DARKTHRONE are icons of thier genre, having performed their own brand of Norwegian extreme metal under the name since the release of A Blaze in the Northern Sky in 1992. Like many bands who have provided contributions to music that span the decades, DARKTHRONE have found themselves drifting across the sub-genres and bringing their shadowy presence with them.
The album commences in a completely unexpected way. DARKTHRONE’s earlier work fulfils the black metal stereotypes with their fuzzy recording quality and long atmospheric musical progressions. Surprisingly, Tundra Leech kicks off with rocky, defined riffs and aside from the rasping vocals, doesn’t really sound like black metal whatsoever. Instead of mesmerisingly haunting musical journeys, rhythmic headbanging seems to be the overall focus. And for the opening track at least, this seems to work very well. As the album proceeds, it can certainly be heard that the band are attempting to experiment with adapting aspects of black metal with other styles of rock music. Burial Bliss unfortunately sounds like a more run-of-the-mill rock song that happens to have a vocal croak forced upon it. They can’t be blamed for trying, but the fun live performance rhythms of hard rock don’t necessarily lend themselves to the painful aggression found in the vocals which lead.
A far better example of their attempts in this black metal/rock and roll fusion are found in Boreal Fiends. Black metal is only at its best when given time and patience to build its icy grip on the listener and this track actually begins to allow for it. Echoing tremolo notes suspend the listener in a chilling atmosphere that actually does require some patience to achieve which is why this track stands out as a greater success than its previous ones. Once this setting has been achieved, DARKTHRONE then go about throwing in the mid-tempo rock and roll influences as a contrast. Having had time to process which direction the band are trying to lead their music, it appears that this blend of genres can come off well, but they are certainly treading a fine line between expanding in a new direction and desperately trying to look for a new gimmick.
The title track is undoubtedly strong, sharing similarities with early METALLICA songs. It is the kind of music you would expect to be performed in grand stadiums with thousands of fans headbanging together in unison. Guitars, drums and bass all hammer together wonderfully and provide a heavy rhythmic kick that blasts through the speakers. Such music should be fronted by a bellowing, charismatic vocalist which seems to be the primary downfall here. Perhaps if DARKTHRONE were willing to drift from their traditional black metal sound enough to fully commit to this new style, it would be a triumph. There are undoubtedly some interesting riffs dotted throughout this album, though it generally seems a little directionless at times.
Vocal shrieks are mono-tonal and rely on a certain power that for the most part is absent here. Traditional black metal music would compliment them better and powerful, cleaner vocal styles would work more effectively with the rhythm section’s performance. This contrast causes the album to be constantly feeling like it is chasing the sweet spot between the two, which in all fairness is very good when it does occur. Deep lake trespass provides this sweet spot nicely and should certainly be considered a highlight of Arctic Thunder, it lays the framework of a solid direction down before experimenting with other ideas. Those all-important “lose yourself in the music” moments do present themselves at times too, and the atmosphere certainly presents itself to be appreciated for the duration that the band retain it.
The Wyoming Distance is the finale of Arctic Thunder and is as rhythmically strong as many of the other tracks are but unfortunately fails to achieve the “blown away” effect that any heavy metal album should boast. None of this album is particularly weak, as DARKTHRONE are obviously talented and have a wealth of great ideas stored up. It just appears that some unusual musical decisions have restrained them from achieving their full musical potential.
Arctic Thunder is out now via Peaceville Records.
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