After more than thirty years perched atop the global death metal scene Darkthrone have earnt the right to dictate terms when it comes to their music.
So much so that drummer Fenriz admits he places little if any regard on the reaction recent album Old Star has received since its release in May.
“I have absolutely no idea as I am not on any social media”, he shrugged, “and also I told the lovely press people not to say anything about reactions or reviews as I’ve been working on new material since February and I don’t need any distractions. I think I’ve often said that I don’t give a fuck but it feels more like I care too much now or that it’s exhausting to hear feedback because it can lead to a feeling of being misunderstood or the strangeness that what you think you have done sound different to yourself than it sounds to others and that can be bewildering when you basically just want to create more. At this point it’s more of a one-way communication which is actually what I have been wanting since I was a toddler, I reckon. This started to form in my mind when we moved to Kolbotn in 1978 and it was a block of flats and I would just play Uriah Heap Sweet Freedom as loud as I dared to kind of mark ‘this is me’ to other nearby neighbours, not being able to know if they heard it or not, no feedback given. It would have to be sufficient. All I know is that it’s charting well and I’ve had some inevitable feedback from the 5% of my friends that listened. And even they seem to be hearing other things than I do myself often, so…”
Despite having moved on to new material quickly, Fenriz admits it can be difficult making the transition from the last album to the new one, particularly with the amount of time spent promoting and giving interviews.
“I can’t move on as I have some months of being interviewed so I’m kinda stuck”, he laughed. “However that’s also some kind of lucky strike as otherwise I’d just make new stuff too soon but it’s not that I have a choice now that our soundscape and guitar sound after 30 + years has opened up the possibility for me to FINALLY make palm mute riffs like slow heavy and slow thrash is based on and this has filled up 60-80% of my metal brain since early 80s and now the riffs are just dropping down in my mind (from my brain SIC) and it’s not like I can stop it (laughs).
So, anyway, I have got to analyze the album for various reasons. I can’t do it before it’s recorded as i don’t get a listening copy until the mix is presented to me (fact) and then starts the mind work of the soundscape. And perhaps simultaneously the work with placing the order of the songs. At this point also starts the realization of what my riffs sound like to me, sometimes they sound like a band but when the riff originally fell into my brain or was made it needn’t to have sounded like anything particular other than METAL.
To answer your question in a quick way I’d say it’s in between your suggestions. We’ve often also said that it’s impossible to say at once how an album actually is and that 25 years from now we’ll see what impact it had and that 25 years sets a sturdy context around the times it was made. Seems a bit hardass but why the hell not. The only downside to this particular school of thought is that when you get older you get less chance of seeing your albums in that 25-year afterthought-scope, doesn’t it”?
Old Star features six songs, each ranging in length from four and a half minutes to seven and a half minutes long, with Fenriz deliberating before answering what it is that dictates the length of a song and where you draw the line.
“We had our formative years in the 80s, a decade of the rifforama and sometimes it perhaps got too hectic”, he settled on. “I like to play the riffs a bit more than just four times often, trying also to make it efficient but sturdy enough that it can be played for longer periods of time. We really have no rule of song length or any system at all concerning it, we’ll end up dinner-sized anyway which for an album is mostly 36 – 42 minutes. No need to be changing up the size of the dinner – like the CD once did. I remember the horror of the insistence of many bands in the 90s when they left the vinyl idea behind and thought I’ll serve you double dinners of 78 minutes deathgrind/happy power metal. For a decade at least! No thanks. As for the cut off point? Well, from my upbringing was a lot of music from the 60s and 70s, there was a lot of fading involved. On the previous we faded several of the songs, I kinda like it but I think I saw some crowd reactions last time (must’ve seeped through as I was still on social media then) that they thought it was too much of it so this time I thought fuck it, no fadings, now they’ll hear how many times we actually play the final riffs so there’s no fadings on this new album, I think. I mean, back in the day we used to never polish or even MAKE ending of songs and this just grew worse and worse, like if we had a decent song ending it was more lucky. We’ve put a bit more emphasis on that now but not much so if our songs end decently now it’s more up to experience or sometimes dumb luck (laughs)”.
Before the release of the album, Fenriz was quoted as saying Old Star felt like the bigger brother to the previous album Arctic Thunder, a point which he clarifies here.
” (It’s) Heavier (meaning slower, more lead-y in Norwegian), better played than it’s predecessor, more classic doom metal and a bit more traditional metal, the second in line of this more die-cast style of ours….. several people have wondered and I now look at the possibilities of me having created a weak metaphor, Sir. It still feels like saying it’s the big brother but I certainly have a problem coming up with clever words about why, HAHAHAHA”.
Much of Darkthrone’s musical catalogue has its pedigree in 1980’s metal. It is an era of music that Fenriz acknowledges played an important role in metal music and has left a lasting impression on their music.
