This review is late. Nearly three months late in fact. But perhaps it is best to look at Darkthrone’s Circle the Wagons outside of the usual fervor surrounding an iconic band releasing new material, especially one that sets internet message boards alight as much as Darkthrone. Despite being considered the grandfathers of the True Norwegian Black Metal genre, Fenriz and Nocturo Culto have now become one of the more hated bands in extreme metal. Their drastic shift away from the sound that they pioneered; adopting a more crust punk, thrashy, rock ‘n roll influenced approach polarized their fanbase and turned their recent albums into records you will either love or hate.
Circle the Wagons continues exactly where Dark Thrones and Black Flags left off. The opening track, “Those Treasures Will Never Befall You”, instantly sets the tone for the album and from the first chorus it is very apparent that Darkthrone do not take themselves as seriously as the rest of their black metal brethren. A perfect example of this is “I Am the Graves of the 80s” (which is an even more of a grammatical curiosity than Emperor’s “I Am the Black Wizards”), a straight up, no-holds-barred tribute to the Thrash ’til Death attitude of 80’s metal. This is definitely the high-point of the album and is sure to get your head nodding, regardless of your metal allegiance.
“Stylized Corpse” is a more atmospheric, sludgy track with some really great Black Sabbath inspired riffing. It is pleasant to have this sort of variation on an album, and it shows a definite musical maturity from Fenriz and Nocturno Culto and no fear of experimentation. I do wish they would push their experiments further though. After the first few numbers, I got to the title track and my ears pricked up. I had heard this song before. Roughly 20 minutes ago. “Circle the Wagons” follows almost exactly the same formula as the first song on the album. Sharp angular, choppy riff with upbeat drums and a melodic, punk rock styled shout-a-long chorus. “I Am the Working Class” (an eerily similar, unimaginative, but thankfully more prosaically coherent, song title) performs the same trick again, to the letter. This lack of foresight into the fact that three songs on an album start off in exactly the same way is rather frustrating, especially when faced with the glimmer of brilliance from songs like “Stylised Corpse” and “Black Mountain Totem”.
The closing tracks of Circle the Wagons round the album off well, with the high-energy “Eyes Burst at Dawn” easing into the instrumental “BrÃ¤nn Inte Slottet” but they unfortunately do not redeem the awkward trio of near identical songs. Black Metal is often criticized for “sounding the same”, so surely when writing an album to serve as a raised middle finger to the genre, you would want to avoid needless rehashing and repetition. However, Circle the Wagons feels almost uninspired and ill thought out. A few tweaks and changes would not go amiss and would certainly have brought out the album’s full potential. “Circle the Wagons” is not a bad album, by any accounts – but it could have done with a bit more polish and a slightly more critical eye.
In its defense, the attitude on this album is electric! You can feel Darkthrone’s spirit and energy in every guitar chord, snare hit and snarled lyric. It is primitive, dirty, ugly and violent. Circle the Wagons feels like a call to the heavy metal of yesteryear, before it became glitz and glamor; world tours and photoshoots; razor-sharp production and auto-tune… Fenriz and Nocturno Culto are keeping the old-school ideals of metal alive and Circle the Wagons feels like a revolt against it’s roots; much like the initial black metal groundswell of the 90’s. Darkthrone love metal and hate you, and they are going to keep doing that because, quite frankly, there are few bands left who actually have any right to criticize black metal for where it has ended up! I believe Fenriz says it best in the chorus of “I Am the Graves of the 80s”, giving orders to those who remember the classic, true and primitive metal of nearly twenty years ago: “I am the graves of the 80s. I am the risen dead. Destroy their modern metal! And bang your fucking head!”