Circle the Wagons

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Black metal bands, by definition, are essentially born out of a desire to challenge society with uncompromising music and shocking behavior, and they're hardly averse to flying in the face of their own fan base's expectations, either, if instructed to do so by their dark muse. But when the legendary Darkthrone -- longtime defenders of Norwegian black metal's purist streak -- began incorporating elements of crusty punk rock and hardcore into their sound (beginning with 2006's The Cult Is Alive album and continuing through its two successors, 2007's F.O.A.D. and 2008's Dark Thrones and Black Flags), evil-panda-makeup-wearing-mofos worldwide lost their ever-loving minds! Little did they realize (or care, for that matter) that the band's core creative duo of Fenriz and Nocturno Culto were in fact presaging the rise of a world-spanning black-crust movement by a few years, but they might have guessed that the pair would conduct an immediate about-face into more familiarly metallic terrain just as soon as that movement became so pervasively mainstream. This about-face is pretty much (but not entirely) the band's directive on 2010's tellingly named Circle the Wagons, which maintains certain unerring Darkthrone traditions (deliberately coarse production standards, a middle-school-notebook-quality cover drawing) along with new songs, such as "I Am the Graves of the ‘80s" and "Eyes Burst at Dawn," that resurrect the trusty and, yes, "crusty" vintage blackened thrash (Venom, Vulcano, etc.) that inspired the group to begin with. Other cuts, namely the implausibly infectious "Running for Borders," "Black Mountain Totem," and, to a lesser degree, the quickly decaying "Stylized Corpse" traverse a wide range of riffs, tempos, and even melodies with the questing spirit of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, all the while never losing sight of that trve kvlt aesthetic. But lest anyone misconstrue these developments as symbols of retreat or surrender, Fenriz and Nocturno proceed to force-feed black metal fans some unexpectedly prevalent clean vocals (tantamount to heresy during the group's early years) with the opening "Those Treasures Will Never Befall You" and title track, before once again championing the hardcore punk ethos on "I Am the Working Class" (which ironically sounds so much like classic Venom that it largely vindicates the group's recent forays into those genres as being no big deal, after all). In sum, while Circle the Wagons is sure to appease some of the band's irate fans with its return to more conventionally metallic musical environs, don't think for a minute that Darkthrone's members did this for anyone but themselves. If you haven't figured this out already, Darkthrone simply doesn't give a f**k about anyone else.

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