Review Summary: Lords of the Rink
There are other contenders, but Darkthrone has the most obvious claim to the title of best long-running black metal band. This statement doesn’t just take into account their famous trilogy (plus Panzerfaust
) in the ‘90s, which are highly revered to this day. Rather, the whole discography, now up to twenty LPs in total, is rather diverse while also remaining rock-solid. Don’t let the middling Sputnik scores of a few of Darkthrone’s records fool you, the band has never made a bad album. Even more than that, these Norwegians embody an admirable sort of spirit: while they’ve never taken themselves too seriously (most egregiously during the era of The Cult Is Alive
), they’ve always understood that their music has great value to the fans, and taken this responsibility to heart. In short, you can always count on the fact that a new Darkthrone release will be fun, but also that it will absolutely jam.
Fenriz and Nocturno Culto are now firmly in what I’d call their “Motorpsycho” phase. Like those compatriots, they are decades into an impressive career, but not resting on their laurels. Indeed, both groups have seemingly found a latent font of inspiration in recent years. If late-stage Darkthrone isn’t quite as prolific as late-stage Motorpsycho, their output is still remarkable: Astral Fortress
is the duo’s third new album in four years, and it does nothing to diminish the group’s streak of excellence. If anything, this record is one of Darkthrone’s finest recent efforts.
follows, at least in broad strokes, the path of its predecessor, 2021’s Eternal Hails
. By that, I mean that the band is still delving into a sort of blackened doom style, with tinges of traditional heavy metal here and there as well. That said, this new effort feels somewhat more expansive, taking its sound to more places. To put it in a different manner, Astral Fortress
achieves a more “epic” feeling, even if it feels wrong to use that word to describe an album which manages to maintain an unassuming sense of grit as well.
With seven songs in total, Astral Fortress
hews close to forty minutes in duration, in keeping with Darkthrone’s tradition of trim album lengths. In this case, the runtime feels just right. The record takes listeners on a journey, but brings them back home before their feet get sore. There’s an impressive scope of sonic diversity, particularly considering the fact that the band’s style here is a rather simple amalgam of two or three metal styles. In the end, it’s the small touches which manage to keep things interesting, and the songs are tightly-constructed enough to keep flowing from section to section with ease.
Examples of these “small touches” are all over. There’s the acoustic guitar which breaks in the opener, “Caravan Of Broken Ghosts”, before the tune is overtaken by doomy riffs and harsh vox. Then there’s the backdrop of eerie synths which elevate “Stalagmite Necklace” from just another slow-paced (if heavy) number. Meanwhile, the absurdly-titled centerpiece “The Sea Beneath The Seas Of The Sea” is all over the place, featuring a moody intro and outro, a break into unexpected clean vocals, and extensive instrumental sections, before feeding directly into the heavy blackened riffage of “Kevorkian Times”, which is probably the most balls-to-the-wall song here. Throughout, the album uses varied tempos to break up the danger of monotony, while most of the record is rather slow-paced (perhaps not a surprise given its doom leanings), here and there chugging heavy metal-esque moments serve as an effective reinvigoration.
Opinions will presumably vary on where Astral Fortress
ranks within Darkthrone’s storied discography, but it’s undeniably a well-crafted beast of an album. For myself, the record’s strong refinement of the already-successful formula of Eternal Hails
gives it the inside track for the group’s best since the absolute heavy metal romp which was The Underground Resistance
. The bottom line, though, is that Fenriz and Nocturno Culto are still having fun and still delivering the goods. Let the torrent of “m/ m/ m/” comments begin.