Darkthrone - Astral Fortress (2022)Release ID: 40833

Darkthrone - Astral Fortress (2022) Cover
UnhinderedbyTalent UnhinderedbyTalent / July 10, 2023 / Comments 1 / 1

Following my review of Old Star I soon found myself pressing on into the Darkthrone "latter day" discography.  Having found very little wrong with the 2019 release I found my focus switched to the latest new release (at the time of writing) from the legendary Norwegians.  I am aware that Eternal Hails is sandwiched in between the two releases I have now written a review for, and I have heard that through a few times also.  However, it is yet to make as an immediate impact as Astral Fortress did after just a couple of spins.  Once again the paired-back, non-black metal style of metal that embraces doom and heavy metal wins the day.

With the increasing sense that the number of fucks Fenriz and Nocturno Culto have left to give reduces with every passing year, Astral Fortress is a structure built with an almost nonchalant level of attention.  The walls are not necessarily flush against one another and the floor is almost certainly not level either, but it is just still so fucking homely to listen to the record that you do not care if the roof has a couple of holes in it where polished production values and a high quality of technical capability got kicked out of the building.  The guys are not trying to impress anybody necessarily, yet they organically manage to make an album that presses a sense of nostalgia on the listener without becoming oppressive as a "retro" record.

Those soothing synths on Stalagmite Necklace are trance-inducing, such is their level of dreamy and hazy magic.  Who fucking cares if NC's vocals are cumbersome when there's a Mellotron to keep you company along the way?  Fenriz's drumming is consistent throughout without ever straying anywhere near the realm of technical or overtly showy.  There is a power in simplicity and this has never been better exemplified than the performance of the man on the stool behind the skins.  Above all else though, it is the mournful and melancholic wail of the guitars on tracks such as The Sea Beneath the Seas of the Sea (great track title) that steal the dank limelight on Astral Fortress.  Indeed, for a perfect example of "no frills" metal, we need look no further than Darkthrone's twentieth full length release.

By now a thousand football fields away from their black metal days, Darkthrone have almost undertaken a complete reinvention of themselves in terms of their sound and style.  However, the true success of their modern day output that I have heard to date is that it does still retain that sense of irreverence for their art form that only black metal can ever truly teach.  Whilst it may be so far away stylistically from black metal, the cult is very much still alive.

Morpheus Kitami Morpheus Kitami / August 26, 2023 / Comments 0 / 0

Before I realized this was Darkthrone, I at first assumed this was some weird-ass Venom-style black/speed outfit, then a This is Spinal Tap-style parody of black metal. That's the kind of album cover a parody band would use. Then I noticed the band name.
Well, like politics, black metal is impossible to lampoon.
This is a very weird album. Were atmospheric black metal not taken for stuff like The Summoning, this feels like it would fit that name well. Black metal production and techniques used at a much slower pace. Where tremolo picking would be used, one single note is used instead. This makes it very noticeable when the album does use tremolo picking. At no point does the drumming go above a walking pace. The growling has an almost ethereal quality to it, unlike any kind I've heard before.
The writing is kind of bland. It seems aimless, possibly by intention. It starts off okay, with the kind of atmosphere you'd expect, but then we get the first solo of the album. I don't know who played it, but it's not good. A half-hearted attempt at regaining the kvlt faction, perhaps with it's strange aggressiveness. Then after another long verse, close enough in sound to the first as to make no difference, there's another solo, closer in tone to what you'd expect, but at this point feels meandering. The song finally ends with what can only be described as a very slow series of tremolos. While the album has more interesting songs on it, like Impeccable Caverns of Satan, most seem to follow this template.
I found this didn't really appeal to me, much in the same reason a lot of melodeath doesn't. If you're going to combine extreme metal with heavy or power metal, it's better to do something like Satan's Host where far less hostile sounding music with clean vocals gets hostile sounding music. Mundane sounding music makes growly vocals goofy.

Daniel Daniel / August 05, 2023 / Comments 0 / 0

I’ll always remember the early 1990’s as a truly magical time in my life with the extreme metal scene being the catalyst for a whole new world of discovery for me. I’d already gotten into thrash/death/black metal in the late 1980’s but the new decade would summon forth an explosion of riches for any budding young metal enthusiast. The Norwegian black metal scene would become one of the protagonists in that movement & I count myself as being very lucky to have been across it from its very inception. I was already familiar with Darkthrone’s death metal debut album “Soulside Journey” as well as being well versed in “First Wave” black metal bands like Bathory, Sodom & Hellhammer by the time Darkthrone’s life-changing sophomore album “A Blaze in The Northern Sky” dropped in 1992 & I think that really helped me to be prepared for what was a seriously imposing release for the uninitiated. Bathory’s “Under The Sign Of The Black Mark” was a definite favourite of mine at the time (& still is too) & I think that record was as good an entry point as you were likely to find. Over the course of the next 3-4 years though, Darkthrone would create a legacy that few can touch in black metal circles, not only through what’s gone on to become known as the “Unholy Trinity” (a trio of classic records that people like to group together) but also through 1995’s very solid “Panzerfaust” album. After that amazing period of activity though, Darkthrone have released a long string of divisive records, most of which I’ve checked out at some point but few of which I’ve found to offer anything close to the devastating atmosphere of records like “Transilvanian Hunger”. There’s even been a couple of albums that I let pass me by completely (including Darkthrone’s last full-length “Eternal Halls……”) so I wasn’t quite sure of what to expect from the duo’s latest release “Astral Fortress”, particularly given that awfully tame cover image.

