If there is a single album that truly captures the very spirit of darkness, it is this somewhat underrated and definitely underappreciated Death Metal debut by later, 2nd wave Black Metal pioneers DARKTHRONE. Whether it was the dark and gloomy climate of Norway, the continuous historical states of bondage and struggle for independence that likely influenced the country’s Metal culture, or just the will of the stars, something was brewing in the late 80s as Fenriz, Nocturno, Zephyrous, and Dag Nilsen began developing the unique pre-cursor to Blackened Death Metal that is “Soulside Journey”.
In many respects, Death Metal became the victim of its own multi-faceted uniqueness in the later 90s as bands began to take segments of the progressive format exemplified by DEATH and MORBID ANGEL and developing more limited sub-genres such as Brutal Death, Technical Death, Melodic Death, Doom Death and Death/Thrash. DARKTHRONE’s pre-Black Metal sound does the exact opposite of what later bands did and puts forth every element developed by the originators of the style and actually added a dark, atmospheric, keyboard happy quality that was not explored very heavily by even the forward looking Chuck Schuldiner. All of the aforementioned Death Metal sub-genres can be applied to parts of this, and would still not do justice to its individualistic character.
Everything on here just breathes Metal eclecticism, from the fast paced SLAYER/KREATOR inspired thrashing lead breaks to the dissonant, quasi-epic Doom Metal riffs that wander in and out of the majority of these songs. You’d swear that BLACK SABBATH and DEATH teamed up to perform the amazing mishmash of Progressive Death/Thrash and Traditional Doom that is “Grave With A View”, or that the former got together with IRON MAIDEN and SODOM to nail together the bass happy Doom/Thrasher “Iconoclasm Sweeps Cappadocia”. The bass intro of the latter, in particular, is one of the most unique superimpositions of Steve Harris’ approach to patterned bass work on the more neo-tonal Death Metal style.
Things really start to get avant-garde with “Nor The Silent Whispers”, which basically marries vintage Traditional Doom Metal with the tremolo picked riffing death style that AMON AMARTH continually refers to when constructing their melodic fanfares, without the complex sensibilities of course. Meanwhile, mellow sounding atmospheric works like “Sempiternal Sepulchrality” and the melodic yet thrashing “The Watchtower” carry some elements of Melodic Death Metal ala Gothenburg, but without the watered down IRON MAIDEN references. Likewise, the album is essentially devoid of all the slow section interruptions that plagued the later Gothenburg scene, as well as the sloppiness often exhibited in the tremolo riffs.
Bassist Dag Nilsen basically deserves his own review for the amazing performance he puts on here. Just about every even numbered track on this black frosted opus is loaded with well timed references to past figureheads, from Geezer Butler to Joey Demaio. Points of interest are found in the raunchy toned, minimalist intro to “Accumulation Of Generalization” which sounds like it could have occurred during SABBATH’s glory days in the early 70s, while that wicked bass solo towards the end of “Sempiternal Spulchrality”, which presents a shorter version of the bass shred insanity heard on MANOWAR’s “The Triumph Of Steel”. It’s saddening that this guy didn’t stay in the band, because even after the changeover to Black Metal, his input could have radically impacted the band’s style and perhaps even the greater Black Metal style.
In the same respect, credit should definitely be given to Nocturno for one amazing job on the leads on here. The list of various Death and Thrash Metal guitarists whose influences can be heard smattered on every wild solo thrown into every single one of these songs is too long to get too specific, but definitely points away from any assertion of a one-dimensional character. The influences definitely tilt heavily towards the loose, agitated and chromatic nature of extreme Thrash players in the German and American scenes, though hints of Schuldiner’s idiomatic sense of melody and structure temper it away from being pure Kerry King or Mike Sifringer worship. There aren’t any real highlight solos to pick out of any particular songs; every solo deserves your undivided attention and unending praise.
In retrospect, it’s difficult to say how I feel about the band’s break from the Death style in favor of the 2nd wave of Black Metal. In one respect, I’m a little bummed because this continues to be my favorite album by the band, though several of their later releases come pretty close to matching it. But at the same time, given what ended up happening to the Death Metal style in subsequent years, maybe Fenriz and the others got out while the getting was good. Who knows, maybe it might truly be better to reign in Black Metal hell than serve in Death Metal heaven, it’s all relative to what sort of company you want to keep and what ears you want hearing your music.
One thing is certain though, any self-respecting fan of Death Metal, particularly the older, more eclectic style put forth by the pioneers should not be without this. It models itself after a rabid sense of individual expression that embraces the somber melodic character that was adopted by the Scandanavian Black Metal scene of the early 90s, while maintaining the complexity and brutality that typifies vintage Traditional Death Metal. In my personal opinion this is not only one of the greatest offerings to bear the Death label, but also one of the finest collections of complex musical works to every grace my ears.
(Online August 29, 2008)