Darkthrone chose a fitting cover for their new album, Astral Fortress. At first glance, it seems like an irony-poisoned joke played at the expense of the band and its audience. Why would a band use merchandise from a previous album for the face of a new one? Or have they become consumed by their own meme-ability, particularly that of Fenriz and his colorful personality? (Go ahead, link to that video of him asking if you're having a good Friday, and pat yourself on the back for being so clever.)
But when you stop and think about it, it makes sense. Much of the Darkthrone's artistic output since 2005's Sardonic Wrath has been a combination of an homage to classic metal and punk, and a self-referential wink-and-nod to the band's past — specifically the heady days of the early 1990s that made the band's reputation. Darkthrone means many things to many people, but Fenriz and Nocturno Culto will always be most strongly associated with the four albums that came out between 1992 to 1995. And by placing a mysterious figure ice-skating in a Panzerfaust hoodie on this album, the band is clearly aware of this as well.
According to Fenriz himself: "I think since 2016's Arctic Thunder, we have mostly been inspired by our own back catalogue. I can hear many of my riffs eventually sounding like a plethora of bands but this seldom seems to correlate with what others hear."
Indeed, Arctic Thunder marked a shift that had begun on The Underground Resistance, which saw the band move past their d-beat punk/crust phase and integrate more classic heavy metal into their sound. Perhaps writing lyrics to lecture people about "real metal" got old after awhile.
But while Arctic Thunder, Old Star and Eternal Hails still have a nostalgic feel, there were notable hints of classic Darkthrone. After all, the band's guitar tone has been relatively consistent for their entire career (with the exception of 1991's Soulside Journey) — a blend of Celtic Frost and early Bathory — just augmented and applied to fit what the band was going for at the time. By 2016, the band's work also struck listeners less as "oh cool, Darkthrone is doing this 'thing'" now, and more as Darkthrone shaping its own mix of "things" to constitute a unique blend.
On Astral Fortress, the band continues to mine the classic doom metal they used to build Eternal Hails, but opts for a brighter production sound and pares the drums back a bit. The kick drum and snare don't smack you in the face quite as much on this album. Additionally, the band mixes things up a bit more in terms of song length, with only two songs going beyond six minutes. This is something I always appreciate. You should have a good reason to make a song go on for more than 10 minutes.
And it's fitting the band chose to use a Panzerfaust hoodie for the skater on the cover, as this is the most evident inspiration from the band's back catalog. Specifically, there are several moments over the course of the album that reminded me of moments from songs like "Triumphant Gleam," "The Hordes of Nebulah," "Beholding the Throne of Might" and "Quintessence." In fact, the first two songs on Astral Fortress would make fitting additions to Panzerfaust if Nocturno Culto was still using the ferocious vocal style he did back then.
To go back to the other part of Fenriz's remarks, the songs here do remind the listener of a plethora of bands. Classic heavy metal and doom metal bands like Manilla Road, Cirith Ungol, and especially Trouble come to mind right away. But of course, the band's love for Morbid Tales and To Mega Therion-era Celtic Frost is always extremely evident. As with the last several elements, Nocturno Culto's vocal style is very reminiscent of Thomas Gabriel Warrior, as are many of his guitar techniques. This is also true of Fenriz's drumming, with crushing and primitive beats barging their way into the slower and doomier sections.
There's some cool unexpected goodies to be found on this album as well though. The use of synths on "Stalagmite Necklace" is a nice touch, especially in how it leads into the song's fist-bumping finale. The album's long and epic heavy metal opus, "The Sea Beneath The Seas Of The Sea" justifies it's 10:11-minute runtime with righteous riff-work and sections that recall elements of 1970s prog-rock. And the album's closer, "Eon 2" is a subtle callback to Soulside Journey's closer, "Eon" — both songs ending on a catchy riff that repeats as the song fades out.
Metaphorically speaking, Astral Fortress is like a solitary figure representing a moment in Darkthrone's past, skating their way through the lands of heavy metal and doom, but always carried by the North Winds. Fenriz has said in many interviews that their classic black metal albums were works of homage and nostalgia in their own way, paying tribute to the black metal spirit of the 80s. However, there is a clear divide in Darkthrone's catalog between works that sound like obvious nostalgia vs. those that blend that devotion into something we would say "sounds like Darkthrone." I'd say this album tilts in the latter category, and presages a promising direction for one of metal's finest creative outfits.