Darkthrone: Rally ‘Round The Black Flag

fenriz-12

By Tate Bengston

Darkthrone, unholy Darkthrone. Early in its long (and far from over) history, Darkthrone played a pioneering role in the second wave of black metal. Never one to stay in the same place for very long, the band then made what many saw as a questionable move away from the sound that defined its classic trilogy of A Blaze in the Northern Sky, Under a Funeral Moon, and Transilvanian Hunger. Some among the black metal cognoscenti took this shift as a wholesale abandonment of the genre and all for which it stood.

Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth. While Darkthrone may have been associated with the second wave of black metal by virtue of its time and place, the hellish duo behind the band, Fenriz and Nocturno Culto, always associated their band with the first wave of black metal, prior to the establishment of rigid genre boundaries. Back then, black metal had more to do with attitude and spirit. Darkthrone has always remained firmly entrenched in that black metal ethos.

Over the course of the last three albums, the band has explored this ethos as it exists at the bloody edge of several genres, including crust punk and speed metal. In the process, the band revealed that these musical styles have more in common than the genre-fixated mindset of the present day typically comprehends. With the current album, Dark Thrones and Black Flags [Peaceville], Fenriz and Nocturno Culto once again find themselves in the unenviable position of being misunderstood. Is it any wonder that the band displays such disdain and mockery for those who choose to throw peanuts from the gallery? Dark Thrones and Black Flags is generally – and quite incorrectly – taken as an homage to punk when, in fact, it is an exploration of the blackened side of epic/traditional 80s metal.

Fenriz details all that is unholy and misunderstood with a level of honesty, passion, and energy that is unmatched.

I was surprised by the amount of traditional/epic metal that can be found in the melodies, the riffs, and vocals on Dark Thrones and Black Flags. While you have often cited your appreciation for bands like Omen and Manilla Road, songs such as “Norway in September” and “Hanging Out in Haiger” serve as the most explicit musical statements to this effect. “Hiking Metal Punks” reminds me tremendously of Brocas Helm, actually. At least to my ears, this is the album where it sounds like Darkthrone just “went for it” in terms of foregrounding that element. What is your view on the balance that you struck between trad metal, crust punk, and black metal on the new album? Do you feel that the emphasis that many are placing on the punk element is misplaced?

I should have expected it, what with that title and all, but I always hope someone will see my creations the way I do. Sadly, I have, throughout the ages, said that only one thousand people worldwide seem to fathom what I am currently doing. So, I get punk questions from every damn journalist because of the “black flag” in the title, but really the title just sat very well with me in my mind when I accidentally coined it. However, it’s great to talk about punk. I like both punk from the 60s like the Sonics up to the present days. I like metal from the 60s up to now too, so….let’s say [that Dark Thrones and Black Flags has a] 70% metal [to] 30% punk ratio. But that doesn’t mean there’s a lot of punk on this album, [there are] not many punk riffs, but our attitude, the way we work in the studio, [and] the studio too…now that’s punk! In short, there was more actual punk music on The Cult is Alive and Fuck Off And Die [generally abbreviated as F.O.A.D. for not-very-mysterious reasons – TB] albums. It seems that I’m making the speed, NWOBHM, rock, black and punk [ideas] and then Ted [Nocturno Culto] is there with some traditional heavy metal and doom/death riffs.

Many seem to view Dark Thrones and Black Flags as a direct continuation of F.O.A.D. Again, I think that this album is incorporating some elements into your music which are quite distinct, especially in terms of guitar and vocal melodies, but also in terms of the more “epic” atmosphere of many of the songs. Do you view these albums as closely related or as quite different entities?

I think we have been slowly moving back in time, down the road of [the history of the] kings of metal. So this was just a step further back in time, except for the album’s opening riff. If we were a retro band, I would never allow myself to use that riff. Anyway, people are sheep, it won’t matter. As the album covers [for F.O.A.D. and Dark Thrones and Black Flags] are in the same style, people will view them in the same way. No skin off of my nose. I have certainly begun to make use of several of my voices now. I have countless voices, as I discovered when I was doing vocals between 1987 and 1995 before I had a hiatus from doing vocals.

