The Evolution Of Darkthrone, In The Words Of Fenriz
One of the most elusive, iconic and musically knowledgeable pioneers of the second wave of black metal, Darkthrone multi-instrumentalist Gylve Fenris Nagell (better known as just Fenriz) has stormed his way through 33 years of extreme metal, never taking more than three years between releases. During that time, he and his sole bandmate Ted Arvid Skjellum (AKA Nocturno Culto) went through a learning curve before they hit their stride playing the icy, uncompromising black metal that Darkthrone are best known for.
At first, Fenriz was flattered to be considered a vital component of the Norwegian black metal scene. However, as the movement started receiving more attention for its ruthless criminal activity than its musical innovations, Fenriz and Nocturno Culto distanced themselves from the media as much as they could, and became more insular and introverted as they continued to create blazing, low-fi metal for their dedicated followers.
Above: Darkthrone. Fenriz is on the left, Nocturno Culto on the right.
In the process, Darkthrone underwent various musical shifts. After the influential series of albums that has become known as the “unholy trinity” – 1992’s A Blaze In The Northern Sky, 1993’s Under A Funeral Moon, and 1994’s Transilvanian Hunger — Darkthrone seemingly underwent their next significant transformation. While the band wanted to evolve, the musical departure they took during the next phase of their existence was as much a product of interpersonal problems between the two members as anything else.
When Fenriz and Nocturno Culto dug themselves out of their individual holes and overcame their personal setbacks, Darkthrone entered a new era of productivity, during which the band drew heavily from everything Fenriz has always loved about first generation black metal, crust-punk, thrash, and old-school doom. The final product of that progression is this year’s Old Star, a throat-slashing wake-up call to anyone who would dare consider the band old hat.
In a candid interview, Fenriz discussed the various sonic phases Darkthrone has undergone, from starting off as an old-school death-doom band to playing the fearsome blackened thrash found on Old Star.
Starting with The Demos (as later captured on Frostland Tapes), it seems like you began with a real interest in capturing the sound of the first wave of black metal bands like Hellhammer, Celtic Frost, and early Bathory.
As 1986 went by, I already had played a bit of drums here and there, but I didn’t have my own kit. I had a guitar and a Peavey amp which really didn’t give me the sound I wanted for the stuff I wanted to play, which was chug-heavy thrash. I was into the faster thrash, too, as a listener, but as a creator I was always into slower thrash. Back then, I didn’t have the guitar sound for it. I reckon I also didn’t have the talent.
So, when I formed a band of my own, [Black Death], in the Christmas holidays of 1986, it was pointless to try and play like Exodus and Metallica. Instead, I focused on sounding like Celtic Frost. They had a special way of writing simpler riffs in a unique way — like if you put your sweater on inside out. I was impatient and really wanted to be part of the global underground scene. So, I recorded two demos too quickly and they consisted of little more than the first rehearsals from a band that surely could not play. One year later, I changed the band name to Darkthrone and wanted to try harder, but our first demo still lacked everything.
At the time, did you feel like you were part of a scene, or did you feel like you stood alone? And what was the goal musically?
The global underground was very inclusive, especially if you had a band or a magazine and at the same time wanted to trade demo tapes. I had already started to order demos in late 1986, so I had a few tapes to trade. So, everything was going well, except our music sucked. I kept working on it, and it gradually became better, and then it got much better when Ted joined in the spring of 1988. We worked in summer and autumn on our very epic [nine-minute track] Snowfall. That is still one of the Darkthrone songs I listen to the most, and is probably the track that is closest to what I am doing now. There was a lot of Death, Metallica and English Dogs on that track. I still wanted to include many acoustic guitar parts — like Metallica had — but I was two-and-a-half years too late with that style.
The acoustic part thing was still on our Thulcandra demo from spring, 1989. Then, I decided to quit singing for Darkthrone and have Ted do it instead. We rehearsed much more after that, and suddenly our style turned into pretty generic death metal. We played well but the music wasn’t so interesting — a bit spaced out with doom parts, too. That was the sound we had for our final demo Cromlech, and that’s what got us our record deal.
The Norwegian scene at the time was just a part of the global scene. We weren’t really inspired by many Norwegian bands. I had always been really into Mayhem and Vomit. The slower, primitive riffs of Mayhem’s 1987 EP Deathcrush had always been jammed on my guitar. But that was not the inspiration for Soulside Journey, nor Goatlord. We had become more inspired by Autopsy’s Mental Funeral and the maxi single/EP Fiend For Blood. We had begun listening more to ‘70s Black Sabbath, and we thought Autopsy was inspired by them, too. Some of the riffs sounded like death metal with bell bottoms.
After that, Ted and [guitarist] Zephyrous [a.k.a. Ivar Enger] went to live far away and the band was really hanging by a thread. Lots of stuff started happening in our regular lives. I had already had a steady job since October 10, 1988, and also I got married in late 1992 or early 1993, and so nothing happened with Darkthrone for a while.
