Heavy metal has always championed the darker things in life, but whatever they might say in their interviews, most musicians are really just mugging for the press, fronting a fantasy image for the benefit of their impressionable young fans. But all bets are off when it comes to the infamous Norwegian black metal scene, where in the early ‘90s rising bands like Mayhem, Emperor, and Burzum had some of their key members charged with real-life crimes, ranging from church burnings to outright murder. Standing just outside this macabre "Inner Circle," as it was called, were Oslo-based Darkthrone, who had started out as a death metal band on 1991's Soulside Journey debut, and were actually halfway through recording another likeminded album before literally converting to black metal's dark side under the mentorship of "Inner Circle" leader (and soon to be its most notorious victim) Euronymous. Long days spent inside the Euronymous-run Helvete record store apparently led Darkthrone to both shed their past and shun the path chosen by many of their peers, whose hellish symphonies were often overblown, ultra-complex affairs influenced by classical and Scandinavian folk music. Instead, Darkthrone's eventual sophomore full-length, A Blaze in the Northern Sky, would pursue a more straightforward and fundamentally primal black metal approach in the spirit of genre founders like Venom, Hellhammer, and Bathory, initially earning outright rejection from their record label in the process, before being begrudgingly released. Little did anyone know that they were sitting on a classic whose almost indefensibly lo-fi standards would reinvigorate an entire strain of black metal, since -- their bloated lengths aside -- future standards like "In the Shadow of the Horns," "Where Cold Winds Blow," and the ten-minute "Kathaarian Life Code" concealed significant instrumental abilities and songwriting acumen underneath their raw, visceral power. And with their ghostly pancake makeup only adding to the kids' delight (hey it worked for Kiss, right?), Darkthrone arguably became the standard-bearers for dreary, oppressive black metal in the eyes of fans not interested in evolving into more finessed, avant-garde realms along with Emperor, Ulver, et al.
A Blaze in the Northern Sky Review
by Eduardo Rivadavia