One of the things that I like best about Dark Thrones and Black Flags – and again, this causes me to recall the LPs of the early 80s – is that every song is different and has its own personality, but yet is still very much Darkthrone in its essence. During the songwriting process, did you spend much time working with Nocturno Culto to achieve this result, or was it just a happy coincidence?

No! We never work on those things! We are not control freaks! We make no plans, we are driven by a lot of coincidences, we have mega balls and dare to keep first takes, mistakes, and so on. This ends up sounding like a lo-fi role model for kids that constantly met the wall of click drums and Pro-Tools since fuckin’ 1991! I use a lot of energy trying to figure out which song ends up where on side B and A (that’s been one of my jobs always) but apart from that it’s pretty much gung ho and winging everything a lot! My entire life experience is used for this…and a lot of gut feeling.

What was it that compelled you and Nocturno Culto to start trading off on many of your duties, such as writing lyrics, singing, and so forth?

Well, we always had to play everything. We are just two and we know all the instruments. When Ted suggested we just buy our own portable studio, it was a new start for me because that is what we should have done in 1988 but we didn’t have money or time or anything. It was like one of those stories where you could choose the rest of the story [e.g. a “choose your own adventure” story – TB]. In 2005, it was sort of going back to 1988 for me and choosing another path. So I went wild and broke my chains! I changed the way that I wrote, [by which I] mean I wrote lyrics for the songs and not just poetry and leave it to Ted like I usually did before. So that meant I also knew how the singing should go and then I’d just do it myself because I hate teaching other people my stuff.

Tell me about the role of your studio, Necrohell 2, in terms of the following: a) your ability to achieve the production values that you desire and b) your ability to explore ideas and release albums at your current pace.

I leave it to Ted, then I can be sort of a fan of my own band more. If I took over the mixing I would just feel responsible and it would ruin a lot for me. For me, it is highly coincidental – just the way 99% of the underground stuff from the 1980s was done – many were not satisfied but it ensured that demos and underground albums had their own sound. Not like the 1990s when so much sounded the same. Since 2005, we just write a song each and then we record them. When we have thirty-five to forty minutes, then that’s an album. The current pace is nothing. In the early 1970s it was normal for bands to do two albums a year and tour at the same time. This is very smooth – just writing at our own pace. It’s like five songs a year. I wrote and recorded Transilvanian Hunger in two weeks!

When and why do you think that black metal, as a genre, “forgot” about its punk roots (or perhaps “pretended like it didn’t exist” would be more appropriate)? Over the course of the last few albums, was there any intention on your part to highlight the “forgotten” history of black metal as to its actual relation to punk?

Monotony was a reaction to the hectic 80s. Monotone started greatly with VON, Burzum continued [it and] other black metallers warped the style completely, but still with soul and an ugly sound. Then, people started thinking “Hey, what if we become progressive instead of primitive?” or “Hey, what if we play Transilvanian Hunger twice as fast with modern sound, synth and female vocals or a drum machine,” that’s when it turned to shit. The long passages of Burzum were copied by others but with a modern sound where everyone could start thinking about another line on top of the riffs themselves while others started filling it with synths…and BOOM, the punk was gone. Just giving some Venom or Hellhammer feeling ensures the punk [sound persists]. Or, listen to “Into the Crypt of Rays” [the first track from Celtic Frost’s Morbid Tales] and then explain to kids that this is actually 40% punk instead of what they think it is.

While watching the bonus live performance on Nocturno Culto’s The Misanthrope documentary taken from Darkthrone’s early days, I could not help but notice that “Thulcandra” was very similar – in sound and attitude – to Dark Thrones and Black Flags. Do you hear a similarity? I think that an argument could be advanced that this album, though generally taken as part of Darkthrone’s supposed departure from so-called “black metal,” is in fact a very direct return to your roots.