A Blaze in the Northern Sky, Under a Funeral Moon and Transilvanian Hunger are regarded as the Unholy Trinity of Darkthrone’s pioneering black metal sound. Do you consider this a compliment?
Of course it’s a compliment, but Bathory, Sarcófago, Hellhammer, Celtic Frost, Venom, Mayhem, Samael, Blasphemy, Von and a good few others were also there very early. Nothing happened for me until I got this killer riff in my head at work in late 1993, and by then I was using this old mini-studio that was owned by the Valhall brothers to do many personal recordings, but mostly [side project] Isengard. One day, I rushed in with this style of playing riffs that was new to me, and I got extremely creative. I recorded the whole Transilvanian Hunger album myself in a couple of weeks. I sent it to Ted and asked if he wanted to do vocals.
Was that a groundbreaking period in your life? Is that where the real seeds of Darkthrone were sewn?
We didn’t get much feedback, so we didn’t see the growth much. We were busy in our personal and social lives, and Zephyrous had quit. So Ted and me decided to keep in contact if more creative vibes came to the surface. Up until 1989, I had mainly listened to rock and metal and some synth, but in 1989 I started to liberate myself and listen to all kinds of music. By the time I was making Transilvanian Hunger, I had, for instance, found the old, great music of Lebanese singer Fairuz and lots of techno, house and trance. I have continued the wild search for music ever since. I made [a mix] a couple of years ago for The Wire magazine that I consider it to be one of my greatest testaments to music.
Total Death sounds like a band that wants to evolve, and is exploring various styles, including thrash, but isn’t sure exactly what it wants to be. Is that accurate?
The evolution of Darkthrone on Total Death had a lot to do with Ted returning to songwriting. I like two of my tracks, but a lot of the material doesn’t work so good with the soundscape. We were out of training, too. On my songs, I recorded everything myself and just had Ted sing, so the guitar work on Darkthrone’s only thrash song there is shabby ‘cause I can’t play fast thrash. But I made the song anyway because I wanted to push the importance of thrash in the existing black and metal scene in Norway, and around the Elm Street Rock Cafe. I held private thrash parties and many people from the metal and black metal scene were there. So it wasn’t strange that I included a thrash song on Total Death. Even the title is a reference to an early Kreator song.
After that, it seemed our energy was drained. We had lots of struggles in our personal lives again and we went on a hiatus as a band. But then we decided to release Goatlord as an album just to have something out there. I had already done vocals for it in 1994 or 1995 when I was bored.
With Ravishing Grimness, it seems like you wanted to downplay speed and make strong riffs the focal point. Was this the start of a new shade of Darkthrone that would surface on subsequent records?
Ted was back. I wasn’t. I had hit the wall in 1996, and in 1998 came a depression that lasted until 2002. So it was mainly Ted’s material. That’s why the music is in the same style as his songs on Total Death. He has been doing those kinds of riffs in various ways ever since, I think. Ted has contributed doom/death riffs, heavy metal riffs and he even wrote our most punk song, Too Old Too Cold. During the hiatus, I had become more and more firm in my faith in ‘80s metal, and even more troubled with ‘90s and current metal. Aura Noir was one of the best bands by then, and they had taken over what I saw myself making. Because of my depression, I didn’t have much music to make, but out of it all came some great lyrics. And the tiredness of the spastic ‘90s metal strengthened my belief that on Ravishing Grimness I should tone down my drumming and play more disciplined and primitive. I don’t know if it made that album and Plaguewielder more boring, but at least it was an antidote to the ’90s.
The songs on Plaguewielder feel faster and longer, and there seems to be more focus on the production.
Nah, I always consider those albums to be very much the same. It’s interesting that people hear differences because I don’t hear much. My image of those two albums, Ravishing and Plaguewielder, can be colored by the fact that we recorded them in the same place at the same time of year in 1999 and 2001, and I was depressed for both of them. I think Ravishing Grimness works better, but maybe it’s because the colors for the original album soothed me more.
Do you view Ravishing Grimness to be the end of a particular era of Darkthrone, and 2003’s Hate Them as the beginning of another?
A lot of it had to do with struggle. Back in 1992 we had a period where Ted was struggling and I made most of the songs. Then we had the joint effort in 1995, which didn’t work so well, as we were out of practice and struggling. And then there was a period where I was struggling and Ted made all the material. But then, in 2002, I was out of my cage and I was excited about making music again. And I think Darkthrone has been back on track ever since. We had recorded two albums in a row and were going at it again. And it seemed my newfound anti-depression was motivating Ted, too. Hate Them seemed to be brimming with ideas. In hindsight, it must have felt like we found ourselves as a band again — like in 1991.
With Hate Them, there’s more of a crust-punk vibe to the songs than there was on the previous few records. Would you consider this the beginning of your “crust-punk/metal” phase?
