Essential Black Metal Listening: DARKTHRONE - A Blaze in the Northern Sky
by James Zalucky
Faded am I, behind a wall of consciousness
Still feeling a different world
Chilling voices fill my head-
I open my eyes
–Darkthrone, from Paragon Belial
Through the years of Heavy Metal's existence, there have been a few records which, through their innovative sound and striking character, have defined the nature of particular movement. In the dark, cold world of Black Metal, one could easily point to the early Bathory records, along with those of Mayhem and other members of the Norwegian "inner-circle". However, one record stands out in my judgment for shaping Black Metal's crude, haunting, and atmospheric sound: A Blaze in the Northern Sky. While most fans would agree on Darkthrone's essential contributions to the genre, some may quibble with me over my choice of this record, "How could you not pick [insert other early Darkthrone release here], its so much more KVLT!!!". After all, Blaze was one of the first Black Metal records I ever owned (I bought it when I was 17), so I understand how this may make me biased in its favor. However, after years of being a fan, I still maintain that A Blaze in the Northern Sky is Darkthrone's most essential release, at least from their Black Metal-era.
Arriving in February of 1992, A Blaze in the Northern Sky came out in the midst of the "Second Wave" of Black Metal, which included other legendary Norwegian bands like Emperor, Immortal and Satyricon, and is widely recognized as a classic of the genre. Its influence extends to the point where many Black Metal bands seem to model their entire career on the record, along with Under a Funeral Moon and Transylvanian Hunger. Several familiar aspects of Black Metal are perfected here, the breakneck speed, the fist pumping mid-range gallops, and of course the anguished, slow dirges (not to mention all of the weird chanting from Fenriz in the background).
Although it has since become a jewel of my collection, the album left me puzzled at first. As I listened to Kathaarian Life Code for the first time, I thought, "Well, I guess this is cool, but what's with that buzz-saw guitar sound? Did they not have enough money to make it sound better? And why is the drumming so frantic?" At the time, I was totally new and unadjusted to this crude, raw sound (that and it was a particularly nice summer day outside, so the atmosphere wasn't exactly "ideal").
Apparently, I wasn't alone in my first impressions. In fact, it seems Peaceville records had a similar reaction.
::Cue awesome Fenriz interview clip::
His description of "riff crushing" with the drums fits well with my perception of the album, especially on In the Shadow of the Horns. If I had to name one song that won me over to Darkthrone and to Black Metal in general, it would have to be this one. From the horrifying howl of the guitars at the beginning, to the almost Punk-like gallop of the bridge, the song pulverizes everything in its path. Aesthetically, the song is absolutely stunning, invoking what many bands try yet fail to capture: pure evil. Since then, I'd have to say that Paragon Belial has inched its way up as my favorite song on the album. For me, the defining moment comes at 1:50 with an amazing riffing section that stabs through a thunderstorm of punishing drums. Blaze contains a wealth of brilliantly crude riffs, but Paragon Belial has some of the most captivating. That said, every song has its own shining moment which grabs you by the throat, throwing you into the dark abyss, as the world around you seems to get colder with every passing second.
Darkthrone would follow up with many great records, but I believe that Blaze remains their best. It had a lo-fi sound, but not to the point of excess like that of Transilvanian Hunger. It also has a fuller, more robust sound than the pure saw-blade drilling of Under a Funeral Moon. Once again, I know many readers will feel differently, and understandably so. I have a soft-spot for later releases like Sardonic Wrath and Panzerfaust, and have greatly enjoyed Darkthrone's shift into Crusty-Speed Metal (something I feel they were always tempted to play anyway). Actually, I think they've excelled at everything they've tried, including the almost forgotten death metal debut of Soulside Journey.
In the end however, few records match the ominous excellence of A Blaze in the Northern Sky, making it a piece of absolutely essential Black Metal listening.