Darkthrone – Astral Fortress

*** Go to our YouTube channel in the link below to see the video review of this record in episode #12 of the SBR Album of the Week.

Darkthrone have had more identity changes than Carlos the Jackal, yet they remain one step ahead of the pack. The death metal group that released Soulside Journey in 1991 is unrecognisable from the primal black metal band that produced an unholy trinity of classics between 1992 and 1994 which would go on to define the genre for the rest of the 1990s. Many scratched their heads when Darkthrone reinvented themselves as a blackened crust punk duo with 2006’s The Cult is Alive, just as they greeted their decision to go in a traditional heavy metal direction on 2010’s Circle the Wagons with surprise approbation. Now on their twentieth LP, the Norwegian duo of Nocturno Oculto and Fenriz are the ultimate example of artists who delight in taking risks. Those of you that enjoyed the last drastic shift in sound on 2019’s Old Star will recognise a new trilogy of blackened doom metal records in the making with 2021’s Eternal Hails… and their latest effort, Astral Fortress, ready to complete the cycle.

You’re in for a shock if your last reckoning with Darkthrone was in the ugly analogue savagery of their Transilvanian Hunger days. You might not believe this is the same duo if you lost touch with their prodigious output in the twenty-first century. Opener, ‘Caravan of Broken Ghosts’, makes it clear that the band no longer want the majority of people to dismiss their music as grotesque and unmelodious noise. A surprise intro of mystical acoustic guitars sets the scene for the volume swell to introduce the first of many doom metal chord sequences and atmospheric passages that glow with the loneliness of a forest hermit. The first thing you’ll notice is the unashamed nod to vintage Celtic Frost for the vocal phrasing and the inspiration from Candlemass for the inventive guitar riffs. It seems like a lifetime ago since the mid-tempo power chord slides and black ‘n’ roll swagger of Circle of Wagons. Instead, the epic doom metal that permeates through the last two records is the dominant feature here. You wonder if they listened to anything other than Pentagram and Celtic Frost on ‘Impeccable Caverns of Satan’, with only a French horn or bass trombone missing from the ‘Dawn of Megiddo’ vibe. The music flows like a crystal-clear stream in the enchanted beech tree forests of Bøkeskogen. You’ll feel alone and in perfect solitude, with the divine power of the trees to keep you company.

The production is always a talking point with a Darkthrone album. Astral Fortress thrives on a crisp audio mix with hi-fi drums and hazy guitars that crumble under the distortion of the amps like harsh television static. The doom riffs on ‘Stalagmite Necklace’ sparkle with a 70s hard rock extravagance but crunch with the bite of Paradise Lost’s gothic-doom hybrid from 1992’s Shades of God. You think you’ve heard the heavy delay vocals before, and you have – in the mid-to-late 1980s records of Hüsker Dü and The Pixies. Here, they reverberate with a nastier projection, which recalls Tom G. Warrior’s gruff sorrows on Into the Pandemonium. Listen to the angelic melody of the sparse but illuminous keyboard notes in the background. Its subtlety is all the more impressive.

There’s no need to worry if doom metal is not your thing. The seven songs spread over forty minutes here are nothing like the monotonous power chord fatigue of the genre’s most notorious inducers of sleep. Blackened thrash tangents and galloping rhythms add variety to the dominant mid-paced tempos. ‘The Sea Beneath the Seas of the Sea’ stays on the right side of enchanting for its entire ten minutes under a blaze of expressive doom passages that aim straight for your love of the air guitar. Take your time to read the poignant lyrics to ‘Kevorkian Times’: “Renderings of what might have been/ A certain smell in the attic/ The branch he swung from, from a child/ Same tree, he now will feed.” Has suicide ever sounded so dignified and yet so triumphant?

You know this is yet another admirable album from one of metal’s most respected artists by the time they bring things to a close on ‘Eon 2’ with a magnificent charge of the heavy metal light brigade. Darkthrone spent their entire career shunning the mainstream and hoping they would not get sucked into its shallow narcissism and commerce worship. They need not worry about topping the charts, but it would not be surprising if they received a Spellemannprisen (Norwegian Grammy) nomination for their services to underground music for this record.



Release Date: 28/10/2022

Record Label: Peaceville Records

Standout tracks: Caravan of Broken Ghosts; Stalagmite Necklace; Kevorkian Times

Suggested Further Listening: Celtic Frost – Into the Pandemonium (1987), Mork – Katedralen (2021), Paradise Lost – Shades of God (1992)