Friday, September 18, 2009

Darkthrone - Ravishing Grimness (1999)

By the mid-90s, the members of Darkthrone appeared to be very much burned out on creating music. Fenriz, in particular, had been associated with a variety of projects and seemed worn out. After the disappointing release of Total Death, in 1996, it looked like Darkthrone was history. Yet, a couple years later, they reappeared. They also began doing a great number of interviews, which was quite rare for them. It was around this time that they decided to begin the process of killing off the mystique that had surrounded the band for so many years. Many were shocked as Fenriz even went so far as to display that he had a sense of humour in these interviews. It also appeared that, by this time, the band members were quite aware of the impact that they had on the Black Metal scene. One could speculate that this consciousness had some influence on their decision to alter the sound, to the extent that they did. While the previous album was extremely flawed and paled in comparison to the earlier ones, it was Ravishing Grimness that ushered in the second era of Darkthrone.

Released in March 1999, Ravishing Grimness was born into a musical world where Black Metal had seen some severe changes. The cookie-cutter symphonic bands, busy ripping off Emperor and Satyricon, were everywhere. Record labels, such as Metal Blade and Nuclear Blast, were signing them as quickly as they could in an effort to cash in on the new trend. It was a foul time for Black Metal purists. However, that isn't to say that the art form was totally dead; the real Black Metal bands were simply laying low. They were a little harder to find, for the most part, but they were still there. Darkthrone became the symbol of the old guard rearing its ugly head to show the world what real grim and nasty Black Metal was all about. It's quite unfortunate that the album was much more mediocre than expected.

"Lifeless" starts with some strange sound effect before the song really begins. Immediately, there is a problem. Nocturno Culto has stated, in later interviews, that he didn't approve of the slower drumming style that Fenriz utilized on some songs, as he meant for these to be a lot faster. One can easily imagine the main riff from this song fitting onto one of the older albums, if only Fenriz has sped up the drums. There was still room for the slower section, but he certainly ruined the earlier part by being lazy behind the kit. The sound effects that began the track occur again, only irritating the listener. The slower section does have an ugly and grim feeling. The title of the album is certainly dead on. However, one gets the feeling that it could have been better. Vocally, Nocturno Culto does a bloody good job of maintaining the dark and evil feeling he is known for, being one of the highlights of the record. Again, near the end, the drums kill the feeling of the song. It does speed up, but not in the manner that one might expect Nocturno Culto had in mind when he sent Fenriz these riffs. Had the opening and closing moments of the song featured a faster beat, reminiscent of "Natassja in Eternal Sleep" or "Transilvanian Hunger", it would have sounded more natural and been more pleasing to the ear.

The next song is "The Beast", which takes a completely different approach and takes a sharp left turn with regard to atmosphere. In fact, there really is none. This is pure Hellhammer worship, which clearly marks it as one of Fenriz's songs. The concept of each member bringing songs to the table and neither being able to veto the inclusion of certain material seems to fail, here, as this really does not fit in with the rest and would be better suited for a Motörhead record than for Darkthrone. The song isn't horrible, just that it does not fit the overall mood of this album. Still, one has to respect the band for keeping true to its old school roots, rather than following the trends that were popular at the time. Later in the song, there is a bit of Celtic Frost influence, but not done quite as well as in the past, on songs like "In the Shadow of the Horns" and "The Hordes of Nebulah".

"The Claws of Time" is another strong example of Fenriz ruining the song with his lazy drumming approach. For whatever reason, there was a disconnect between the two members, as Nocturno Culto has made it obvious that it was only after this album that he began to insist on certain drumming speeds for the riffs he created. At this point, they weren't even rehearsing together, so it's no surprise that some things fell victim to miscommunication. The main riff is incredibly mournful and the best of the entire album, but it lacks any punch since Fenriz is asleep behind the drum kit. This riff would not be out of place on Transilvanian Hunger or Panzerfaust, had not Mr. Nagell been trying out different things. As it is, the song isn't bad; the problem is that one can tell that it had the potential to be much better. This is only made worse by Nocturno Culto's later admission. The song does drag on, having a few less impressive riffs tossed in as well. Despite its drawbacks, this is one of the better tunes on the album and does well to convey a dark and miserable atmosphere.

Next up is "Across the Vacuum", which starts out with a riff that one might attribute to Fenriz, but it seems Nocturno Culto had also given a few extra listens to Apocalyptic Raids, prior to writing this material, allowing it to seep into the songwriting a bit. However, this is actually a rather dynamic track, with a lot of variation in the riffs. Some of the guitar melodies are really good, actually, though the cleaner production works against them, somewhat. Fenriz almost foreshadows the Bathory influence that appears later in the song with the more primitive drumming utilized, here. In fact, there are a couple different riffs that hearken back to the classic days of Bathory, with the faster part truly taking the listener back to 1985 and reliving the glory of The Return...

"Ravishing Grimness" is the best song on the album, by far. Again, it opens with a fast tremolo riff that would have been better accentuated with a different drum beat, but it actually transitions into the next riff better this way. Though one could argue that the next riff would also have benefited from a faster drum beat, but it all works out a lot better on this song and is sort of reminiscent of early Burzum with its more simplistic approach. Once one gives up the hope that they will revert to the formula used on Transilvanian Hunger, this is quite enjoyable. The tremolo melodies are very memorable, Nocturno Culto's vocals are just right and the whole track is very cohesive. About half-way through, it slows down and one gets the feeling of being dragged into the endless graveyard. The funeral bell chimes in the distance, adding to the morbid atmosphere. Corpses rise from their graves, tearing at your limbs as the moon casts its pale light down on this grim spectacle. This is followed by another Bathory-inspired riff, maintaining the gloomy feeling. The pace then speeds back up, as the main riff returns. This one song is worth the price of the album, as it truly lives up to its title.

"For this I'll burn in Hell, for sure"

The album ends with "To the Death (Under the King)", which is a faster-paced song with a total old Bathory vibe. The drumming is a little awkward, at times, not fully matching the guitar riffs. The more primitive battery turns out to be much more suiting than some of the other choices. Nonetheless, this is one of the better songs on the album, though it would have worked better with more of a necro production. This song is also the only one to feature any Norwegian lyrics, albeit only one line. Finally, near the end of the track, the drumming picks up and they end on a riff that is more reminiscent of Under A Funeral Moon or Transilvanian Hunger.

"What if death can't set me free"

Ravishing Grimness is not only the rebirth of Darkthrone, in a sense, it also represents a lengthy period of transition for the band. While Nocturno Culto was content to continue writing riffs that would have suited the earlier output of the band, Fenriz was determined to slow things down and drown this creativity with conflicting influences. This album is equal with Total Death, really. They both exhibit moments where they could have improved and given us something spectacular, only to come up short. Overall, the record possesses several nice riffs, but they're rarely realized to their full potential due to the ill-conceived percussion. With that said, the title track is very good and worth the trouble of seeking this out.