“I’d say 95% of the riffs I ever made for Darkthrone is stooped in 80s metal”, he affirmed. “80’s metal have pretty much all my favourite styles, when I think of metal it’s 95% (if not way more) the 80s I think about. But early 80s metal had a lot of 70s in it, I mean decades seep into one another. The typical decade sound is often found well into said decade. On top of this, I think it’s extremely normal for bands to be influenced by their formative years (let’s say from when they are 10-16 years old) and the bands they hear at that time and they start a band based on that and just continue being influenced by that. We jumbled up styles from the get-go in 1987 but we didn’t have much success with it. Lately, I’ve come to think that this was because we weren’t experienced enough but I didn’t really see that then. So the first recording we did without jumbling up too many styles (after summer of 1989 we switched to mainly playing death metal) we got a record deal on. And it didn’t take long after that until we started jumbling up a bit again. But still I wasn’t satisfied with the jumbling up, I always preferred the Under a Funeral Moon album which was more total black metal. But slowly I started to realize that our strength isn’t trying to cook soup on a nail like that. We started up with me being the sole riffmaker bringing in too many influences back in 87 and 88 and early 89 but it didn’t work because we hadn’t found a way to make it efficient. And it didn’t always work way later either, like in 95 on our Total Death album and so on. I think it worked better since 2013 with the underground resistance album and even better on Arctic Thunder and after that we texted each other and concluded that we were very comfortable with this new calmer take on things and even more so after this Old Star album, a key factor is that in the beginning we didn’t have the soundscape nor the guitar sound nor the calmness to include solid palm mute riffs but we do now. It feels like coming home to my 14-year-old mind finally. It feels incredible”.
Fenriz also boldly declared that Old Star was “more metal than ever”, a statement he reiterates while outlining how important it is to keep improving as a band within your genre.
“Improving is not always growth as we can see on the planet today”, he measured. “I tried to explain earlier how it is now easy for me personally because the banks of the palm mute metal world finally opened for me. When we went to record one of our two studio modules were missing and I had to sacrifice an overhead mic line and then Ted got disheartened and said that he didn’t want to mix this time and then we were in a rush and we asked Jack what to do and then he said he either had the Motorhead guy or the Voivod guy and apparently the Motorhead guy couldn’t make it and so it was Sanford….which did a great job on the last Voivod on the guitars and overall but when it comes to drums my taste is far from the sound on the last Voivod (or the last Motorhead for that matter) so I just cried out that I needed a 1978 drum sound but instead the initial mix began with a mix of I want it loud by Kiss (early 80s BIG drum sound) and 1988 noise records (Germany you know) sound and after a lot of back and forth we sort of tied those extremes together which made me think more of arena metal/rock sound. After all the drum sound was mixed to match the slow parts of our album which is 85% of it so that was a smart move from Sanford anyway. It’s just I don’t have the same fave drum sound as a lot of the mixer people out there nowadays, I guess. I really like dry late 70s drums or whatever. So this resulted in our album sounding more 80s by far than any of our previous albums. The guitars and bass and overall is very pleasing now too, great to come home after 30+ years, (laughs)”.
Over the course of their career Darkthrone have been unafraid to explore their musical psyche, starting with a strong concoction of thrash and then death/doom metal in the lead up to their debut album before embracing a darker, more primitive form of expression for A Blaze In The Northern Sky. Then in 2006 they strayed from traditional black metal style and incorporated more elements of traditional heavy metal and speed metal. For most bands, these variances would equate to professional suicide, but Fenriz is happy to explain what dictates such changes in musical direction and how important it is to have the freedom to be able to do so.
“Well, that’s the short story”, he laughed. “Album covers and context help cloak the fact that we had variations of styles prominent on A Blaze in the Northern Sky, Panzerfaust (with various results), Total Death (not the best result) and from Hate Them in 2002 and onwards. It was the new free situation of Ted ordering us our own ministudio in 2004 that brought on the freestyle freewheeling vibes and it was glorious but perhaps too D.I.Y, we’ll have to wait those 25 years for each album to see. When hearing some of those albums again I’m thinking we could have needed an editor (laughs). I think we started to do better with Circle The Wagons in 2010 but albums before had many killer tracks, some not so killer maybe. Anyway, it was a bit here and there for most underground fans of 80s style. The initial own mini-studio album the cult is alive is one of our strongest, actually. What a clear moment in time. Uneven too perhaps but ferocious execution and sound.
We have written on our own (meaning Ted does his and I do my songs) since the summer of 1991 so it’s hard to say what dictates any changes in Ted’s material. I am the squirrely one so I am the jumbler and the changer upper and have always been, Ted is calmer but as you can hear in his songs on Old Star, song 1 and 3 and 5, even he mixes styles up quite a bit from time to time. Also, the three last riffs that fell into my brain was 2 while watching the women’s soccer World Cup and one while watching a movie so it’s hard to say what dictates changes or riffs at all. But am I still always thinking 80s when I think of metal? Sure. I mean most new bands I’ve dug since 1990 has mainly been doing 80s inspired stuff. I got 48 episodes out there of radio Fenriz podcasts which clearly says what kind of new songs I was liking but now I focus on my massive FENRIZ METAL Spotify list (please follow haha) and again people can check out my taste for themselves. Ain’t no hocus pocus”.