Darkthrone – ‘Total Death’ Re-Issue Review

Another month and it’s good to see that Peaceville’s masterly re-issue scheme continues unabated. This time round Darkthrone’s legendary ‘Total Death’ has received a makeover that sees it presented in a super-jewel case complete with four-page booklet and, as was the case with ‘Panzerfaust’, a bonus disc containing an audio commentary courtesy of both Nocturno and Fenriz, something that will have fans foaming at the mouth with excitement.

The album itself, well, time has been extremely kind to this release which still towers above the competition some sixteen years later. As with most underground black metal the production is thin, but the riffs here have a chilling clarity and the vocals convey an unearthly sense of searing cold and grim, moonlit open landscapes. Opening with the lengthy, doom laden ‘Earth’s last picture’ there’s an almost classical metal feel to the opening riff-fest before the twisted vocals tear any mask of civility from the proceedings and the uninitiated are plunged headfirst into the whirling chasm of despair and hatred that bubbles under the surface of each and every track on this release. It’s a brutal induction and one that takes some beating as a black-hearted statement of intent although ‘blackwinged’ has a damn good try, simply by being faster and meaner than its forebear with huge swathes of guitar creating a wall from behind which the tinny, transistor-radio drums attempt to batter the listener into wild-eyed submission. Next up is the clarion call to arms ‘gather for attack on the pearly gates’ which flies past in a whirl of brutal drums, snatched vocals and frozen riffs with a sound that remains untouched even today by the bands that have followed in Darkthrone’s almighty footsteps. Interestingly even back in 1995 the elements of Motorhead and other such classic rock can be hear festering just under the surface of the syrupy riffs, as if Nocturno and Fenriz had conjured up a hellish turntable capable of playing ‘orgasmatron’ at 190rpm and then added the voice of Satan to the mix. ‘Black victory of death’ works in a similar vein, deconstructing the music of the band’s youth and spewing forth a new and horrifying take on it that is shot through with a brutal, nihilistic strain of black that is all but impenetrable to those reared on lighter fare. That said ‘Majestic desolate eye’ is aptly named and has a stately groove that captures the imagination from the beginning and which works by offering a subtle change in dynamic that breaks up the sludgy momentum of the album, a trick that some newer bands could do well to learn.

What strikes at the listener most is that the album, despite being unspeakably raw, is most certainly a progression from earlier material in terms of production and while a grim debate rages amongst purists about whether Darkthrone should have progressed, as a fan of diverse musical styles, I believe that the variety that can be found amidst Darkthrone albums is one of the key elements that keeps the bad at the forefront of the black metal scene. ‘Blasphemer’, particularly following ‘majestic desolate eye’ takes few prisoners, allowing vocals to take centre stage while the guitars buzz away in the background in a minimalist manner. ‘Ravnajuv’ of all the tracks here is the most likely to appeal to the old school fans with the guitars and drums flailing away at lightning speed while the vocals evoke images of a warrior in bloodlust wondering the desolate landscape of a ruined battlefield. Icy, hypnotic and absorbing it recalls the poorly-recorded but perfectly-executed grandeur of early Darkthrone and brings an icy bleakness to the latter half of the album. ‘The serpent’s harvest’ is another controversial track for Darkthrone fans as it features lyrics by Satyricon’s Satyr, but honestly such puritanical fervour does no one any good because it’s an amazing track that is part black metal, part doom and the icy fury that seeps from its frozen pores is all too genuine. It is a high point of an album that continues to impress with its variety and the advances in both production and musicianship that the band made between releases. A final uncredited bonus track in the form of ‘the God of disturbance and friction’ rounds things out with a sound so raw it practically flays the skin from your face just listening to it – which seems a fitting end indeed to an album entitled ‘total death’.

Of course, fans of the band will already have a strong opinion about the album, but what may provide the necessary impetus to purchase the record for a second time is the bonus disc (which Peaceville have also made available with the beautiful 180gm Vinyl edition, thus ensuring vinyl lovers don’t lose out) which offers up a commentary from both Fenriz and Nocturno. Given the relative scarcity of interviews that the band offer up, this is a prime chance for fans of the band to hear the musicians discussing their music in a candid and fascinating manner.

As with previous releases the music flows in the background while Fenriz acts as a guide discussing history, trivia and recording detail with the passion and fervour that you’d expect from a member of a band as committed as Darkthrone. What really strikes home is the affection with which Fenriz regards his recorded output and the obvious love he has of playing this music and it’s interesting, particularly in the case of this album because he has been loudly critical of this album in the past and here you can hear him reassessing his opinion of a disc that has been overlooked and undervalued by fans and band alike. Fenriz’s knowledge of the BM scene is, of course, encyclopaedic and the commentary flows with references to the eighties scene and detailed explanations of where certain riffs and ideas came from – something that will be of interest to newcomers to the scene and old hands alike.

Unlike the reissue of ‘Panzerfaust’, however, Nocturno also appears on the commentary track. Of the two, Nocturno is much more reserved than Fenriz, with a scything, deadpan wit that stands in contrast to Fenriz’s more excitable personality and he offers up a rather more sober view of proceedings than Fenriz who reminds you of the guy in cut-off denim who invades your bedroom and plays CDs at you ‘till four in the morning but who never gets dull because of his infectious enthusiasm.

Ultimately how often you play the second disc will depend entirely on how much of a Darkthrone fan you are, but certainly the commentary is interesting and Nocturno and Fenriz prove to be engaging and unnervingly honest hosts who are just as happy to point out the errors as they are the elements that work so well which is a nice change from the normal self-justification that you find in band interviews. What is clear is that Peaceville are continuing their tradition of putting time and care into their reissues and just as the previous Darkthrone efforts have been something that is genuinely appealing to fans, so is this re-worked edition of ‘Total Death’. If you don’t own a copy, then you really should. If you do then you need to consider carefully how much you feel you need the commentary disc, but for those who wish to gain a deeper understanding of one of the most revered acts in black metal then this is damn near essential.

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