Correct! you just won your own weight in Mutilated’s “Psychodeath Lunatics” demo. Euronymous sold this to me when I visited his parents house in 1989. Actually, you are the first one I’ve heard saying and thinking this yourself. What I say is this: what we do now is what we would have done in 1988 if we had the skills, experience and knowledge. We had grown up in the 1970s, but in 1988 we were more into the recent past than now. I have hundreds and hundreds more releases from the 1980s now than I had then, but we get even more into the 1970s now than then. [However,] our core playing is always from the 1970s musicians. Me the drummers and Ted the guitarists from Judas Priest, Black Sabbath and also Alex [Lifeson] from Rush.

Is the character who has appeared on the covers of F.O.A.D. and Dark Thrones and Black Flags going to be a recurring figure a la Eddie? He reminds me a lot of the chainsaw-wielding figure on Slaughter’s Surrender or Die – was this an intentional homage?

I was expecting a lot of people spotting that, but again you are the first (that I recall) journalist that has brought the Slaughter dude to the table. Congratulations! You just won your own weight in original “I Hope You Die in a Hotel Fire” shirts with Righteous Pigs! Ted and me had to have a (very seldom) talk about this character and what he would look like. I said “Mohawk!” and he said “Helmet!” and so it was. Originally we wanted him to have lots of old patches like Rush and Manilla Road, but we found out that we would have major problems with rights and lawyers and all that shit, so I said “Butt that! Let’s just promote new and upcoming bands instead.” So we had the barbaric speed thrashers from Deathhammer on our first Mr. Necro [Evidently the name of the character – TB] and now Nocturnal on the new album. We are still excited about what I’ll pick for the next one, huh?

After many years of metal being dominated by bands that were more about studio perfection and showing off technical skills, it feels like there are more bands getting in tune with the older attitude and values. I have always viewed Darkthrone as seeking to represent this more general spirit rather than attempt to uphold some sort of artificial genre creation known as black metal. In some respects, I view the former as the “first wave” of black metal where the spirit coalesced and the latter as the “second wave” of black metal where the genre definition became rigid. Even though Darkthrone is associated with the Norwegian second wave, I have always viewed the band as more in tune with the first wave. I view this as at the heart of the problem that Darkthrone has encountered over the years – many fans associate the band with the (second wave) genre while the band associates itself with the (first wave) spirit. What is your take on this matter? Do you feel that the time and place at which Darkthrone achieved worldwide recognition has been both a gift and a curse?

Tell me about it!!! And it never ends. For ten years I was only sent demos copying various 1990s styles, but I have not been into those styles since 1992 for the most part. I liked Mayhem’s Live in Leipzig as it was very inspirational. I liked the riffs that Snorre [Ruch, aka. Blackthorn] and Euronymous made – the typical Norwegian black metal riffs – but when I made riffs “like that” it sounded more like a continuation of the simple “finger-moving” riffs that Quorthon did in 1987. I fused this with Celtic Frost on A Blaze In The Northern Sky and continued this style (although very inspired by other 1980s stuff like Destruction and first Vader demo) but my main take on any 1990s style was the monotony VON made in 1991 and Burzum continued. I quit that style in 1996, but I’d already lost faith in black metal in 1993 [as I watched it] becoming like the trend of death metal in 1991. I tried to learn from my mistake. Everyone who hung around my court in the 1990s knew that my heart was 98% in the 1980s black metal and thrash and whatnot. I had bands I liked in the 1990s which I don’t understand why I liked it at the time, but I was definitely not feeling at home after 1992 was over. The Helvete shop wasn’t open after late 1992 either. Many of the primitive bands started to play progressive while we had been progressive in 1989 to 1991 and had went completely the other way! We are still named as pioneers of the 1990s but I always felt – and said in most interviews – that we basically paid homage to Bathory and Celtic Frost / Hellhammer!

