DARKTHRONE EXTEND THEIR AWESOME STREAK ON CIRCLE THE WAGONS
Taste is a subjective thing; one can’t judge another person based solely on what they like and don’t. That being said, there are certain things I can’t get past someone not liking: Ghostbusters, The Simpsons, Star Wars, and early Van Halen albums, for instance. And while I get True Norwegian Black Metal fetishism (maybe you don’t like Enslaved’s proggy inclinations, felt close to Euronymous’ guitar work and can’t get on board with Blasphemer’s arguably superior material with Mayhem, liked Immortal when they were glowering and frosty and not when they got epic, and thought Burzum jumped the shark after Varg killed a guy), I don’t trust people that love Darkthrone but won’t get into their new material. Though they essentially created and perfected the lo-fi demonry black metal has — for better or worse — been known for since the early ‘90s, from 2007’s F.O.A.D. on forward, they’ve been the finest blackened crust punk band there is, crafting magnificently simple anthems about hiking metal punks, Canadian metal, and hanging out in Haiger (on “Hiking Metal Punks,” “Canadian Metal,” and “Hanging Out in Haiger,” respectively). And their brilliant simplicity continues on their latest, Circle the Wagons. Though “true” is often applied to Darkthrone’s early work, it’s Circle the Wagons that’s probably the truest to who the band are: to the point, kind of dopey, black metal only when necessary, and fucking awesome.
A complaint about the album could be that it’s not THAT different from its predecessor, Dark Thrones and Black Flags. And while that’s not necessarily true — Wagons’ differences, though subtle, are definitely present — Darkthrone’s current direction is a kind of meaty, no-bullshit grade of metallic punk that, while similar-sounding, is hard to get one’s fill of; if it ain‘t goddamn broke, don‘t fucking fix it. Borrowing from thrash and trad metal’s confidence and machismo as well as black metal and crust punk’s grimy edge, the band are virtually unstoppable, dropping vintage riffs and irresistible grooves into fist pump-worthy songs that are not only undeniably metal, but a whole lot of fun as well. But in a time when “fun” metal is self-aware and equipped with a knowing wink, the brilliance of latter-day Darkthrone is that it’s completely un-self conscious and serious; they’ve carried “true” black metal’s lack of irony into their new work and used it to their own advantage. The band’s approach is kind of boneheaded and unsophisticated, and that’s exactly what’s appealing about it.
But of course, they’re not a band to be ironically observed and laughed at; they write amazing songs. “I Am the Graves of the ‘80s” is great blackened d-beat, equipped with ghostly punk chanting and a haunting little black metal riff recast as a bad-ass outro; “These Treasure Will Never Befall You” and the album’s title track feature great clean singing and harmonizing that’s simultaneously catchy and balls-out awesome, like if Judas Priest and Manowar had a baby and it sang an octave lower than its parents; “Stylized Corpse” is great trad doom; and “I Am the Working Class” is the best Motörhead song Lemmy never wrote. In theory, it’s nothing you haven’t heard before. In fact, Darkthrone do it like no other band have: their black metal past pops up in different contexts, flavoring whatever old-school metal or scummy punk morsel they happen to be playing. Their obsession with throwback music– right down to the unsanitary (but still pretty perfect) production– is wholly their own, thus making it remarkably personal and remarkably theirs. While modern metal becomes increasingly more stylized, streamlined, and indiscernible, Darkthrone are a filthy gateway to the (disputably better) past.
Of course, like F.O.A.D and Dark Thrones and Black Flags, Circle the Wagons isn’t perfect: some songs are decent-but-forgettable, and closer “Bränn Inte Slottet” is more confusing than anything. But the best the record has to offer showcases a band at once obsessed with its massive record collection and still newly amazed and energized by the music they already know. It’s shit to get drunk to but also absorb on your own. It’s fun and well-constructed. It’s enjoyable on the surface but also exhibits depth. In other words, it’s great metal. If you want to decry Darkthrone for being those dumbasses that used to run around in corpsepaint carrying candelabras or because they’re not longer that, knock yourself out. But while it’s not proggy, folk-tinged, or a wall of blastbeats and sweeps, it’s just as good as the metal that is. While I know taste is intensely personal and differs from person-to-person, I genuinely don’t get those that don’t like Darkthrone right now. Clutch your original pressing of Panzerfaust and sigh all you want, but maybe the band are hitting their stride as we speak.
(4 out of 5 horns)