Saturday, February 7, 2009

Darkthrone - Total Death (1996)

In late 1993, Darkthrone recorded Transilvanian Hunger, to be released in the early Winter months of 1994. This album saw the band reach their creative peak. This was the sound that they had been striving for. Once that classic album was finished, it became somewhat of a problem for Nocturno Culto and Fenriz. They had created a masterpiece of cold, minimalist Black Metal; it was untouchable, even by those that gave it birth. On the following album, they employed this style on only two songs, preferring to go the route of emulating Celtic Frost. Perhaps, the creative atmosphere that surrounded the Norwegian scene, in the early 90s, faded a bit after the death of Euronymous, the imprisonment of Varg Vikernes (thus eliminating Mayhem and Burzum from the scene) and the media attention that followed. Of course, Fenriz had also been working on several projects throughout this time, so it would appear that he was running low on energy and motivation.

Total Death is the sixth full-length album from Darkthrone. It was recorded in the Ancient Spectre Ruins, in August and October 1995, and is the second album released on Moonfog Productions. There is a lot that can be said about this album. Whereas Panzerfaust did not exactly belong to the 'Unholy Trinity', it was still joined to that era. The fact that, like Transilvanian Hunger, it was recorded in Necrohell Studio helped to link them. This album, however, seems to be when Darkthrone made their first misstep. They even allowed others to write lyrics for the album. Perhaps, this was an attempt to 'bring the scene together' but maybe it was just a lack of creativity by Fenriz, who was very burnt out at this point.

"Earth's Last Picture" starts things out rather strong. It is one of the most solid tracks on here. It begins with a very memorable riff that is reminiscent of Bathory, later incorporating a bit of Hellhammer / Celtic Frost worship, as well. Immediately, you notice the 'softer' production. The guitar sound is very smooth, with the bass being too audible. Nocturno Culto's vocals are actually the highlight, as the effect here is very similar to what he achieved on A Blaze in the Northern Sky. That is very fitting, as the latter half of the track sounds like something from that L.P. as well. There isn't enough treble to the recording, which makes the guitars less sharp and takes away from the cold feeling that Darkthrone is known for. This song is very mid-paced and, somewhat, relaxed throughout the first minutes. Everything then gets silent as a lone tremolo riff cuts through the darkness, accompanied by faster drums from Fenriz. The riff has a sorrowful quality and the vocals really add to this feeling. This is actually a good song, but the weak production is very detrimental to the atmosphere that they are trying to create.

"Blackwinged" is another song that shows an increased level of diversity in riffs and tempos. It possesses a good amount of faster melodies, but still retains an obvious Celtic Frost influence. Again, not a bad effort, but the production really kills this. Had this been recorded in Necrohell, there is no doubt that the whole album would sound fine, though probably less inspired than previous works. There is nothing, at all, raw about the sound found on this album.

The next song is "Gather For Attack on the Pearly Gates". This features the minimalist drumming and fast tremolo riffs that Darkthrone came to be known for. Nocturno Culto's vocals are incredibly flawless (probably the best thing about the whole album). The riffs are cold and grim, and this would easily fit on Transilvanian Hunger. Material like this was simply begging for more of a raw sound. Even the volume is too low, which is quite odd. This would sound much more appropriate with more treble and less bass. The faster Bathory-inspired riffs are interrupted by brief sections that are reminiscent of Hellhammer, adding another dimension to the overall sound. Thankfully, this element was not expanded in any way as to detract from the primary guitar harmonies.

"Black Victory of Death" is the band's first foray into the black n' roll style. This seems kind of out of place, belonging more to a release like Satanic Rites or Apocalyptic Raids, which is not most people were wanting from Fenriz and Nocturno Culto, at this point. The percussion is uninspired and this song is rather boring. They did much better tributes to Celtic Frost, in previous years, with songs like "In the Shadow of the Horns" and "The Hordes of Nebulah".

The next song is "Majestic Desolate Eye". The second half of the album was recorded during a different session and, amazingly, the production is even worse for these songs. The inconsistency is not limited to the sound, but also characterizes much of the music. After a minute or so, things speed up, though the atmosphere is still a bit off for Darkthrone. Some of the riffs sound similar to those found on Onslaught's Power from Hell. This song is mediocre, at best, and really does no favours for this album. Thankfully, this song is pretty short.

"Blasphemer" is another track that does not really belong here. Songs like this give Total Death more the feeling of being a collection of tunes, rather than a cohesive album. It is not all that bad, but this would fit better on an Aura Noir album. This is pure thrash, owing much more to Destruction than to the band's typical influences. This might not sound so horrible, yet the awful production drains this of energy. This could not sound less threatening than it does. Maybe, with the same production as Kreator's Endless Pain, this would be a decent Black/Thrash song.

"Ravnajuv" is the highlight of this album. Truly, if this had been recorded at Necrohell, it would have fit in quite well with the material on Transilvanian Hunger or maybe better on Panzerfaust. This is the only song on the album to feature Norwegian lyrics. The tremolo strumming creates freezing cold melodies that embrace you in the darkest night. There is a really gloomy feeling that is conveyed by the guitar harmonies in this song, something that is largely absent throughout the rest of the album. The drumming is perfectly done, with Fenriz remembering that less is more. Nocturno Culto's vocals sound absolutely perfect. Sadly, after a few minutes, even this song has to slow down and degenerate into something different. Apparently, they can't even get one song completely right.

The album ends, mercifully, with "The Serpents Harvest". This begins with slower riffs that possess the type of nasty sound heard on some old Mayhem tracks, just with more of a doom feel. After a minute or so, the tempo picks up and sounds like something from Bathory's The Return... Everything from the guitars to the drumming gives the feeling that you have traveled back to 1985. About halfway through the track, a sorrowful tremolo melody is introduced, with faster percussion underneath. This riff would have been better saved for another song, as it is completely out of place, here. The slower riffs returns, after a minute or two, but the song has lost its reason by this point. As it nears its conclusion, a haunting guitar solo rises from the rotten graves as the music fades into oblivion.

Total Death is an album that was ruined by horridly weak production and inconsistent songwriting. It is clear that these guys were burnt-out and needed some time to regroup. This really should have been an E.P., if anything, with "Earth's Last Picture", "Gather For Attack on the Pearly Gates" (only the faster parts), "Ravnajuv" (minus the mid-paced stuff at the end), and "The Serpents Harvest" (with more focus on the old school Bathory vibe). As it stands, this is one of the weakest Darkthrone records, ever. Avoid this, if possible.