Review Summary: Cryptic, archaic, etc. It's good too!
Despite having competed legacies with Immortal, Mayhem and Burzum for over a decade as THE posterboys for grim and/or frosty Norwegian black metal, and despite having a certain celebrityhood status even in the eyes of outsiders, Darkthrone (or Dark Throne, as they were called in the day!) took a very unique entrypoint into the genre, and in retrospect, their pre-Transilvanian Hunger material is anything but archetypical. Yeah, that album was arguably even more unprecedented at its time for using metal instruments in a purely ambient way, but people instantly digested and understood its Romantic mosquito buzz, as evidenced by the thousands of clone bands it spawned. A Blaze in the Northern Sky, it seems, is not so easily digested or understood.
"Oh, they copied Bathory and made it sound more grim." That's the revised history of Darkthrone's embrace of black metal, but the fact is not only did they slowly explore the style transitioning from their origins of complex death metal, there are blatant echoes of Autopsy in how illogical and primitive some of the riff progressions are. In fact, I barely hear Bathory, to be honest; Celtic Frost/Hellhammer is the more salient inspiration, maybe the confusional thrash-eating-itself tumble of Sarcofago as well.
Originally death metallers, it's well documented that Fenriz and Culto jumped ship pretty much over night and, in what now seems like a joke, pledged allegiance against then-"trendy" death metal/grindcore bands, making all kinds of incensed remarks at Entombed and Napalm Death. Considering how much of that sound they retained, it's easy to dismiss them as phony or hypocritical, but I don't think it's that simple; this is an interesting case of a band using a newly developing genre as an instrument to either forcibly evolve or destroy a style that had grown stagnant. And while it obviously failed in that regard, Darkthrone's cherry-picking of all the mystery and beauty they found in death metal combined with their will to take it further and totally divorce it from blockhead mosh-fodder resulted in one of the most cryptic, epiphanic metal albums of all time. Learning to appreciate it is like finding a key to an ancient gate.
The real star of the show is the puzzling, seasick sense of melody. While Varg got his melody from medieval & renaissance fair music, and Immortal & Emperor dotted your inner canvas in cartoon stars with their sickeningly sweet arpeggios and major key "this is the beautiful part!" moments, the melody in Blaze... is based on its genetic material of crusty death metal grasping for beauty in chaos (that old endearing cliche). Consonance is laughed at and pissed upon, and yet even without saccharine romantic gesturing Darkthrone manage to suggest the natural beauty of this album's title. But fear not, it's not all Art and transcendence; even the oldest school of metal is represented here. There's cowbell and Kentucky-fried taco riffs! It's a frostbitten blasphemous hootenanny!
During this period of Darkthrone's existence, I honestly believe they were one of the most unique metal bands, no subgenre qualification needed. Those who haven't forgotten how to use their ears must agree.