awake. These late-night hockey playoff games are really killing me. Last night’s went into overtime, which ended up only lasting about two and a half minutes, but still, it was already difficult enough for me to stay awake through the end of the first three periods.
Anyway, I’ll quit whining and get on with the music I have to share with you today. One of these was on my top 13 of 2013 list — yes, I’m still working on getting something written about each of those, and we’re down to just a handful remaining! — while the other was released just last week, but both of these albums are highly recommended listening (even though on the surface they seem completely different) …
So I’m pretty sure that every single one of you is familiar with Darkthrone. Formed as a death metal band in Norway way back around the end of the 1980s, then transforming their sound soon after, becoming one of the most significant movers-and-shakers in terms of the Scandinavian black metal scene of the 90s; putting out over a dozen albums (not to mention countless demos, EPs, and compilations) since then, and consistently maintaining a core membership of multi-instrumentalists Gylve “Fenriz” Nagell and Ted “Nocturno Culto” Skjellum over nearly that whole span. The band responsible for some of the most essential, genre-defining releases in all of black metal, including Transilvanian Hunger, A Blaze in the Northern Sky, and Under a Funeral Moon. Sure, of course you already knew all of that.
But have you heard Darkthrone lately? For about the past decade, these guys have been back at Peaceville Records, which had been their home for their first four groundbreaking records in the early 90s. But this time around, they’ve been gradually drifting away from the signature sound that they helped forge, which went on to inspire entire legions (literally) of imitators; instead they’ve increasingly been sneaking in elements as varied as crust-punk, doom, and speed/traditional heavy metal. Which brings us to The Underground Resistance, their latest release (which was just a little over three years ago).
The six tracks here — mostly in the four-to-five-minute range, with the exception of the last two — bear very little resemblance whatsoever to the band’s earlier material. For example, the introduction to the first song “Dead Early” has one guitar part that uses a fast alternate-picking style, but that’s about as close to black metal as you’re going to get; this soon turns into way more of a speed/NWOBHM-style galloping riff, while some time later incorporating more of a D-beat feel, creating an overall kind of thrash/punk/crossover vibe. The vocals here are sort of a gruff combination of grunting/growling — certainly not “clean” by any standards — but far more decipherable than your standard black metal fare.
This gruff vocal style is predominant in about half of the songs — including the thrashy “Lesser Men” and the nearly nine-minute-long slow and heavy “Come Warfare, the Entire Doom.” In other places, though, is a cleaner — more like traditional heavy metal or, more specifically, NWOBHM-ish — vocal style: for example, “Valkyrie” whose song structure and drum fills are both highly reminiscent of Iron Maiden. But in my opinion, the highest points of the album come when both vocalists work in tandem: “The Ones You Left Behind,” another medium-paced Maidenesque gallop, features both in unison on its ultra-catchy chorus, almost sounding like these gentlemen are actually having fun with the material — especially when one vocal part slips up to a super-high falsetto right in the middle of the song — which makes it difficult to tell if they’re genuinely paying tribute or playfully mocking cliches of the genre, but chances are it’s actually a little of both.
The same could be said, to an even greater extent, of the final song “Leave No Cross Unturned” — switching between fast and chuggy bits and some more intense riffing, sometimes employing straight-up NWOBHM soaring vocals and elsewhere a deeper style (that incidentally sounds a bit like Dr. Teeth), the song continues recycling sections of riffs and verses and choruses, getting more over-the-top as it goes along; later picking up speed, adding crazy guitar solos while the vocals continue to get more intentionally melodramatic as well. For fourteen whole minutes, every time it seems like it might be ending soon, they throw in one more iteration of one of the sections of riffs or another chorus — finally leaving the whole thing feeling wonderfully ridiculous.
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With both a history and a discography significantly shorter (and, incidentally, with half as many members — that is, one Tim Yatras, from Wollongong, NSW) as the last band, perhaps not as many of you will be familiar with Germ. But once you’ve heard his third album Escape and its shoegaze/post-punk/atmosphere-infused take on black metal, hopefully that will change.
Of the eight tracks here (two of which are interlues of a minute or two in length, “I” consisting of some tinkling bells set against a string section and “V” featuring a minimal piano part over the sound of light rainfall), most are primarily or wholly rooted in black metal, just with various twists and variations along the way. “Escape” is probably the most traditionally “black” song; a bit repetitive, in a hypnotic kind of way, while also being very atmospheric. This track introduces the vocals that will be found throughout much of the album: a far-off banshee shrieking, sounding utterly unhuman. These vocals continue throughout “I’ll Give Myself to the Wind,” though here they are set against guitars that are a bit more melodic, in a way, seeming more shoegaze than black metal; also “The Old Dead Tree” which is a slower version of black ‘n roll (let’s say, “black ‘n crawl”?) made up of all minor and diminished chords, as well as “With the Death of a Blossoming Flower” which — like its predecessor — builds towards the end, adding some orchestral and choir sounds into the mix.
However, on two of these songs we find a wholly different vocal sound — the ethereal and dreamy “Under Crimson Skies” introduces some clean (dare I say, almost like indie-pop) singing over layers of tremoloey distorted blackgaze-style guitars; this style then takes turns alternating with the Hellish shrieks throughout the remainder of the song. And the final track, appropriately called “Closer,” starts off with some echoey post-punk-sounding guitar, giving off an almost joyful (or at least hopeful) feeling; this song consists entirely of clean vocals, here sounding more along the lines of Echo and the Bunnymen. Since the album’s creator (and band’s sole member) has declared Escape to be largely autobiographical in nature, I like to think that this ending indicates a more peaceful, serene resolution following all of the frightening ugliness that has come before.
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