Norway’s Darkthrone are an underground metal institution. They’ve released 15 studio albums since 1991, including three (1992’s A Blaze in the Northern Sky, 1993’s Under a Funeral Moon and 1994’s Transilvanian Hunger) that are considered crucial to the history of black metal. An almost entirely studio-based project, they haven’t played live since their earliest days—if they ever did again, it would require recruiting additional members, since Darkthrone is the duo of multi-instrumentalist Fenriz and guitarist/vocalist Nocturno Culto, by day a postal worker and a schoolteacher respectively.
Their music embraces primitivism, sonically and structurally. While their debut album, 1991’s Soulside Journey, was a death metal record very much in the vein of Grave, Entombed, Unleashed, Dismember et al., and produced pretty well, they took a sharp turn toward crudity and lo-fi recording with A Blaze…. That album soaked its riffs in washes of fuzz, kept the rhythms cavemanlike and minimal, and generally established the black metal aesthetic as one that prized evilness over fidelity or dynamics. The music was a constant buzzing roar, over which Nocturno Culto howled and roared the lyrics. On Under a Funeral Moon, they got even more raw and unclean, with the vocals devolving into a choking croak and the drumming sounding almost programmed; the guitar was the loudest element of the mix, relentless to the point of monotony. And on Transilvanian Hunger, they took this extreme approach to its limit, releasing an album that basically sounded like a demo tape, with everything so completely blown-out it was like being jabbed in the eardrums with a heated awl.
Interestingly, they underwent the first of a string of stylistic shifts on their fifth album, 1995’s Panzerfaust. While it’s still recognizably black metal, and the recording quality is still relatively primitive, the music is downtuned and much heavier, reminiscent of Celtic Frost. This trend continued on Total Death and Ravishing Grimness; without necessarily embracing recording industry standards of professionalism, Darkthrone grew as a band, in their own way. Some feel that the band’s output suffered in these years, that their early ’90s trilogy was their greatest work, never improved upon. I disagree, but I find the low-fidelity black metal aesthetic creatively limiting, and disappointing from a listener’s perspective.
Darkthrone‘s latest big move, which is where we find the band today, has been their most surprising. On their last five albums—2003’s F.O.A.D., 2006’s The Cult is Alive, 2008’s Dark Thrones and Black Flags, 2010’s Circle the Wagons, and 2013’s The Underground Resistance—they’ve embraced punk rock. There’s barely any element of black metal left in their sound at this point; instead, they’re throwing Discharge, Venom, (very) early Motörhead and, I don’t know, the Subhumans maybe? into a blender, and playing blindingly fast, caveman-simple songs with their usual lack of dynamics, but extra fuzz and fury. Also, they’re adopting a more overtly humorous lyrical attitude than ever before; a lot of this newer stuff is fun. The last 10 years might be the best possible time to get into Darkthrone, and to do so by starting with their newest material and moving backwards.
But let’s say you’re a Darkthrone newbie, and you’re looking for a budget entry point. You’re in luck. Introducing Darkthrone is a two-CD, 18-track set that includes songs from every album from 1991-2012, and even offers two tracks each from F.O.A.D., Dark Thrones and Black Flags and Circle the Wagons. It’s a virtual certainty that rabid fans will complain that the wrong songs were included from some albums, but it could also be argued that Darkthrone are as much about a sound and an attitude as they are about individual compositions. Either way, it lives up to its title. So listen to it—you’ll either say, “That’s all the Darkthrone I ever need to hear,” or “Wow—I need to buy every Darkthrone album now.” While I find this compilation enjoyable, particularly the second disc, I’m not gonna be filling a shelf with their discography.