Darkthrone’s ‘A Blaze in the Northern Sky’ Turns 25
Black metal duo Darkthrone’s A Blaze in the Northern Sky will turn 25 this coming Sunday. It’s a towering genre classic, but one that sometimes seems bafflingly overshadowed by the more-iconic Transilvanian Hunger which came two years later (with the satisfactory, oft overlooked Under a Funeral Moon sandwiched between them).
At least that’s the conclusion I came to back in 2005, when discovering black metal was a weekly mission between visits to the local Newbury Comics and Providence’s Armageddon Shop. When first listening to Fenriz and Nocturno Culto (and Zephyrous on this record) I appropriately began with their debut, the death metal onslaught Soulside Journey, then leap-frogged to fourth album, Transilvanian Hunger, owing to its reputation. Pardon the stepping-on your genre sensibilities in not being impressed with the latter. There was something missing in between, inducing a backtrack to Under a Funeral Moon and A Blaze in the Northern Sky, or the whole point of this article that we’re finally getting to. Following a thorough listening of both, I reached the conclusion that Transilvanian Hunger was trash by comparison. Twelve years later, that sentiment remains.
Of all the head scratching black metal’s second wave induces, none itches me quite as much as Hunger’s spawning of the genre’s most iconic album cover turned T-shirt when gems like Blaze exist in the same catalog. Hunger checks off all the genre aesthetics like a health inspector would violations in an Arby’s, but there was much strain put into finding moments to headbang or even a tap a foot. In other words, Hunger manages the flabbergasting task of making metal boring.
Gasp, how dare black metal not take itself seriously at all times. That’s where Blaze really shines; as a testament to a young band testing their mettle in a fledgling scene. Hunger’s biggest crime is making a vampirical allusion but doing so with incongruous steeliness, with not so much as a tongue in its cheek where Blaze does so with a cackle.
That’s not to set the expectation for Darkthrone to be the black metal Steel Panther, but let’s not kid ourselves that this posturing isn’t even slightly whimsical. Enter “Kathaarian Life Code,” which opens with more dread and gloom in one minute than most albums of the time could squeeze into forty minutes. A stretch of distant chants and a gurgling introduction give way to victorious croaking laughter and a bombast that plays with a punk-like energy. Shifting from rollicking breaks to relentless smattering, “Code” stuffs much into its dominating 10 minute span. Lyrically, Blaze is no less self-serious than its sequels, but its delivery is possessed by enthusiasm: compare Noctorno Culto’s vocal cues throughout with most crust punk.
“In the Shadow of the Horns” is all warm, infernal fuzz but isn’t buried under Hunger’s purposeful static, with its calculated pace offering clarity to allow its fangs to glimmer. “Horns” is among the best tracks of Darkthrone’s first three black metal forays, switching from metallic blitz to punk drudgery with fluid, schizophrenic ease.
“The Pagan Winter” plays like the climax it is, pummeling you with everything the preceding tracks could throw at you, and with demented glee to boot. The stern theatricality that soured Hunger couples well here with Blaze’s energetics, as Fenriz and Culto exchange druidic exclamations and sardonic snarls, respectfully, amid the guitar’s rolling thunder that brings Blaze to a heaving, gasping close.
Perhaps the fact that A Blaze in the Northern Sky arrived on the heels of Soulside Journey, a death metal album, is what makes the former the joy ride it is. Perhaps it’s the punk tone that Darkthrone applied to the album’s six tracks. Perhaps it’s simply the inaugural exercising of a new, sleeker but more rugged style. All points of the pentagram are all the above. Since 2006’s The Cult is Alive, Darkthrone have slowly begun to shake off the icy tedium that pervaded their discography following Transilvanian Hunger, expanding their repertoire back into the crust’s thrall. While these releases flicker in the dark, nothing compares to this first torch of inspiration, a real blaze from two (three) northern guys.