Monday, March 18, 2013

Darkthrone - The Underground Resistance (2013)

Since the release of The Cult Is Alive, each new effort from Darkthrone has been greeted with a mixture of enthusiasm and caution. One is never fully sure what Nocturno Culto and Fenriz might have up their sleeves, given their total willingness to take chances and to give a middle finger to their critics. That is not to say that their albums have become random or nonsensical, for this is not the case. Each one picks up from its predecessor in a rather logical way, yet still there are odd surprises to be found. After Circle the Wagons, the band took a bit of a break, making this the longest that fans have had to wait for a proper full-length since the time period between Total Death and Ravishing Grimness. So, once news came of its impending release in February 2013, many were eagerly looking forward to the emergence of The Underground Resistance. The title is obviously a nod to all of those keeping the old school spirit alive in this modern age of filth and disgust, and the music follows suit.

From the opening moments of "Dead Early", one is bathed in dirty, '80s-inspired riffs that possess the same sort of nasty edge that was found on Dark Thrones and Black Flags. This tune is rather fast-paced and energetic, while also being quite dynamic. The songwriting features a mixture of Thrash and Speed Metal, along with the d-beat drumming, joined by Nocturno Culto's old school vocal approach. This style took some getting used to, years ago, but the truth is that his approach almost had to regress just as the music did for it all to flow well together. Late in the song, there is a section where the main riff stands alone for a few moments, sort of reminiscent of "The Death of All Oaths". This is a good song to open the album, doing a good job of setting the tone and letting you know what to expect.

Of course, "Valkyrie" shatters those expectations, throughout its intro. The acoustic guitar and slow Doom riff sound like something from a Viking-era Bathory album. It is also here that one notices that the production is a little cleaner and thicker than on the previous album. This mournful dirge leads into the most shocking part of the record, a full-on Speed Metal song with Fenriz utilizing clean vocals throughout its entirety. As with some of his other forays into melodic singing on recent Darkthrone albums, this is incredibly awkward and off-putting upon first listen. And yet, somehow, it is so catchy and memorable that one cannot help but warm up to it. Say what you will about his voice, but he certainly sounds impassioned and genuine and manages to fit to the music more than adequately. There's somewhat of a sombre feeling to this track, not just during the slower sections, but in Fenriz's voice itself. The haunting melody at the end of the song really emphasizes this dark sentiment.

"Lesser Men" has the unenviable task of following up its epic predecessor, but the foreboding riffs conjure up an evil and primitive feeling from the beginning. There is a noticeable Celtic Frost influence to some of the riffs, with nice solos from Nocturno Culto. Even though they have moved on from pure Black Metal, his riffs still maintain a sort of darkness that most bands trying this style are simply incapable of matching. That is often the difference between bands that were there when this type of music was in its heyday and those that came along long after, just trying to recreate the sound without a full understanding of it. Clearly, Darkthrone's old school roots enable them to better tap into that primordial evil.

Next is "The Ones You Left Behind", which is another song penned by Fenriz and features a mixture of clean and harsh vocals. The overall atmosphere is less dark than on Nocturno Culto's songs, with the d-beat drumming, less serious vocal approach and the more light-hearted guitar melodies. This one is rather simplistic and straightforward, but enjoyable nonetheless.

"Come Warfare, the Entire Doom" immediately takes you to a darker place, with the slow Doom riffs and wailing lead guitar screaming out from the shadows. As the song moves forward, the pace picks up a bit, but never really becomes fast, until very late. The riffs have sort of a sombre tone and Nocturno Culto's voice has a grim snarl that seems more and more disgusted with this world, taking on a rather morbid feeling at certain points. There are brief tremolo passages that lead to more solos, which makes one wonder what could have been if the band had embraced the use of solos years earlier. This song is rather lengthy, clocking in around eight and a half minutes, though it could have been shortened a bit.

The album ends with "Leave No Cross Unturned", another Fenriz track that extends past the thirteen-minute mark. The riffing is far more intense and dark than on his other two songs, making this one fit in with Nocturno Culto's tracks a little better. This was the first song that many of us heard from this record and it is still quite a lot to digest. The clean vocals and lead solos are memorable and the riffs are drenched in mid-'80s Thrash glory, mixed in with some of the prerequisite Celtic Frost influence. This includes some eerie moaning in the distance, giving somewhat of a ghoulish feeling. It is almost humourous to think of the fact that Darkthrone has written more songs with this typical Tom Warrior style of guitar playing than Mr. Warrior himself. No matter how much the band changes, their number-one inspiration remains ever-present in their songwriting. One of the chief complaints regarding this track is that its content does not warrant such a lengthy running time. This criticism is somewhat justified, as despite the good riffs and solos, this could have easily been cut down by a minimum of five minutes. The Morbid Tales worship in the middle becomes slightly monotonous after a while. Once things pick back up, Fenriz gets a little more wild in his vocal delivery, including some unexpected shrieks. The song then ends with another mid-paced riff and lead section that sounds somehow familiar, though I can't place it.

So, in the end, The Underground Resistance fully lives up to its name. This record is dominated by a pure, old school feeling throughout and sounds like something that could have been released in the mid-'80s. Like the last album, this one may take a little time to grow on some listeners. My immediate impression is that this fails to fully live up to the quality that I hoped for, since the release of Dark Thrones and Black Flags, but it seems to be a step up from Circle the Wagons. Everything is very solid and the riffs are all good, but the one weakness is that there are hardly any of the truly great riffs that characterized their '06-'08 output. After such a long layoff, one would have imagined something a little more monumental regarding the actual content rather than song length. Either way, Nocturno Culto and Fenriz are still doing their part to contribute to the struggle for maintaining the old school, pure Metal feeling as they wage war against the trendy, plastic drones of modernity. Hopefully, more aspiring musicians look to them for direction rather than the legions of the false path.