In the prologue to the Spanish translation of Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind’s book Lords of Chaos, writer Javier Calvo calls Norwegian black metal “the last European avant-garde”. However uncomfortable that statement may be, he makes a compelling point: The early 90’s Norwegian scene was not only home to an aesthetic innovation — marked by a complete departure from metal or even rock & roll’s compositional and sonic structures — but also to an anti-establishment determination and ideological stances that point to a deeper social-political struggle. Thus, if every vanguard is defined by the works that reflect the values of the movement and the spirit of its time, Darkthrone’s 1992 record A Blaze in the Northern Sky is our ideal entry point into the universe of Norwegian black metal.
Darkthrone was originally a death metal band, and their debut album, 1991’s Soulside Journey positioned them as a promising young act from the rising Scandinavian scene. The record was dense and the production was crystal clear. It was transgressive and hard-hitting. But for bandleaders Nocturno Culto and Fenriz it wasn’t enough, and at the same time, it was too much. Death metal as a genre is mostly characterized by speed and instrumental proficiency, and the Swedish incarnation of the style was veering towards melodicism and progressive sensibilities. To Darkthrone, there was no longer room for grimness, for atmosphere, for the music to really sound evil. They had to take another path, and they found it right at home.
In Norway, the movement had already started. Mayhem laid the foundations of the scene with Deathcrush in 1986, influenced by extreme metal predecessors Venom, and most importantly, by the sound of artists like Bathory and Celtic Frost. The monumental, epic scope of their tracks, and their emphasis on high-pitched, ghoulish voices became staples of the genre. By the end of the 80’s, Mayhem’s Euronymous and Thorns’ Snorre — who later joined Mayhem as a second guitarist — coined the typical Norwegian black metal riff, playing open-handed clusters of minor chords and tremolo-picked single-note leads.
Darkthrone decided to scrape off an album’s worth of material and start over. They wanted to create an atmosphere by going back to the primitive, the unpolished. Addition by subtraction. Fenriz’ insistence on recording all instruments with the crappiest equipment possible and in a very reduced studio space was kind of a declaration of principles. An anti-attitude towards the metal clichés. In a scene in which both satanic and pagan symbols were used to express contempt for the religious status quo and ethno-nationalism/white supremacy were beginning to spread as a response to teenage disenfranchisement, Darkthrone’s choice for radical simplicity proved even more revolutionary.
A Blaze in the Northern Sky is a glorious hellride. Through six tracks and 46 minutes, the record is a fascinating distillation of dark energy. It cuts through like a knife, it pummels with the strength of a hard winter. After an eerie intro, opener “Kathaarian Life Code” arrives with mystical violence, the spacious low-toned riffs and somber vocals evoke Bathory’s most savage moments. The following cut “In The Shadow of the Horns” contains influences of Celtic Frost and some clean guitar touches on top of the diabolical riffage. “Paragon Belial”, with its slow-moving arrangements, is more in line with Darkthrone’s death metal past. According to Fenriz, they did not have enough time to create a 100% black metal record, so they used some death metal ideas and implemented them with the abysmal production.
These elements are also present in “Where Cold Winds Blow” and “A Blaze in the Northern Sky”; solid, more concise tracks that pave the way for the legendary album closer “The Pagan Winter”. The record’s farewell tune is perhaps the most quintessentially black metal of them all — snow-covered melodies, distortion-as-ambient approach, steady blast beats, nature-referencing lyrics — and it remains an undeniable classic that’s inspired countless groups ever since.
A Blaze in the Northern Sky is definitely not the best black metal album. It’s not even Darkthrone’s best album, but it is, without a doubt, their most powerful statement. By moving away from death metal, they established a sense of distance from the rest of metal that was not only sonic, but also ideologic. Through their commitment to the rotten production, they consolidated black metal’s fundamental opposition to commercial compromise. The iconic album cover, featuring a corpse-painted, warrior-like Ivar Enger against a pitch black background, solidified black metal’s visual canon, and has captured the imaginations of thousands upon thousands of fans through the years.
Darkthrone didn’t really invent anything, though. And they didn’t have to. Every ingredient to black metal’s recipe was already there, but they perfected the formula. Bathory, Celtic Frost and Mayhem created the language, but it was Darkthrone who gave that language the right space to get its message across. For this reason, they are the most influential of the bands from that scene, and A Blaze in the Northern Sky is regarded as the triumphant unification of the elements that make black metal such a notable movement.