Darkthrone’s 1993 album, Under a Funeral Moon, represents the true essence of black metal. You can largely determine how you feel about black metal by how you respond to this album. Its 39 minutes of morbid darkness contains everything devotees love about second wave black metal, and thus represents everything its detractors hate.
When people refer (ironically or not) to “true” black metal while arguing with strangers on the internet, they’re talking about the style played on this album. And while it’s fashionable to go around saying “hey I listen to everything, I’m not an elitist like all of those people,” I have to agree with the basement dwellers here: Under a Funeral Moon is a perfect example of great black metal.
Most “best of” lists and retrospectives tend to focus on 1992’s A Blaze in the Northern Sky or 1994’s Transilvanian Hunger, leaving Under a Funeral Moon as more of a footnote. This is deeply unfortunate, as it could lead to listeners skipping over the album entirely. Sure, Blaze is still the most essential album, and I’ve gushed about it at length in the past. And yes, if a consistent, all-enveloping atmosphere is your thing, go ahead and check out Transilvanian Hunger.
But what makes Under a Funeral Moon special is that it’s more pure black metal than Blaze, but still has more variation than Transilvanian Hunger. Blaze had some death metal elements left over, particularly on songs like “Paragon Belial.” And Transilvanian Hunger just drones on, and on…and on. When Darkthrone made Under a Funeral Moon, they weren’t under pressure from Peaceville to get a new album ready like they were with Blaze, so they could actually take their time with it. This allowed Fenriz, Nocturno Culto and Zephyrous to dedicate the album to early Bathory, Hellhammer, Celtic Frost, Bulldozer and other acts, while adding their own touch of coldness.
The first thing anyone notices when hitting play on “Natassja in Eternal Sleep” is the guitar. The buzzsaw distortion – with the mid-range knob cranked up – has since become a staple of the black metal sound, and is even more pronounced than it was on A Blaze in the Northern Sky. This intentional rawness is what turns a lot of people off from black metal, especially when taken this far (though if you think this is bad, wait till you check out Ildjarn and Mutiilation). Similarly, Nocturno Culto’s throaty vocal style (along with that of Dead, Ihsahn and others) has become endlessly imitated by acolytes since then. And though Fenriz’s drumming is intentionally basic and workmanlike on this album, it’s still very precise and very professional. Sure, they wanted to keep things simple, but they knew what they were doing.
But here’s something people overlook: the bass. Pay particular attention to the bass on the title track. If anyone ever creates a black metal “greatest hits” compilation, “Under a Funeral Moon” would deserve a place next to the genre’s other crown jewels (e.g. “Freezing Moon,” “I Am the Black Wizards,” “A Fine Day to Die,” “Mother North”). But while the guitars, drums and vocals combine to make one of the most effective metal songs of all time, the bass sits at the heart of the song’s “chorus riff.” The thumping pulse at around the 38-second mark and elsewhere gives it an extra jolt of energy, and charges the listener into the crushing bridge that features those famous lines:
“A raven sings my last song
As the wolves howl their goodbyes
The funeral moon glows strongly now
For I am nearly there”
Some of my other favorites on this record include the stomping march of “To Walk the Infernal Fields” as well as “Inn I De Dype Skogers Favn,” which was apparently written by Zephyrous and foreshadows the style adopted on Transilvanian Hunger and Panzerfaust. Also pay attention to “Unholy Black Metal,” as it has a main riff that’s very similar to the title track, but somehow I don’t feel the need to hold it against the band.
In terms of the style’s history, it’s June 1993 release (roughly a month before Euronymous was murdered) places it right in the middle of all the chaos occurring in the Norwegian scene at the time, but also at a critical time of musical development. Along with Immortal’s Pure Holocaust, Marduk’s Those of the Unlight and Rotting Christ’s Thy Mighty Contract, the album showed the style solidifying as an entity separate from death metal and what we now call “the first wave” of black metal in the 80's. It stands as a prime example of black metal at its best, before its key features became clichés.
Read our previous entries of Essential Black Metal Listening here.