Sunday, September 7, 2008

Darkthrone - Transilvanian Hunger (1994)

In the Winter months of 1996/1997, I learned of a college radio show that played Black, Death and Doom Metal, called "The Haunted Mansion". I listened to this show, regularly, and recorded lot of music. It was on a dismal Winter night that I heard my first Darkthrone song, "Over Fjell og Gjennom Torner". It was unlike anything I had ever heard. At this point, the darkest music I listened to was old Slayer, Hellhammer and Venom. None of the Death Metal I was listening to at the time, such as Altars of Madness by Morbid Angel, came anywhere close. This was something altogether different. After two and a half minutes, the song ended just as abruptly as it began. In those two and a half minutes, I was changed forever. Musically, I had lived a very sheltered existence. With this one song, the walls crumbled and I was left in the fiery abyss, alone in the light of the flames. I didn't fully comprehend what just happened, but I kept going back to the tape and I listened to the song again and again.

Some time later, one October night, I acquired Transilvanian Hunger on cassette. The first time I listened to this masterpiece, the experience was quite similar to when I'd heard that first song. The music was bleak and minimal. The Necrohell production job was shocking. The odd silences between the songs built tension. The hypnotic melodies filled my mind with visions of a Medieval castle deep within the frozen forest, inhabited by a creature of darkness, lusting for the blood of mortals. I listened to this tape over and over again, all night. The sorrowful melodies and despairing vocals continued to haunt me, long after the cassette had been put away. Each day, I went back to it and had to listen to it as many times as I possibly could. Never before or since has an album had such a profound effect on me.

The year was 1993. Within the span of a few months, Under A Funeral Moon was released, Burzum released Det Som Engang Var, Mayhem completed recording of De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, Euronymous was murdered and Varg Vikernes went behind bars for murder and church arson. Into the Autumn months, Immortal released Pure Holocaust and Darkthrone went into Necrohell Studio to record Transilvanian Hunger.

Transilvanian Hunger forever remains Darkthrone's ultimate masterpiece and one of the strongest Black Metal albums ever recorded, Norwegian or otherwise. It is the single most influential record from this entire subgenre. The all embracing minimalism and hatred evoked on the album has made it the definitive work of any Black Metal band and has inspired legions of followers to try, in vain, to recapture the black magic of this grim art. With Transilvanian Hunger, Darkthrone reached the level or progression (or regression) that they had been seeking since embarking on the dark path that they had taken in 1991. Everything that Under A Funeral Moon was striving to be was captured here.

Realizing that which many others seem to miss, Fenriz embraced pure minimalism in his drumming technique, resorting to fills only when absolutely necessary; filling almost every song with simplistic, pulsing drumbeats, continuously alternating bass and snare. The fact that the drums are so low in the mix also helps to enhance this atmosphere, creating a much more internal, visceral feeling. The real key to this album is the guitar work. The guitar melodies are the most important thing. The dark and sorrowful harmonies stand out, and convey a depressing and hateful feeling. Riff-wise, this may be one of the most important albums for Black Metal. Needless to say, it's minimalist; a series of notes will revolve around one chord for any given amount of time, before switching to another riff of the same nature. All of the playing is based upon mid-paced, tremolo-picked chords. However, each song has its own identity.

The title track remains one of the greatest Black Metal songs ever created. It takes the listener on a journey through cold mountains and forests of Transilvania, toward an evil castle to face the dreadful bloodlust of the morbid count. The imagery created is that of cold stone walls, torches lighting the shadowy halls, bats and cobwebs. This is pure horror, yet it feels all too real. As with most music, this is best when listened to in the dark, illuminated only by the light of candles. The song is indicative of the whole album, creating a freezing atmosphere of darkness and sorrow.

"Over Fjell og Gjennom Torner" is the shortest song on the album, but it is just as memorable as the rest. It is doubtful that any other band could create such an epic feeling with so few riffs and such little time, but Darkthrone achieved this with no problem. Despite sounding hateful and evil on the first song, Nocturno Culto's vocals sound even more sinister reciting the Norwegian lyrics.

"Skald Av Satans Sol" is noticeably different from the first two songs, and yet the same. Words can hardly do justice to the brilliance contained here. The guitar work here is absolutely perfect and the vocals could not have been done better. There's even a brief solo at the end of the song, before everything fades to white noise.

"Slottet I Det Fjerne" is next and features the most sorrowful melodies on the whole album. The title translates to "Castle in the Distance" and the song tells the tale of blind people living in joy and peace, unknowing the dark fate that awaits them and the torment that they will soon suffer. From the grim shadows, the dark ones are consumed with hatred for these people and await the time when they shall rejoice in their pain.

"Graven Tåkeheimens Saler" is next and it is no less impressive than the previous song. The freezing harmonies and spiteful vocals tell a tale, written by Varg Vikernes, filled with sorrow and inspired by Norse mythology. Since he was incarcerated, Darkthrone allowed Varg to contribute lyrics to their album as a means of letting him speak from beyond, so to speak.

"I En Hall Med Flesk Og Mjød" is very straightforward, yet contains one of the few changes in tempo, throughout the whole album. A slight bit of Hellhammer influence creeps in, briefly. Up until this point, their influences were much less pronounced than on A Blaze in the Northern Sky or Under A Funeral Moon. The style on Transilvanian Hunger is all Darkthrone.

The next song is very repetitive, droning and hypnotic. "As Flittermice As Satans Spys" seems to take the idea that was attempted with "Inn I De Dype Skogers Favn" and perfected it. There is no lack of inspiration or feeling here. This song creates a lot of tension as the album is heading toward its inevitable end. The bitter cold harmonies freeze the very blood in your veins.

"Unholy he who burned the face of god...with the eye of our master."

At the end of the song is a back ward message that says, "In the name of god, let the churches burn."

"En Ås I Dype Skogen" is tied with "Transilvanian Hunger" as the best song on this record. Sometimes, it is difficult to decide on a favorite song, but this one contains my favorite riffs and vocal lines on the whole album. Much like the rest of the album, the song is fast-paced. The melodies are mournful and cold. The tension from the previous song has carried over and has continued to build up to the climax of the entire album, as the song progresses. At this point, the cold steel is pressed against your flesh, waiting... just waiting. The time is near. The melody continues and the blade begins to penetrate your skin. The moment is now at hand to be released, to open your veins. A possessed scream is followed by the line:

"...ut av den dype skogen."

The blood flows from your veins and turns the snow red. The song winds down. Your spirit has been released and is now free to wander the endless depths of the forest. It's all over, and you will never be the same again...