After their early days as leading pioneers of black metal, the Norwegian duo Darkthrone, that being Fenriz and Nocturno Culto, began to explore the full spectrum of the genre, including thrash and doom styles, even elements of early punk – but always with one boot firmly in the genre's classic era when it comes to songwriting, melody and technical finesse. Their music set the standard for the Norwegian black metal movement of the early '90s (their 1992 album A Blaze in the Northern Sky is a staple in every black metal fan's library), but for the most part, the pair eventually left that particular style behind – instead digging down to their '80s roots to draw inspiration from the likes of Motörhead, Iron Maiden, Dio and Mercyful Fate. They integrated those ingredients in a major way on their 2006 album The Cult is Alive, and they've stayed more or less on the same path ever since, while also continuing their long tradition of splitting the songwriting duties down the middle.
Written and recorded over a two-year span, the band's fifteenth studio album The Underground Resistance again represents a creative balance of both members, with each creating three of the album's six enormous tracks, and both men handling virtually all of the vocals and instrumentation. In describing their individual writing chops, Fenriz explained that Nocturno's material was “flown from the universe of metal with his strongest voice ever,” while his own compositions were “torn from the wombs of the Riders of Rohan of metal, safely cradled in 1985 style.” While I admit that's a pretty awesome way of describing it, let's get down to the specifics of these tracks, which are as powerfully grim as you might expect from these kings of darkness... but ironically, they're also a stomping good time.
Latter-day Darkthrone has often been compared to classic Motörhead, and the moment you press play on the cut "Dead Early,” you'll understand where that comes from: simple, crusty chugs, rolling up-tempo riffs, tight drums, and gruff, whiskey-soaked vocals are all there, although with much darker shades. Even doomier elements come to bear in the down-tempo "Valkyrie,” which begins as a gritty spaghetti western ballad and becomes a soaring, punk-tinged anthem in Nocturno's hands. Punk, thrash and speed metal collide and explode in the swirling mosh madness of "Lesser Men,” which sports some of the album's rock-hardest riffs and eerie leads. The most demonic-sounding track is "The Ones You Left Behind,” which has a dark ritualistic feel and some of the best riffs on the record. Death and doom metal surface in "Come Warfare, the Entire Doom,” in case you need a reminder of the band's churning, evil beginnings, although there's a more melodic edge than you would have expected from them a decade or so ago, and it really kicks into high gear after the break.
Finally... well, you hear the word “epic” thrown around so much in the music biz, it's really lost its punch. But there's just no better word to describe the humongous track that closes this album. Clocking in at nearly fourteen minutes, “Leave No Cross Unturned” is epic in every sense, and takes this expansive opportunity to gallop all over the metal map, spending the lion's share in the realm of Mercyful Fate, complete with falsetto vocals (a la King Diamond) and breakneck tremolo riffs, but also voyaging into some cool mid-tempo grinds and wailing guitar leads; it has the feel of an extended jam, but it's surprisingly fat-free, and fired with enthusiasm and devil-may-care energy.
Even if you're pining for the chaotic lo-fi savagery of Darkthrone's early days, you can't deny that these cats know every rule in the metal handbook – no matter what the genre – and only with that level of knowledge can musicians begin to change up the rules and invent their own. While there's a lot of familiar ground covered in The Underground Resistance, it all seems amazingly fresh, which itself is quite an accomplishment. It's also infectiously heavy, with enough memorable riffs and anthemic leads to fill a dozen albums, making it one of the best offerings in the band's long career, and as strange as it may have once seemed describing a Darkthrone album as a helluva good time... that's exactly what it is.
Need proof? Fair enough. You can hear an abridged version – about half the album length – of the closing track “Leave No Cross Unturned” in the player below, and if that gets you worked up (which I'm guessing it will, if you've read this far), the album version is currently streaming exclusively at Pitchfork.