In 2002, I was 17 and listening to all the metal I could get my hands on. But my ambitions far outstripped my budget, so I used to scour the second-hand stores near my home, and every now and then I’d find a few gems.
One of them was Darkthrone’s first album – Soulside Journey. It was $5, and the Duncan Fegrado cover art intrigued me. I took it home, popped it in the CD player, and things were never the same again. Though it’s never garnered the acclaim of their later, explicitly black metal works, it resonated closely with me. The sheer heaviness – and darkness – was a sound I had been looking for, though I didn’t consciously recognise it at the time. And around the same time, I was also getting acquainted with Metallica’s earlier (and best) years. Master of Puppets rapidly became one of my favourites, and remains so to this day. In tandem, these two albums were profoundly influential on me, an embarrassingly angsty teenager – though not emo, never emo – coming off a profoundly unpleasant year.
Flash forward to 2016 and Darkthrone are releasing their sixteenth studio album – Arctic Thunder. Metallica, just over a month later, released their tenth – Hardwired… to Self-Destruct. Having returned to metal in 2015 after a couple of years off, both were essential purchases.
Though there’s a disparity in the number of releases between the two bands, I’d say that’s not so surprising. Darkthrone haven’t played live since the very early days of their career, whereas Metallica are seemingly on a constant tour. Not to say that both bands don’t have other responsibilities (both Nocturno Culto and Fenriz still have day jobs, for starters), but I’d imagine this is at least part of the reason why. So with that aside, let’s take a look at both albums in more detail.
I haven’t really kept up with Darkthrone’s albums over the years. I listened to the first four albums a lot back in the day, but then I kind of lost track. Most of their albums were a real pain in the ass to find in Sydney for a long time, which is at least part of the reason…and I was never really on-board with a lot of their lyrical themes, which probably played a big part too. Through friends, I knew they’d gone kind of “punk” for a few years there, but the tracks I heard here and there were a lot more Discharge than Good Charlotte.
So to cut this long story short, Arctic Thunder was kind of a fresh experience for me. I’d say it still borrows its share of stuff from punk bands like Amebix, but I’ve read others describe it as a big move away from their “punk” albums, so go figure. It’s pretty raw in terms of production, but not that “turn up the treble to 11 and use the shittiest mic/amp combo you can” kvlt aesthetic that has featured so prominently in black metal. In spite of being a two-man project, the album really does have a band feel about it; I don’t know for certain, but I strongly suspect that most the instruments were recorded at least partially live to preserve that feel.
Nocturno Culto is back to performing vocals on all of the songs, which is a good thing. His pipes have held up well over the years, and he’s shifted back to more of a roar than a shriek. My main criticism is that I think that the producer has smashed the echo button a few too many times. It can be a really great technique, but it gets a little too much outage on this occasion, featuring on almost every track. Nonetheless, it’s a minor quibble; when the tracks are listened to in isolation, it’s not as problematic.
And for someone who allegedly doesn’t practice very often, Fenriz is crushing it on the drums. It’s not Pete Sandoval-style blasting or anything, but it works really well within the context of the songs. He has never been one to big-note himself, but he certainly has impressive chops.
Best song: Boreal Fiends
As you might expect, Hardwired… to Self-Destruct is a much more polished affair than Darkthrone’s album. This is not necessarily to its advantage; while I know that we’re never going to go back to that mid-range “scooped” engineering we heard on Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets, I think it’s definitely over-produced. Tracks like “Hardwired” could definitely have benefitted from a bit more grit, a little less finesse and a slightly rougher style of vocals. And the album as a whole could have benefitted from the songs being shortened, and not being split across two discs. Double albums are generally warning signs of trouble, and this is no exception. The best songs could have been fit onto one disc, and the other pretty easily discarded. Additionally, I have never been on the “bash Lars” bandwagon, but I will say I think his drumming is lacking here. The production on them is good, but there’s something just…off about them that I can’t quite pinpoint. They feel intrusive, as opposed to an integrated part of or driving force behind the songs.
Nonetheless, there are good points. Hetfield sounds more fired up than he has in years, and I still think he’s a good frontman, even if the material he’s working with is rarely as good as it could be. Kirk Hammett also turns in some good solos, and I think we can be safely confident that the days of “Hardrocktallica” are safely behind us.
Best track: Atlas, Rise!
As someone who is adamantly not a fan of the post-…And Justice for All Metallica, and has memories of St. Anger and the painfully embarrassing Some Kind of Monster documentary still looming large in my memory, this new album was a pleasant surprise. Of course, “not being as shitty as St. Anger” should be at minimum a default mode, not an aspiration. It’s overproduced and overlong, but it’s enjoyable enough to have on in the background. Metallica don’t have much to prove in terms of commercial or artistic success, and that’s part of the problem. But team them with the right producer – perhaps one more removed from their present-day commercial concerns – and they could do great things again.
Darkthrone, on the other hand…well, at this stage in their career, they’ve certainly settled into something of a comfortable groove. As with Metallica, they don’t really have anything to prove artistically. And though some of their albums have sold quite well (in comparison to other extreme metal bands) they’ve always been quite happy to give the middle finger to more corporate considerations. What distinguishes them is a willingness to explore new territory. Not that they’re experimental, per se; more that they have used their reputation and experience to do what they want. If you happen to enjoy it, good for you – if not, then they won’t be losing any sleep over it.
Hardwired…to Self Destruct is enjoyable -- and it's definitely pleasing to hear Metallica sound re-energised -- but Arctic Thunder genuinely rocks. I can already tell you now which one is going to sound better in ten years.