Well, you always get what’s coming to you. Though I’m a faithful and unfaltering fan of everything Darkthrone, the band’s 2016 full-length release kinda ticked me off. Having dealt with Napalm and Frontier Record’s insistence on sending out stream-only promos to music journalists across the world, I was a little peeved when Peaceville did the same with Arctic Thunder. Everyone remembers it. And I said some things I shouldn’t have. But, I got over it. And so did everyone else. But, when talk of the newest Darkthrone opus, Old Star, rolled around, I was content with receiving another stream-only promo. I mean, fair is fair, right? Three weeks out—nothing. Two weeks out—nothing. One week out—wtf, nothing? The 31st of May comes and goes and guess what? Nothing, motherfuckers, nothing. Darkthrone pulled a fast one on you, me, everyone. Yet, instead of getting angry about no promo, all I could do was sit back and laugh. Because these fine, Norwegian fellows kept secret some pretty interesting surprises.
Like 2013’s The Underground Resistance, Old Star has some diverse moments in its thirty-eight-minute runtime. Thank Satan because I thought diversity was lacking in Old Star‘s predecessor, Arctic Thunder. Even Arctic Thunder‘s best track can’t top “Leave No Cross Unturned.” Now that we’ve settled that, what does this mean for Old Star and its half-dozen misfits? Is it better or worse than The Underground Resistance? Well, for the first time in a while, I can say… it’s different. How so, you might be asking? It sure as shit looks like Darkthrone, feels like Darkthrone; is Darkthrone. Yes, but it doesn’t sound like the Darkthrone you and I have been getting used to for the last two decades.1 Though the voice belongs to Culto and the drums to the Fenriz, the production belongs to Sanford Parker. And that alone makes Old Star one of the more interesting records of their career.
First off, Culto’s usual out-front, unhinged vocals are almost unrecognizable as they buckle-in politely behind the crystal-clear bass, drums, and guitars. Second, the mix lets everything from the alpha (“I Muffle Your Inner Choir”) to the omega (“The Key Is Inside the Wall”) leave a darker, old-school, heavy metal impression on this disc than similar tracks have done before. The opener’s Celtic Frost vibes slay with Parker’s production and Culto’s vicious vox are as close to the great Tom Warrior’s as anyone has ever come. The song combines darkness with melody before it sets the latter sensation aflame with doomy, CF chugs straight from the days of Morbid Tales. The closer, on the other hand, combines Motörhead, Deep Purple, and Satan for a hella rockin’ time. The licks are simplistic and memorable, Darkthroning the fuck out of 1970s rock ‘n’ roll.
Production aside, these two tracks only scratch the surface of what the band achieves on Old Star. Though it’s a fun time, the closer is a bit out of place and its seven-plus-minute length stretches it farther than it should. That’s not to say that length is all anyone cares about.2 But “Duke of Gloat” and “The Hardship of the Scots” are girthy—knocking out riff-after-riff and mood-after-mood to prove dominance. Both are Grier favorites and work their magic in different ways.
“The Hardship of the Scots” borrows doomy, chugging guitars from “Alp Man,” while expanding on them with a slick, Mercyful Fate interlude. The riffs, the killer bass work, and Culto’s surprising badassery on the mic make this song a Grier classic. Unlike “The Hardship of the Scots” and “Alp Man,”3 “Duke of Gloat” brings back the times of yore with its combination of classic Darkthrone blackness and subtle melody. Seamlessly flowing from one riff to the next: moving from blackened, melodic tones to badgering thrash licks to galloping, black ‘n’ roll segments that feel like signature Immortal. And Culto’s killer vocals match every mood and riff the songwriting dares to come up with.
While it appears that I have nothing but good things to say about this album, it did not come easy. Maybe it was the mix or my subconscious telling me that we were going to listen to yet another Darkthrone disc. I mean, how many more ideas can these two come up with? My feelings toward the title track sum up Old Star perfect. On first listen, I didn’t like it. On the second, I wanted to skip to “Alp Man.” On the third spin, I got it. Darkthrone proves, yet again, that a simple, four-note lick can capture you if you let it. And, with Parker’s exquisite mix, this might be the first time you realize it’s not as simple as it seems. The Old Star is old and cold, indeed.