In 1991, while working on their second album for Peaceville Records, Darkthrone abandoned the path that had been cleared for them and wandered into the desolate forests. They achieved a decent amount of success with their debut album, Soulside Journey, and they were soon to follow it up with another brilliant Death Metal album. Truth be told, as a Death Metal band, they crushed the majority of their peers in Scandinavia. However, three of the four members felt that a change was needed. Inspired by the ancient ones that had gone before them, such as Bathory, Hellhammer/Celtic Frost and Mayhem, they scrapped the material for the Goatlord album and began creating something primitive and dark.
From the frozen landscape of the bitter cold Northland, A Blaze in the Northern Sky took the metal world by surprise. It met with some resistance, before it was even released. Bassist, Dag Nilsen, was not pleased with the change in musical direction and was unceremoniously expelled from the band. However, since he did have a hand in the songwriting, to some degree, the other members felt that it was only right that he play on the album as a session musician. Once it was completed, Peaceville seemed displeased in what they heard, since they were expecting a Death Metal album. They showed no understanding of Black Metal and wanted the album to be remixed because it wasn't heavy enough. Even the aesthetics were completely different. Rather than a painting for the cover, they used a grim photo of Zephyrous in the cemetery, during one of their nocturnal rituals. Real names had been abandoned in favor of pseudonyms. Perhaps taking inspiration from Dead, who had killed himself just months earlier, they now wore corpsepaint. They were no longer the Death Metal band that Peaceville had initially signed. Darkthrone remained firm in their convictions and knew that if Peaceville didn't want to release the album, they could fall back on Euronymous and his label, Deathlike Silence Productions. Not wanting to lose a recently signed band to some tiny label, Peaceville agreed to release the album as it was, and the second wave of Black Metal was officially unleashed.
The album begins with "Kathaarian Life Code". The intro starts out with a low drone, and a thundering bass drum, followed by a slow and ominous chanting in the background. The atmosphere that is created by this has to be heard to be truly understood, words do not do this justice. Soon after Fenriz’s tortured vocals come in over this in something of a spoken word form, filled with hate, yet giving the impression that he is being strangled.
The song erupts with furious violence, guitars extremely fuzzy, drums creating a violent wall of sound. It is quite reminiscent Vader's Necrolust demo. As for the vocals, Nocturno Culto emits some of the most demonic sounds ever recorded. He sounds possessed by the forces of evil. His vocals are much more raspy and grim than on the previous album. The song does not maintain the fury for too long before going into a more mid-paced Celtic Frost-inspired riff. The tempo changes aid in ensuring that such a lengthy song never becomes repetitive. Already, one gets the feeling that this could have, easily, been released five years earlier. This is total primitive Black Metal, the way it was meant to be. The final guitar melody of the song is about as cold as it gets.
"In the Shadow of the Horns" is next, and this continues the Celtic Frost worship. But this is much uglier than anything on Morbid Tales. The brief solos on this album remind me a bit of some old Bathory, though Nocturno Culto says he was greatly influenced by Death's Scream Bloody Gore. However, that may have been only in regard to Soulside Journey. The song really shows its brilliance as it speeds up, with the tremolo riffs and blasting drums accompanying Nocturno Culto as he channeled the voice of the night, itself. Most people really enjoy the mid-paced parts, but I think the fast melody is the best part. Late in the song, an acoustic guitar is played over everything else, and the effect is perfect.
"Paragon Belial" opens with riffs worthy of an old Bathory release. Not long into the song, riffs from the aborted Goatlord session bleed in. They try their best to play these horror Death Metal riffs in a Black Metal style, but they certainly stick out. However, the later part of the song more than makes up for this, with a somewhat mournful and epic vibe taking over. As the song slows down, Nocturno Culto's tortured voice howls:
"My flesh yearns...for the tombworld."
The slow, somber riffs that end this song are very memorable and create a dark and gloomy atmosphere. It feels like a good song to die to.
"Where Cold Winds Blow" is another fast, freezing cold Black Metal song. The main riff seems to have the purpose of hypnotizing the listener and preparing them to be possessed. As the tempo changes from blistering fast to somewhat mid-paced, the hatred in Nocturno Culto's vocals flows out like venom. Musically, there is a strong Bathory and Mayhem influence on this song, with this track best representing the sound that would soon become identified with the Norwegian scene. As the pace picks up a bit, the melody is very memorable and inspires one with a sense of dread, before the thundering drums and droning guitars return. There are a few instances where the guitars are left alone, with no drumming or vocals, which does well to really convey a sense of frozen solitude. So far, this album isn't just paying homage to the old Black Metal bands, it's killing them slowly while setting a new standard.
The title track continues in much the same fashion, opening with a venomous fury before settling into a Bathory-esque mid-paced Black Metal riff. That's not to say that the album is nothing but Bathory and Celtic Frost worship. They take a good deal of influence from the old bands, while also infusing that with their own creative direction, which is what makes this album so special. This song already existed during the Goatlord sessions, but it was adapted for this album with the Black Metal opening. The slow melody, near the middle, creates a dark and eerie feeling as a morbid voice calls out:
"The next thousand years are OURS!"
The song ends with a perfectly placed guitar solo, which adds to the atmosphere. The end is near.
"The Pagan Winter" brings things to a proper conclusion, starting with a bitter dismal riff that has a gloomy feeling, before transitioning to something more inspired by Bathory. Brilliant, freezing cold melodies, perfectly timed tempo changes, excellent vocals and a hellish guitar solo make this quite a memorable song and a good way to end the album. This song possesses an epic feeling and produces mental images of traveling through a desolate wintry landscape, in the light of the full moon, on the way toward a cold grave. The Celtic Frost riffs near the end are well done, also.
The ominous chant that began the album now returns, thus ending this masterpiece of Norwegian Black Metal. While Mayhem, Burzum and Immortal were all working on albums, Darkthrone was the first to release anything and were responsible for unleashing the fury from the north that would soon spread across the world, like an ancient plague.