Back around the time of Ravishing Grimness, you discussed in an interview how the lyrics were written as something of a catharsis, as an attempt to release a pain that your mind had suppressed. When I look at the pictures and lyrics featured more recently, it appears that things have changed for you dramatically – either in terms of your personal life or your relationship to the lyrics that you write, or perhaps both.

I wrote (and walked, in the forest) myself out of a depression that struck in 1998 and lasted into the 2000s. Since 2003, I have worked every day to beat the partying lifestyle of Oslo. I stopped going out in May 2005. Back in 2003, I got into tenting and I never looked back. I am known in the forest scene in Oslo. There are 1560 square kilometres of forest, so I do a lot of work for it and I have been in many magazines, written newspaper articles (also one chronicle with my friend, the ecology professor Mikael Ohlson), had a television special titled “Nrk ut i naturen – nærturer.” Year by year, I have fought myself into a better frame of mind and life.

Then Oscar from Old helped me to realize that it was a new and fresh underground in the 2000s with kids playing barbaric 1980s metal again instead of boring 1990s black metal copies. I have been a part of that [scene] since 2004, working more with trading and networking now than in my prime underground years of 1987 through 1989. I strive against that trend of those modern metal bands [whereby they] basically listen only to their old stuff or to the bands they tour with. They have lost and they don’t even know it yet.

I have involved myself in our metal world singing about what is great and not-so-great, maybe inspired by Judge. I was always into NYHC [New York Hardcore], and it is my favourite music to listen to when strength training – but Judge takes the cake. I write about my life and my experiences, much like Lemmy did when he kickstarted Motorhead. Remember, he did that when he was 30, not a youngster. That’s why his lyrics have a lot of natural authority. I am not saying my street lyrics will be classic, but I sure as fuck burn for what I sing about.

For many years, Darkthrone’s public presence was what could only be described as “conspicuously absent.” By this I mean that, despite the band’s intentions to the contrary, the limited interviews and photographs generated as much if not more discussion than would have been the case had Darkthrone been more visible. How do you feel that Darkthrone’s more recent decision to do more interviews, more openly discuss topics once considered off-limits, publish more photographs, and even release its own documentary, has changed the public perception of the band?

My freedom has been gained! I break the chains like the 1980s told us to – Cro-Mags, Omen, Thor for chrissakes!. I think, as usual, the question is perfect. I can only add to it with my angle. What I can say is I don’t know the public perception of the band. I can only see it from the inside and you all can only see it from the outside! “It’s the curse of love” – that’s a deep AC/DC reference.

Of the more than one thousand interviews I ever gave in my time, you are clearly the one that has understood most.

Dear sir, let me finish off with a list of active bands I support these days: Hellish Crossfire, Enslaved, Hellrealm, Chemikiller, Banished Forced, Slogstorm, Blüdwülf, Death Beast, War Crimes, Bastardator, Creep Colony, Tyrant Sweden, Nattefrost, Corrupt, World Burns To Death, Nekromantheon, Enforcer Sweden, Nocturnal, Jex Thoth, Deathroner, Sonic Ritual, Mäniac, Morne, Alpha Centauri, Demon’s Gate, Doomed Beast, Resistance, Karnax, Evil Army, Witch Usa, Virus Norway, Aura Noir, Orcustus, Lonewolf, The Devil’s Blood, Farscape, Vomitor, Old, Deathhammer, Em Ruinas, Salute, The Batallion, Zemial, Gasmask Terrör, Eidomantum, Portrait and so on.

And so it goes. Rally ‘round the black flag. Darkthrone, unholy dark thrones.

(This article was originally printed in the final issue of Unrestrained! Magazine, issue #39. Said issue was only made available as a PDF off of the Unrestrained site after the unfortunate death of Adrian Bromley. If you would like to read the rest of the issue, please go to http://www.unrestrainedmag.com to download the issue in its entirety)

Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.