Loyal fans really talked “Astral Fortress” up online last year though (particularly on Twitter) & I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it tweaked my interest. I decided to give the album a quick once over shortly after release but went in with a level of hesitation & self-preservation. I mean, I was still harboring a level of resentment after recalling my disappointment with a record like 2010’s “Circling The Wagons”. Upon sitting through “Astral Fortress” though, I had to admit that it offered a lot of potential. I had a feeling that it might be a grower so I penciled it in as one to revisit in the near future, a venture that has ended up being triggered by Vinny’s nomination for our August “The Fallen” feature release.

Darkthrone have traversed pretty much all of the genres they treasured so much during their formative years across their long career. They obviously started their recording career as a death metal band before transforming themselves into one of the great black metal artists & then dabbled in heavy metal, doom metal, thrash metal, speed metal & even a bit of punk at times. “Astral Fortress” sees them dipping their toes into most of those pools & producing an album that is almost uncategorizable. There’s a definite black metal aesthetic here but (apart from the opening track) it never quite “feels” like a black metal release. There are plenty of doomy riffs & tempos but I’m not sure it sits comfortably alongside the bands that influenced them like Trouble either. There are thrash & death metal riffs that pop up from time to time too, as well as some obvious heavy metal characteristics like the use of guitar harmonies in closing track “Eon 2”. None of those terms seem appropriate to tag “Astral Fortress” though to be honest. It’s really a combination of all of those components & I have to say that the way Darkthrone pull this off in such a cohesive manner gives the album a freshness that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise me as the main influence on display is another band that combined all of the more extreme subgenres of their time in Celtic Frost. In fact, most of the album sounds like a tribute to the Swiss legends if I’m being honest but, rather than simply emulate their idols, Fenriz & Nocturno Culto have used their influence to not only pay homage to them but also to celebrate everything that was great about them. You see, Darkthrone simply get it. They understand what it was about the music of the 1980’s that laid the platform for what was to come. It didn’t need relentless blast-beats or super-gutteral & unintelligible growls to create a dark & mysterious atmosphere. Those bands understood how to use space, tension & restraint. They knew the power of good song-writing over simply creating a series of riffs. “Astral Fortress” is all about harnessing those elements in a modern way & the result is an honest, authentic & organic record of genuine depth. It’s one that I admire & respect more than I do adore but at the completion of each listen I find myself feeling like I’ve experienced something of meaning, like I’ve seen inside the souls of these two men.

The tracklisting is very consistent with just the pointless two-minute experimental piece “Kolbotn, West of the Vast Forests” being a failure. I wouldn’t say that I regard any of the six proper songs as being genuine classics but all of them have their inspired moments. Unfortunately most of them also have one or two riffs that see my interest being placed on hold too (mostly the thrashier or more traditional heavy metal parts) but I can still very clearly see the passion in what Darkthrone do so I simply find myself waiting for those parts to pass by so that I can once again dig into the meat on these bones. Nocturno Culto’s vocals are nothing like the grim & croaky black metal style he built his name on these days, instead opting for a grunt that sounds uncannily like the great Tom G. Warrior which can hardly be a coincidence, can it? I like them though & think they serve the record well.

There’s a feeling of control about “Astral Fortress” that I have no doubt to be intentional & it reminds me of modern day Enslaved & Satyricon in that way. The tempos rarely ascend to much above mid-pace & they keep enough space in the compositions to maximize their accessibility. The more successful examples can be found in opener “Caravan of Broken Ghosts” (my personal favourite), the doomy “Stalagmite Necklace”, the epic (& humourously titled) “The Seas Beneath The Seas Of The Sea” & the more melodic “Eon 2”. If you’re a big Celtic Frost, Hellhammer or Gallhammer fan then I can’t see you not enjoying this record & it’s certainly drawn a renewed interest in the band from me. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that “Astral Fortress” should be essential listening for anyone with ties to the 1980’s underground metal scene. It holds its own against more widely celebrated Darkthrone albums like “Under A Funeral Moon” & “Panzerfaust” too in my opinion.

Sonny Sonny / January 10, 2023 / Comments 0 / 0

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".