How do you even begin to quantify the importance of an album like ‘a blaze in the northern sky’? How do you present it, some twenty years after it first slid, mewling, into the world like an ill-formed spawn of the antichrist, as a special edition to black metal fans who, to this day, hold it up as a pinnacle of the genre? The answer to the latter question is, undoubtedly, with great care, and thankfully Peaceville are up to the task of guarding the legacy of one of their greatest artists, presenting a twentieth anniversary edition that provides the listener with an unadorned copy of the original album, a second disc featuring the now ubiquitous commentary (a bonus feature which has increasingly become something to look forward to on each Darkthrone re-issue) and well-written liner notes, all packaged in one of the handsome digibooks which Peaceville/Snapper music do so well.
Recorded back in the mists of time (that’s the summer of 1991 in case you were wondering), ‘A blaze in the northern sky’ was, and remains, an unholy racket of monolithic proportions. In the subsequent years many bands have imitated the raw, obnoxious sound the band produced, but few have captured the sheer intensity that Fenriz, Nocturno Culto and Zephyrous, all in thrall to the ominous sounds of Sodom, Vader and Mayhem, conjured up in the studio over the course of three days. Brutal, brittle and utterly brilliant, Fenriz’s assertion in the liner notes that ‘A blaze in the northern sky’ (alongside ‘ritual’ by Master’s hammer) was the freshest thing out in the 90s is absolutely true, as is his assertion that, up until that point, there was no 90s black metal scene. Indeed, whilst ‘ABITNS’ may well have looked to the eighties for inspiration, the stench raised by the album was that of recent exhumation rather than rank plagiarism and the result was that the album ushered in a new era of metal that bubbled away, forever below the surface of the mainstream, captivating a rare few who would become loyal adherents to the genre over the course of the subsequent years.
An album such as ‘ABITNS’ has been reviewed, deconstructed and analysed countless times in the years since it was released and this review will make no further attempt to detail its contents, suffice it to say that it is one of the pinnacles of both Darkthrone’s career and Black metal as a genre. This version develops on that by getting Fenriz into the studio to talk the listener through anything and everything connected to the development of the music whilst the album plays in the background. As always, Fenriz proves to be an enthusiastic guide and a mine of information – it is his personality that makes this unusual feature work and it’s hard to imagine many other musicians being as amusingly intelligent, self-deprecating and honest about their work as Fenriz is. Typically, fans of Darkthrone will find themselves absorbed into the commentary as Fenriz talks personably about an album that helped to change the course of musical history. The fact of his openness and his rampant enthusiasm means that what could be a depressingly dull half hour, turns into the equivalent of sitting around a table full of beer with a good friend talking about music that you love.
It’s hard to imagine any extreme metal fan not owning a copy of ‘a blaze in a northern sky’, but should you not have a copy already then this is as essential as oxygen and, following a self-administered beating for not having already purchased a copy, you should be straight out to get this handsome re-issue. If, on the other hand, you have a well-loved copy already, then the question is how much you’re keen to discover the history of an album you’ve probably listened to a thousand times or more. There are no extra tracks but, frankly, these just aren’t needed (and after the ‘preparing for war’ box set and the various demo releases the cupboard is probably bare on this front anyway) but for fans of the band, Fenriz’s commentary alongside the beautifully enhanced packaging (which includes new and unseen photos and informative liner notes), not to mention a video interview (filmed for the 2003 re-issue of the album) will prove to be too irresistible a temptation and rightly so. A well packaged and suitably lavish celebration of a dark classic, this twentieth anniversary re-issue of ‘A Blaze in the northern sky’ is well worth your time and money.