‘High notes haven’t sounded so good since Angel of Death’ says MacDara Conroy of Darkthrone‘s The Underground Resistance
If you’ve seen the black metal documentary Until The Light Takes Us, you’ll surely be familiar with the character that is Gylve ‘Fenriz’ Nagell: drummer, vocalist and the public face of Norwegian black metal OGs Darkthrone. With his straggly hair and wispy beard, cut-off T-shirt and sleeve tattoos, he looks ever the average Fibbers regular, and nothing at all like the corpse-painted ghoul on the cover of Transilvanian Hunger. Then again, he did once style himself as rock’n’roll cowboy Hank Amarillo (see their death metal debut Soulside Journey for proof) so it can’t be that surprising.
Once a key participant in the ‘second wave’ of black metal that emerged in Norway in the early 1990s, Darkthrone long ago put down the tag-team make-up and dodgy politics of their so-called ‘Unholy Trinity’ (A Blaze in the Northern Sky, Under a Funeral Moon and Transilvanian Hunger, the latter with lyrics and ideological influence by convicted killer and notorious anti-Semite Varg Vikernes). And the band – a duo since 1994 – even started to abandon the black metal style that made them infamous with 2005’s The Cult Is Alive, making room in their sound for influences like punk, thrash and NWOBHM that were always there in the background, but well hidden by the second wavers’ severe aesthetic austerity.
The Underground Resistance – with bellicose Viking cover art by Ireland’s own Jim Fitzpatrick – marks another transitional period for the band. Whereas The Cult Is Alive served up the duo’s crust-via-Celtic Frost leanings with heavy lashings of their previous trademark blackness, something to sweeten the pill before the full-on punk-metal platters that followed (FOAD, Dark Thrones and Black Flags, and Circle the Wagons), The Underground Resistance splits the difference between that Motörhead-damaged sound and some blatant mid-1980s speed metal worship of the kind that was only hinted at on its predecessor. And the results are surprisingly, rockingly good.
Things get off to a thrashingly good start with ‘Dead Early’, which could be a long-lost outtake from Ride the Lightning if it weren’t for Nocturno Culto’s guttural growl in the place of that Hetfield wail. Culto’s other efforts on this record – ‘Lesser Men’ and ‘Come Warfare, The Entire Doom’ – tread more or less the same territory but they’re played with such sincere feeling that it’d be churlish to complain about any lack of originality. In fact, that’s the real difference Darkthrone have made here, apart from the rough yet meaty production: it’s the palpable good vibes this music radiates, in spite of those fittingly evil song titles and lyrical concerns. It’s music far more befitting that affable sort followed by the cameras in Until The Light Takes Us, with his adolescent enthusiasm and chirpy phone manner. It’s metal that brings a smile to your face.
That good feeling is expressed greater still on the drummer’s share of this six-track platter. After an introductory dirge, ‘Valkyrie’ slams hard on the gas and things get all Mercyful Fate as Fenriz lets out his inner King Diamond. It’s a pretty glorious thing. Even more glorious is the fist-raising anthem ‘The Ones You Left Behind’, with Fenriz bellowing theatrically above the driving guitars and insistent rhythm. And then there’s the stupendous 14-minute album closer ‘Leave No Cross Unturned’ – a song even Fenriz doesn’t have the patience for, and he wrote the bloody thing! But it’s really a triumph that blends together the record’s key influences (American punk-inflected thrash and European heavy metal) into a supremely catchy riff monster that alternately drives and swings, replete with squealy solos, Culto’s grunts and Fenriz’s fantastic vocal histrionics. High notes haven’t sounded so good since ‘Angel of Death’.
From the first track to the last, The Underground Resistance is an unabashed fan letter to metal, as Darkthrone enter what’s arguably their fourth era with vigour and vitality renewed.