Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Darkthrone - Circle the Wagons (2010)

In early 2010, news came that Darkthrone would soon release their 15th studio album. In recent months, fellow Norwegian bands such as Gorgoroth and Immortal had released decent albums, and most in the Black Metal scene were eagerly anticipating the new Burzum record, as well. Coming on the heels of Belus, Circle the Wagons was already at somewhat of a disadvantage. However, it was also very off-putting right out of the gate.

Over time, many people had grown to accept Darkthrone's musical direction, whether they liked it or not. Personally, I slowly warmed up to the later albums and began to appreciate what they were doing. After Dark Thrones and Black Flags, I was really looking forward to the follow-up album. Yet when I first saw the album cover and some of the song titles, I was scratching my head and wondering what the hell had gotten into Nocturno Culto and Fenriz. Why would a Norwegian Black Metal band utilize Native American imagery? It has nothing to do with Metal, of any kind, and is certainly beyond the realm of what one would expect from a Scandinavian band. It may seem petty, but this alone made me a little reluctant to give the album a chance.

Eventually, I forced myself to listen to it and see what it had to offer. Strangely, as with some of the band's recent output, it was a little difficult to listen to. It has nothing to do with the quality of the music, since they have really put a lot of effort into these releases. However, they do such a good job of hearkening back to the old days that, after one of two spins, I'm overcome by the urge to go listen to old school records instead. In a sense, this seems to have been one of the intentions behind all of their records. In early interviews, they would claim that they needed to make a certain record just to get people to go back and give their attention to the old Bathory and Hellhammer / Celtic Frost albums. The difference now is that their inspirations are much more varied, at this point. On the video that accompanied the limited edition, they made clear which albums were essential to the recording of Circle the Wagons, including records from Agent Steel, English Dogs, Nuclear Assault, Puke and Motörhead. The thing is that it's not always as overt as what they had done in the past, and a lot of the influences are worked in more subtly.

Right from the beginning of "Those Treasures Will Never Befall You", it is evident that the band has picked up right where they left off with the previous album. The music is raw and energetic, with a really organic sound. Recorded at Necrohell II, this is the total opposite of what most bands are going for, these days. The production is rough, yet very natural. It's more reminiscent of releases from the early-to-mid 80s or even some 70s albums. While being filthy in a sense, it's still clear enough to hear what's going on and to appreciate the effort that has gone into the songwriting and the overall arrangement. The one element that will probably be most shocking is the use of clean vocals on the chorus. It takes you by surprise at first, but it manages to hook you after one or two listens.

"Running For Borders" starts out with a rather gloomy feeling and I would guess it to be another Nocturno Culto song, just based on the overall atmosphere. Whereas the previous song was more upbeat, this one is darker and is almost uncomfortable in a way. Not so much the main riffs, but all of the subtle things that are added. The solo is well done and it's very good to hear more of this, since the 90s seemed to usher in an age of rebellion against guitar solos, in a lot of areas.

"I Am the Graves of the 80s" picks things up with more of a Motörhead/punk vibe, and seems obviously like one of Fenriz's contributions. Naturally, the drumming is much more dynamic than on some of their classic albums, but they still serve the same purpose, never becoming the center of attention like in so much of modern metal. The drum beats include some punk rock patterns that have been noticeable on recent records. Of course, this leads to people dismissing these albums as Black/Punk or something, which is absolutely ridiculous. It's Metal, through and through, and the riffs support that, all the way. There are some punk influences blended in, but this is something that has long been associated with Metal. Just listen to the first Bathory record and then notice the similarities to Punk bands like GHB, for example. Looking to the middle of this song, the epic guitar riffs begin to bleed through and that is really the key feature of modern Darkthrone. They have absolutely mastered the art of creating riffs that are drenched in the old school feeling and that is something that is sorely lacking, these days.

The next song reeks of Nocturno Culto's songwriting, possessing a darker feeling. "Stylized Corpse" is the longest song on the album and begins with some epic and black riffs. The lyrics, as with most of the recent Darkthrone albums, are sometimes ridiculous and unable to really hold up to the early records, but the feeling and meaning are what counts, in this case. Similarly, the vocals aren't up to the same quality as on the Unholy Trinity, but both members do their best to suit the music. The vocals may sound strange to those that haven't followed the band's development, but they've basically regressed to a more uncontrolled Death/Thrash sound that adds to the raw and dirty feeling. The real issue is that the vocals are much more dynamic than in the past, and both Nocturno Culto and Fenriz show quite a bit of range and use that to their benefit. A more straight-forward approach might limit the music and make the songs more one-dimensional. As with several of the other tracks, this one finishes with a great solo and a classic ending.

"Circle the Wagons" is a rather short song, more upbeat and features a lot of clean vocals. Again, this is a little difficult to stomach on the first listen, but it manages to stick in your brain and grows on you after a while. It is one of those cases where the singing is just so awful it is appealing, in a way. There's a decent tremolo riff near the end of the song that could have made for a nice stand-alone track, itself, if they'd built around it. Nonetheless, this isn't a bad song.

The next song is "Black Mountain Totem" and you can hear some of Nocturno Culto's darker riffs returning to oppress the spirit of the listener. It's really strange how something so subtle could have such an effect, but that is the case. There's a great riff, a couple minutes in, that has an epic quality and there's also something filthy and grimy about it. Near the end, the pace changes and new riffs are introduced. The feeling is somewhat ruined by the fact that part of the solo sounds like an old Aldo Nova song, and this really kills the momentum that the song had built up. So, while it should have been an epic ending, it really just annoyed the hell out of me.

The song that follows is rather depressing, just based on the subject matter and the fact that the world economy has been so completely dismal in the last few years. It's not a bad song, but I've found myself strangely unable to listen to it.

"Eyes Burst At Dawn" was the first song that I heard from this album, and it's rather upbeat while having more subtle touches of melancholy in some of the riffs. While it isn't the best song on the album, it was a good one to use for giving people a taste of what was to come, as it sort of embodies the depressing and mediocre feeling that runs throughout the whole record. The best part of the song is the solo that comes near the end, and the strange and otherworldly tone that is achieved.

The final song is "Bränn Inte Slottet" and it begins with an odd chanting of the song title, accompanied only by drums. Slowly, this is joined by bass and then guitar, creating kind of a dark feeling. As the track progresses, some epic melodies are weaved into the sound, building up to the most absolutely depressing part of the whole album, around the three-minute mark. The oppressive feeling that this riff creates is like that of not being able to breathe or to feel your heart beating. It's the sound that one would expect to hear as life is winding down and death is taking hold... a painful death, solitary and utterly horrifying.

In the end, Circle the Wagons is a rather disappointing affair. It isn't a bad record, but it doesn't live up to the expectations that I had from Dark Thrones and Black Flags. Stylistically, it's quite similar in containing about 40 minutes of Blackened Speed Metal, with a wide range of old school influences showing through. However, none of the songs really reach the quality of many of those that were present on its predecessor. The first few songs are decent enough, but then it loses steam and never regains it. And while a dark atmosphere is always appreciated, there's something about several of the riffs on here that seem overly depressing, in such a way that they go against the feeling of the rest of the album. Perhaps, it will grow on me over time, but it definitely seems like a step down from the last record.