Darkthrone – ‘Sempiternal Past’ Album Review

I must confess to having been in something of a quandary when I first heard about this latest re-release from Peaceville and the vaults of Darkthrone, as it re-treads old ground already trodden to an extent that it superficially warrants no further return. For those who haven’t caught up with ‘Sempiternal past’, it is a single disc release that collates Darkthrone’s four demo recordings along with a couple of bonus tracks to flesh things out. So far, so good – but what one has to remember is that this material has all appeared before with 2005’s excellent ‘preparing for war’ herding demos and rare tracks onto its second disk (not to mention the live DVD from which the Oslo tracks here are sourced); and 2008’s ‘Frostland tapes’ doing an even better job of capturing all of the demos as well as rehearsal material and a much lauded instrumental version of ‘goatlord’. Thus, yet another repackaging of the demos seemed somewhat redundant, therefore, although there are strong arguments for its appearance.

The positive side, then, is that ‘Sempiternal past’ finally collates the demos without the random distraction of rehearsal off-cuts thrown in. Moreover it captures the demo tapes in chronological order and with a level of sound quality previously thought impossible given the <ahem> raw state of the original recordings. The drums, in particular, benefit from a thorough and loving re-mastering; and although there will undoubtedly be those who cling to the lo-fi values adhered to on the earlier releases, arguing that Darkthrone never embraced digital technology throughout their recording career and thus have no need to do so now; for those who crave clarity this is the best that those rare, decaying recordings will ever sound and for real fans this version is available on vinyl as well as CD (and neither at the terrifying prices that both ‘preparing…’ and ‘frostland…’ tend to fetch) allowing them the chance to hear these recordings in all their analogue glory.

The demos, then, comprise 1988’s ‘Land of frost’, a five track rehearsal room tape that captures a menacing, doomy vibe (especially on the terrifying ‘forest of darkness’ with its indecipherable vocals); 1988’s ‘A new dimension’ which sees the band take on an even more menacing sound  with the remarkable ‘snowfall’, an epic  at nine minutes that takes on early Metallica in the complexity stakes and wins; 1989’s ‘thulcundra’ (which contains the amazing ‘Eon’ – a favourite of mine since I first heard it on ‘preparing for war’) and, finally 1989’s ‘chromlech’ which was recorded live at ‘bootleg’ Oslo TV. Two bonus tracks are also included from the Oslo TV sessions – the first, ‘Soria Moria Slott’ and the second re-recordings of ‘Eon’ and ‘Thulcundra’ (here reduced to one track); whilst a third bonus track proves to be drawn from a 1999 Necrohell session. Entitled ‘God of disturbance and friction’ it’s a cool song that completists will be all too happy to have.

The negative side to all this is that if you are a completist then you will be shelling out for a couple of audio tracks you almost certainly have on DVD and a new track that on its own hardly justifies the expense. That said, the re-mastering has been done incredibly sensitively (by Patrick W. Engel) with the sound enhanced rather than just made louder, and certainly these vintage tracks have never sounded better, with the drums gaining a sense of power that I never fully appreciated before and the guitars much brighter than in their previous sonic murk. Indeed, as a long time fan I already own both ‘preparing for war’ and ‘the frostland tapes’ and yet, somehow, this disc has made a welcome addition to my worryingly large collection – maybe it’s the purity of hearing the demos without all the added rehearsal work, or maybe it is the newfound clarity thanks to the re-master, but it’s a hugely enjoyable record so, for me at least, it’s not a bad thing that this release has popped up.

Overall it is hard to recommend this CD wholeheartedly to fans who may already have one or both of the aforementioned CDs, although, as I stated above, from my perspective it is a well-priced and nicely packaged addition to the collection. It would have been nice, certainly, to have had a commentary disc (as with the other recent Darkthrone releases) to hear Fenriz talk with his usual enthusiasm about his formative period or some more recent liner notes (those provided are from the former releases) although that really is nit-picking and the booklet has been beautifully put together, even if some of the content has appeared before. Certainly, if you somehow don’t yet own a copy of the demos then curse yourself for being some kind of fool and purchase yourself a copy forthwith, thanking the dark one that Peaceville have granted you another chance to do so!

Ultimately you undoubtedly know already whether this is something you’ll want or not, but the final word must go to the excellent re-mastering which has clarified things immensely, and the packaging which combines vintage photos, liner notes and art into one gloriously booklet that gives the whole thing a rather lavish feel – a worthy, rather than an essential upgrade, but a hugely enjoyable listen regardless.

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