I am so far behind in cataloging my recent vinyl acquisitions (not to mention all the CD box sets I’ve been picking up) that I’m going to try and buckle down and get some short entries up, and at the very least explain WHY I have not one but TWO copies of A Blaze in the Northern Sky, the seminal black metal classic by Norwegian institution Darkthrone. They were the band that paved the way the way for my own music in Necrolytic Goat Converter, showing me that my musical expression could best be achieved via tremolo riffing and strained, raspy vocals that can’t quite hide the influence of old school melody. By any standard this is a classic of the metal genre, so let’s give it some thought.
To hear Fenriz talk about it on the commentary track for the album (I’ve said this before but it is AWESOME that the deluxe CD packages for the first 11 Darkthrone albums come with a separate commentary disc – more bands should do this) it’s still misleading to call A Blaze in the Northern Sky their first real “black metal” album. Despite so many of the touchpoint that would come to be foundational to the genre: the B&W cover with a corpse-painted Zephyrous (the band was a trio at that point) there is still fair amount of dearth metal present, tendencies that would be further removed by the time of their 1993 classic Under a Funeral Moon.
I don’t care what Fenriz or anyone wants to call it. I came to Darkthrone late, first hearing them on their left turn to blackened rock and metal on 2006’s The Cult Is Alive. When I finally went back to the band’s roots (skipping Soulside Journey which is excellent if slightly unremarkable quasi-technical death metal) and heard the croaking intro to “Kathaarian Life Code” the blossoms into the furious blasting assault it made me laugh out loud for about a second. Then I listened closer and heard how the band was – behind wall of truly cavernous awful production – absolutely slaying with juxtaposing different riff ideas and tempos together. I immediately gravitated to the way Nocturnal “Ted” Culto would bend notes in the riff, giving a nauseating quirk to an otherwise thudding boneheaded riff and turning it on its head. This was a sound I completely missed out on the first time it arrived in the 90s, and I was enthralled.
Fenriz has claimed that a lot of Darkthrone can be traced to essentially mixing together Bathory and Celtic Frost and you can hear it on almost all of the tracks in one form or another. It’s right there in the “C’mon!” barked at the beginning of “In the Shadow of the Horns”, not to mention the ridiculous amount of chugging that follows (again supporting this isn’t strict black metal…yet). The song takes another left (path) turn into thrash rock halfway through before morphing into tumultuous black metal insanity. There’s more Tom G. Warrior mannerisms to be had on “Paragon Bell” and its mid-paced attack swerves into some truly diabolical atonality for what I’ll call a pre-chorus before speeding up to some real sinister sections, complete with buzz and unwanted feedback.
Flipping to Side 2 I’m surprised at how well A Blaze in the Northern Sky sounds on vinyl. Despite having the CD, the majority of my listening has been via streaming, whether on walks, driving, or simply sitting in a place other than where my stereo is. The reverb heavy solo on “Where Cold Winds Blow” comes through a lot clearer, and in fact the “shoddy production” tag that plagues a lot of second wave black metal releases really isn’t present here. There is nothing that is not blistering in its attack on this song, a complete brute of a track. Nocturno Culto handles all the vocals, leaving Fenriz the chants and oration sections, and his voice is so cold and perfect for their music I can definitely see why on the last few albums they’ve returned to Ted singing all the songs.
The title track might have the most instantly recognizable black metal “feel” of the whole album, and it’s a barn burner that only gets amplified when it switches to that Celtic Frost stomp. There are moments where the transitions between riffs are a little rough, but it’s that DIY/leave the mistakes in that also really spoke to me as this being something regular people can actually do. Which sounds a bit weird that it’s the extreme metal where people wear makeup and capes and preach to elder gods as the things I can relate to as do-able, but for me its always been more about how the technical execution is secondary to getting the intent out. You might be able to levy a lot of criticism about Darkthrone’s music, but you can’t say – especially on these early albums – they they weren’t leaving the stains of their blackened hearts on every song.
“The Pagan Winter” is another example of starting with some serious Bathrory attack but then dropping down to another level of darkness in the next section of the song. I love how playful the vocals are, with weird panned chuckles and the ending recalling the opening to “Kathaarian Life Code.” When Darkthrone annoucened a deluxe 30th anniversary of the album earlier this year I missed out, but managed to order a white vinyl copy thinking this was my shot to snag a great sounding copy of the album. A few weeks later the Gimme Metal Vinyl Club announced their newest addition – A Blaze in the Northern Sky in transparent blue.
Happy to take both in, and overjoyed that taking a new listen to old favorite yielded new sonic surprises. That’s a joy no matter how you look at it.