There had been many consequential releases under the Black Metal moniker dating back to the early 80s, but it wasn’t until the early 90s that the style had really become whole and fully defined. DARKTHRONE’s sophomore effort is arguably the first in a series of powerful catalysts that set things into motion for what became the musical explosion that was the 2nd wave, being the first full length release in the style to have label support. But all things considered, “A Blaze In The Northern Sky” is essentially a masterpiece caught between two different musical worlds, though ideologically speaking its intent is quite pronounced.
Even before the band had elected to shift their production practices towards the character embodied in the then gestating Black style, this outfit had a blackened tinge to their sound. At the time it was likely commonplace to peg the band’s debut “Soulside Journey” as an occult-oriented Death Metal release in the MORBID ANGEL or POSSESSED vain, while the riff construction might have come off as a technically impressive variant on BOLT THROWER. But the cold and picturesque atmosphere that the album carried was well removed from what most even in the Scandinavian Death scene were up to. Perhaps this could be attributed to the influence of Norway’s cold and dark climate, or maybe to the band always having an affinity with early Black Metal bands. But regardless to how this came to be, the transition between this album and its predecessor is not quite as steep as it is often made out to be by those favoring the band’s Death or Black Metal releases exclusively.
All of this is relevant because absent the cold, frosty, fuzz driven atmospheric aesthetic, this album listens closer to a Death Metal album than what most today associate with the general scene and with DARKTHRONE in particular. The somber melodic qualities of EMPEROR, the dreary Symphonic elements of ENSLAVED, and the droning beauty of BURZUM are nowhere to be found on here. Instead, what emerges is a riff based and fairly technical display with a vocal delivery that is a little more guttural than it is sepulchral, like a deeper version of what Quorthon put forth on “Under The Sign Of The Black Mark”.
But the two largest transitional blots on this pioneering effort are the auspicious guitar solos and the enduring prominence of Dag Nilsen’s bass. Although there may have been a drop in the level of technical showmanship since this album, the differences between Nocturno’s lead chops here and on their Death Metal songs are miniscule at most. The album’s title track “A Blaze In The Northern Sky”, which was composed at around the same time as the later scrapped “Goatlord” material, has a lead slot that is just as intense as anything the band had done at this point. Similar brief bursts of Death/Thrash inspired speed shredding can be heard on basically every song on here. Nilsen’s bass doesn’t have quite the level of prominence and latitude that it did before, but when compared to most releases confined to the Norwegian scene, his work on here has a greater presence and overall impact on the character of the sound than most would in the years that would soon follow, as a quick listening of “In The Shadow Of The Horns” and “The Pagan Winter” will demonstrate.
Probably the most common criticism of this album within Black Metal circles, aside from it still having one foot in the Death Metal paradigm, is that it comes off as rushed. This was further noted by drummer Fenriz himself in corroborating interviews, as the band sought to meet contractual obligations with Peaceville Records. Thus in addition to still carrying a lot of similarities with their “Goatlord” material, all of these songs carry this heavily through composed sense of structure, as if several separate ideas were pasted together in a jigsaw puzzle fashion. The primary anchor that keeps the album together is the densely atmospheric and creepy intro and epilogue, where a collection of garbled ramblings lay out the rabid individualism and non-conformist attitude that this album embodies. The resulting sound that occurs in between could be comparable to what might be heard when a half hour jam band decides to try and record something with a defined structure. The riffs themselves are very cohesive, the solos very idiomatic and memorable, but transitions between differing sections come off as abrupt. But ironically, this proves to be one of the album’s charms as this off the cuff approach to songwriting gives the songs a sense of spontaneity that most Drone and Symphonic Black Metal albums lack.
It is very difficult to downplay this album’s significance, though there tend to be varying opinions on just how well it stands on its own. Some within the Black Metal core fan base write the band off as trend hoppers, though this viewpoint tends to ignore the fact that this style didn’t really take off until a couple years after this was put together and that DARKTHRONE’s early demos were stylistically ambiguous enough to be qualified as either of the two extreme styles the band exists under here, depending on the individual song in question. This carries the spirit of the scene and it is an intense listen no matter what standard you go by, though it is so evenly mixed that purists within both Black and Death/Thrash circles may have trouble fully embracing it. But regardless of its transitional nature, it is an excellent album and the best of both worlds for those who can embrace both eras of this band.
(Online March 30, 2009)