Darkthrone – Astral Fortress [Things You Might Have Missed 2022]

Darkthrone is the only early-days black metal band that’s kept me interested through the decades. In times when I care little for the vast majority of black metal releases, I’ll always give a new Darkthrone album a fair shake. That’s because over their 36-year career, Nocturno Culto and Fenriz always embraced change and took more risks than a degenerate gambler at a no-limits poker table in Macau. Over the years their sound mutated into punk, doom, and Motörhead-centric greasy biker rock, with the blackened core somehow holding it together through all the twists and turns. That brings us to their 20th album, Astral Fortress. It’s yet another example of the Darkthrone brain trust doing whatever the hell they want in the writing room, recklessly blending influences and styles without regard for fit or cohesion. And you know what? This template works for them once again. They throw a lot of stuff at the wall over 40 minutes and you’ll be surprised how much of it sticks.

Astral Fortress is a weird album. It has fingers in many musical pots and it never once washes its hands. Opener “Caravan of Broken Ghosts” is rife with Hammerheart-era Bathory-esque atmosphere and its grinding, doom vibe is perfect for a cold winter day. The sullen mood is shaken up by abrupt leaps into and back out of punky thrash and flirtations with death metal riffage that keeps things very interesting. “Impeccable Caverns of Satan” borrows a lot from vintage Celtic Frost, with beefy, burly riffs Tom G. Warrior himself would approve of, but there’s a mixture of epic Viking and traditional metal ideas stirred in to sweeten the deal.

Gothic doom rears its head in “Stalagmite Necklace” and the 10-minutes-plus of “The Sea Beneath the Seas of the Sea” is something like doom mixed with Manowar’s triumphant muscle metal and early 80s Exciter. That mix shouldn’t hold water, but this somehow supports ale and mead both. Closer “Eon 2” rides a wave of crunchy, up-tempo riffs and feels like meatheaded biker doom. It’s an unusual conclusion to a strange album, but that’s par for the course with Darkthrone.

In the end, it’s not what Darkthrone do on any one track here. It’s the strange blend of influences and how they interact and grind against one another that makes Astral Fortress so entertaining. It’s a warped journey from genre and genre, often within a single song, but the way Nocturno and Fenriz weld everything together works more often than it doesn’t. The pacing is often mid-tempo and this feels more like a doom album than anything black metal, but the twists and turns make it a compelling listen from start to finish. The raw, rough sound and delivery add a DIY punk aesthetic and that’s always worked in the band’s favor. You come to a Darkthrone album to see what mischief this wonky duo got up to, and with Astral Fortress they’ve walked a delicate line between restraint and don’t-give-a-fuck. That’s their sweet spot, and this is a fun, quirky album that gets under your skin and lays eggs. Let em’ grow.

Tracks to Check Out: “Caravan of Broken Ghosts,” “Impeccable Caverns of Satan,” “Eon 2”

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