Darkthrone - Astral Fortress (2022)
If I was backed into a corner and was forced to choose my favourite metal band, then I would probably choose Darkthrone. Not just because of their classic black metal albums (although that is reason enough), but also because of their obvious passion for and love of metal that I too share, their absolute refusal to compromise in their musical endeavours and their lack of concern as to how they or their music are perceived by the outside world. Let's face it, how many metal bands would dare even think of putting out an album with a cover that is merely a photograph of the drummer ice skating?
So, anyway, Fenriz and Nocturno Culto return with their 20th studio album and continue with their crusty, blackened take on doom and heavy metal that came to the fore on previous release, Eternal Hails. This one is a take on late-80's, early-90's underground trad doom fed through a blackened crust filter, but updated with better production and, in truth, it differs very little from it's predecessor to the extent that they could both have been released together as a double album and no one would have batted an eyelid. I know most metalheads now want to shit on Fenris and Nocturno for not endlessly recycling A Blaze In the Northern Sky, but this is what they do now. Is it as good as their 90's stuff? Well obviously not, but I quite enjoy this tiny niche that the duo have carved out for themselves and their more recent material is kind of quaint in it's lack of pretension and total disregard for trends or adherence to the zeitgeist. For those who know of it, Fenris and Nocturno Culto kind of remind me of Lance and Andy from the BBC show Detectorists with their dogged refusal to be affected by the world at large and their almost idealistic existence in their own little corner of the globe.
Where I feel Darkthrone succeed most, is in their ability to gradually reshape their music in directions that interest them whilst still embracing a unifying "sound", as in the blackened crust that still forms the backbone of what they are about, whatever other genre thay may be focussing on otherwise. This continuity gives us diehard fans a way into whatever it is they are doing and with it comes a kind of surety as to what you are going to get. Darkthrone seem uninterested in suddenly changing direction for the sake of it and are unlikely to throw out too many jarring curveballs to their audience. Of course, this is much to the chagrin of a lot of the online metal community, whose almost ADHD-like desire for continuous change and intellectual challenge (from albums the majority will only listen to once or twice) makes a band like Darkthrone anathema to them and attracts huge amounts of criticism as the keyboard warriors vent their spleen against the duo. But of course by then, Fenriz is off skating up some frozen fjord and couldn't give two fucks what some music know-all from gods-know-where has to say about it!
Astral Fortress start out very strongly with Caravan of Broken Ghosts which has a great crusty trad doom main riff that gets even better when the duo put their pedal to the metal on the speeded up section that used to be one of the staples of trad doom, the track as a whole coming off as a necroticised version of Pentagram or early Saint Vitus. I think Nocturno and Fenriz take their feet off the gas a little on the next couple of tracks, Impeccable Caverns of Satan and Stalagmite Necklace. They are decent enough and I really like the main black 'n' roll riff of the former, but they lack dynamism and start to drag the album down a bit, sounding as they do like outtakes from Celtic Frost's Morbid Tales that didn't make the cut. So, despite side one tailing off to some extent, side two is a much more convincing experience. Kicking off with the bizarrely named The Sea Beneath the Seas of the Sea, the track itself is bookended by an intro and outro that sound a bit like very early (circa Fly By Night) Rush - believe it or not! The track as a whole is Darkthrone's own particular take on a ten minute trad doom epic that sounds like it's been dug up after thirty or forty years of decay. Next up, Kervorkian Times is my favourite track on the album with a killer main riff and Nocturno Culto spitting fire and bile, proving that even in their fifties these guys are still underground metal legends. A short instrumental and we're into final track Eon 2, which doesn't on the face of it have anything to do with the instrumental Eon off of Soulside Journey, but which does contain a Maiden-esque galloping riff before it settle back into the doom-pacing of the rest of the album.
Nocturno Culto's vocals are undiminished by time and he still fires out riffs left, right and centre and Fenriz is a complete legend so, to me, the world is a much better place with a band like Darkthrone and their love of metal and refusal to compromise still in it. So what I'm trying to say is "fuck the haters".