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“Old Star,” New Light: Darkthrone Continues to Slay on 18th Full-Length

darkthrone old star

Darkthrone is a remarkably strange band. While they started as a rough and primal death metal group, they quickly morphed into one of the most quintessential black metal bands of all time, calcifying the works of groups like Venom and Bathory into the model of second-wave Norwegian black metal that became the pillar upon which all future developments were built. But even this period only lasted a few albums before, mercurial as always, they moved to cleaner and more cerebral (albeit less successful) black metal throughout the remainder of the 1990s, only to once more change shape and take on a substantially more loose, crusty, and primal punk/hardcore affect. The Underground Resistance proved to usher in their next arc, one that focused more on incorporating traditional heavy metal of the late 1970s and early 1980s into the band’s identity. And it is from this period that Old Star is born.

It’s worth mentioning that overview of their body of work not only for those who may have never heard the band before, but also to highlight two pivotal aspects. First is that they join good company with the rest of those second-wave Norwegian bands in maintaining a constantly shifting shape. Each of those groups, from Ulver and Enslaved to Mayhem and Emperor/Ihsahn, have seen careers marked more by perpetually changing shapes than the groups that model themselves after the style. This is a large reason why all of those groups have found such profound staying power, remaining relevant in various musical spheres for decades where other bands modelling their careers after the earlier records peter out. This touches upon the second aspect: there is an inherent Darkthrone-ness that is apparent on their records regardless of the intermediate affecting style, and it’s this inner Darkthrone-ness that both marks the interest people have in the band as well as the overall sensation of the albums. There are Darkthrone albums for every occasion, but they all feel like they belong to the same family tree, all elaborate on the same inner core ideals, which is a sincere and unapologetically anti-pretentious love of heavy metal music.

Old Star leans predominantly on a slower, doomier end, tapping into the space that proto-doom metal held in the late 1970s into the early 1980s. Another viable touchstone would be the kind of early power metal of the early 1980s, where it still retained the heaviness and girth of post-NWOBHM metal ideals. The resulting album feels more centered and aesthetically driven then the less-successful Arctic Thunder, a record which contained good songs but felt like they revolved around no real center. If one elides that previous record, Old Star feels like a proper follow up to Underground Resistance, denying us the long-sought sequel to all-time great “Leave No Cross Unturned” but replacing it with tracks of an overall increased length and complexity, albeit a complexity of structure and not riffs. The songs on Old Star are delivered in a caveman prog fashion, structures extending abnormally with several bridges and discrete sections more from enthusiasm and the pure joy of riffing than an attempt to dazzle the listener with complex thought. The riffs stay primal, raw, punky, harkening back to the early days of extreme metal in the 1980s where it was musicians who couldn’t play as well as their idols covering up mistakes with gain and hardcore-derived verve, a spirit the group conveys well. After all, that was the genesis of their own band; who else could capture it better?

The issue with Old Star is not one apparent by listening to its tracks in isolation. It is a brief record, six tracks in under 40 minutes, and on their own each song shines as a rough and fun doomy ode to the primal joy of heavy metal. The issue is that, as a holographic whole, there is little variance, which inevitably leaves the record feeling like it’s dragging after a few tracks, a sensation it doesn’t shake by its end. This is frustrating and unfortunate precisely because when you lift those later tracks out of order to listen on their own, there is some stellar work there. Had any other band released these songs on their own records, they would be highlight tracks, demonstrating that 18 records in, Darkthrone have more than mastered the art of writing a compelling song. Granted, there aren’t many Darkthrone records that attend to the notion of albums as total works of art; this, for the most part, doesn’t align with the grimier ethos that underpins the group as a project. The Underground Resistance was more or less a one-off, producing a tight and cohesively developed meta-narrative over its tracks that made the album play like a satisfying novel of lofi heavy metal. Old Star returns to their native impulse, one of great tracks in no particular order. It’s simply a weaker album for it.

Granted, an album made weaker for lack of propulsion through its tracks is still a good album if the songs on it are good, and these songs are good. Played live or dropped into a playlist, there isn’t a single track on Old Star that doesn’t deliver the goods, so lacking a cohesive throughline to make a satisfying 40-minute experience doesn’t sink the ship. Plus that album art is absolutely killer, and who are we to kid ourselves that that isn’t part of the magic too? At this point in their career, Darkthrone only had to make sure they didn’t sink the enterprise and prove themselves too old or too conservative to hang with the new kids; with tracks like these, they remind us why they remain a dominant and influential force in extreme music.

Old Star released May 31st via Peaceville Records.

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