It has been a long while since I listened to Hate Them, but I don’t think there is that much crust punk on it. But since His Hero is Gone’s fantastically good album A Monument to Thieves brought metal and crust much closer, I guess it made more people realize that the styles could be combined. I have been into metal-punk that was already combining these elements since 1985 — like English Dogs. And also, I had discovered the Girlschool song C’mon Let’s Go, which has a fantastic drum sound. I went to the studio and played the song to [engineer Lars] Klokkerhaug and he changed all the mics and said, “Now, let’s try!” It was another boost of energy, having my drums sound kinda like that.
I think Hate Them is really a black album with lots of energy. On Sardonic Wrath, we had another studio with Klokkerhaug, but we bumped into major technical problems. We felt like the album should have been the brother-album of Hate Them, but that comparison kinda got lost in the sound. Klokkerhaug wanted the drums to sound like the band Tank, but lots of his equipment crashed and maybe the material was a bit out of whack. I still think that album has one of my best Tom G. Warrior-style riffs on it, but I won’t say which song it’s on. You’ll have to guess.
There are elements of NWOBHM, thrash and doom on Sardonic Wrath and The Cult is Alive, but many have commented that it was a continuation of your crust punk phase.
The whole crust punk thing was played up by the press. The Cult is Alive is one of our best albums since we returned to Peaceville. We decided to just let our guard down and play whatever the hell we wanted. It’s a maniac, grim, cool and angry album. It’s out of control — almost flipping over. I love it. And we reached our lifelong goal of having our own mini-studio. It was so exciting to change our whole system of making music. No more did we have to enter a studio with an entire album rehearsed. Now, we could make songs on our own and turn up in the studio, learn the songs then and there, and quickly record them. We still do that and I absolutely love it.
Some fans and critics have called F.O.A.D. the album that demonstrated Darkthrone’s interest in retro-revival-metal style. Do you agree with that assessment?
I agree, for sure. I was letting loose for real. Everything came together, seemingly for the foreseeable future. But I have to say we did revival riffs already on A Blaze in the Northern Sky. I’d say 97% of the riffs I ever made for Darkthrone have been ‘80s riffs. It’s just that Ted had this ‘90s feel to a lot of his riffs and when he let loose, too, it warped Darkthrone in a really cool way. I think it was sorely needed. I don’t know if there were any obstacles when we made the record. It has felt like, since 1998, some of the biggest obstacles have been the endless interviews that I have done after an album. When our work with the music is done, that’s when the real job starts and it’s actually very draining. I have been interviewed all the time since 1988 — some periods less intense than others — but I kind of always feel like I have my back to the wall in every interview from before it starts. It’s like a chore of creativity, and that can surely explain a lot of the weird answers I have given from time to time.
I’d say the three albums with the Dennis Dread covers are a trilogy. We were in the same mindset for that entire period, and we worked fast from album to album. It was like one long series of recording sessions. Or is my memory colored by the album covers? One day I might listen to all three albums, one after another on Spotify, and then it will be clear to me what separates one album from the other. It felt great. I didn’t feel I had much control with the soundscape, but the album covers were almost like fanzines, which was radical. Also, with The Underground Resistance, we branched out into becoming a bigger band with a larger sound. A lot of the credit for that goes to the mastering of Jack Control from Enormous Door Studios. It felt like Ted knocked the walls out further with his songwriting, and I got to make three very different tracks. I could do more of the beautiful early ‘80s Swedish speed metal that I was into, too. But the album still felt like a pointer to what was about to come.
With Arctic Thunder, it seems like you’re not trying to fit into any niche and are just being inspired by great metal from the ‘70s to the present day — or maybe that’s what you’ve been trying to do all the time.
With Arctic Thunder, I decided to give Darkthrone a return to a darker cloak. It’s a more die-cast album — more introverted, more Darkthrone and less honoring tons of other styles. It was easy for us to do because we were already going through a major shift regarding where we were recording; we were returning home to the Bomb Shelter, [our old rehearsal place near Creative Studios in Kolbotn, Norway]. And I loved the drum sound. It felt like we had paved a new platform for ourselves that was slower and less spastic. It allowed me to add some linear song structure. The album was our biggest success, sales-wise according to the royalties and licensing, and looking back, it was all leading up to Old Star.
What can you say about Old Star? The track you already released, The Hardship Of The Scots, is a booming, seven-plus minute epic. Is that indicative of the six songs on the album?
Again, it is a clear continuation of Arctic Thunder with stronger playing and stronger riffs. It has an ‘80s arena-ish drum sound, which really suits the slow parts of the album. There are so many slow parts — more Candlemass riffs than Candlemass! No, not really.
We are still writing as we did on the many previous albums. We have a lot of ground to cover with all the metal we’ve played and heard, but it feels better for me to have fewer influences now, or to choose to have less influences as I did on Arctic Thunder. We’ve said many times that we make albums not for the now, but for 25 years from now. I guess that’s the real distance I need to have to one of our own albums to see it clearly. However, one is naturally most content with what he has just done. Projects in the garden tend to feel the same way. The most recent project feels best. But then time passes and you start a new project.
Darkthrone’s Old Star drops May 31st on Peaceville, and is already available for pre-order.
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According to the band’s Instagram, the exchange appears to be all in good humor.