The more people try to come up with genre labels, the more bands and acts diversify to the point that such labels are meaningless. We could, therefore, talk about ‘black metal’, but save for the attitude that informed the original music, such a tag tells you little about Darkthrone circa 2016, not least because Darkthrone don’t give a good god-damn about any label you might care to stick them with. A band that have made a career out of following their muse, Darkthrone are metal fans, pure and simple, and their love of the genre as form of expression free from commercial expectations is arguably at the core of the continuing respect with which the band is held. ‘Arctic thunder’ is the band’s sixteenth studio album, arriving three years after the exceptional ‘the underground resistance’, and it captures Darkthrone at their confrontational best. With Nocturno Culto on all vocals in order to capture a darker, more introverted vibe, ‘Arctic Thunder’ is a brutal love letter to the bands that so inspired Darkthrone in their formative years.
Opening with a grinding, mid-tempo beat and icy guitars, ‘Tundra Leech’ sets the mood for the album. As dark and glacial as the scene depicted on the cover, ‘Tundra Leech’ sees Nocturno Culto employing his ravaged vocals to great effect, his voice now older than time and worn into a gnarled, blackened rasp as Fenriz’s drums slowly build into a dizzying cacophony beneath. There’s a strong eighties vibe in both music and production which is unsurprising since the band once again recorded and produced the album themselves (albeit at their old rehearsal unit, ‘the bomb shelter’), and yet, despite the raw feel, there is also considerable power, not least in Nocturno Culto’s raging guitars. A faster track, ‘Burial bliss’ offers up harrowing, wind-swept guitars and Nocturno’s dark howls before the listener is plunged into the sinister abyss of ‘Boreal fiends’. A grimly atmospheric track, ‘Boreal Fiends’ neatly juxtaposes eerie clean passages with moments of visceral rage, and the subtler approach taken here only serves to enhance the air of decay that hangs over the song. ‘Inbred vermin’, a furious, misanthropic blast of death-infused thrash, has a similar feel to the accusatory ‘too old, too cold’ although the riffs here are yet more brutal.
The second half of the album emerges with the dirty riffing of the title track, and yet the overwhelming emotion is one of excitement as the band lay down punishing riffs and crushing rhythms. It’s deadly, primal thrash played with unerring conviction and there’s an attitude and vitality here that simply cannot be faked – few artists are capable of stripping metal right down to its primal roots in this way, and yet on ‘Arctic thunder’ Darkthrone explore the roots of extremity with a clear-eyed vigour to which it is impossible not to respond. Rather more experimental, the awkward timings of ‘throw me through the marshes’ evoke a creeping, confrontational feel whilst ‘deep lake trespass’ sees Darkthrone at their most epic, Nocturno Culto unleashing a huge, winding riff that sparks and blazes with infernal rage. The album concludes with ‘the Wyoming distance’, one last coruscating track that draws on the likes of Angel Witch and Venom, with a huge churning central riff grinding up against Nocturno Culto’s blood-lined vocals.
Darkthrone remain one of the few bands for whom purity of expression is everything. Uninterested in modern trends, Fenriz and Nocturno Culto continue to focus on the music that moves them and if it should happen to find an audience, then so be it. A more concise album than ‘the underground resistance’ (there is no epic such as ‘leave no cross unturned’), ‘Arctic Thunder’ is eight tracks of heavy fucking metal delivered in Darkthrone’s own inimitable style and, whilst the band may have spawned countless followers, they still manage to sound quite unlike anyone else. Raw and uncompromising, Darkthrone’s music is undoubtedly not for everyone, but there’s a vitality present in ‘Artic Thunder’ that marks it out as a highlight in Darkthrone’s catalogue. 9