Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Review: Darkthrone - The Cult is Alive
I don't find this album so shameful due to thinking that it somehow murdered Darkthrone's career- hardly. Darkthrone had been making basically irrelevant, disposable music for a full decade before "The Cult is Alive" dropped; it's not as though this album (or any of its followers) are taking the place of some sort of mythical "Under A Funeral Moon" part two which would otherwise have been crafted. No- Darkthrone's been pretty much artistically done for a long fucking time, so don't ever think that I'm complaining about a particular loss due to this album's failure. But the crucial element to remember is that even though all those fairly bland, generic black metal albums did very little artistically, they were legitimate pieces; at no point do I think that an album like "Ravishing Grimness," mediocre as it might be, is a cynical play on the metal scene's standards, a cash grab, a resignation to irrelevance, or anything else as shameful. Even at their worst, before "The Cult is Alive," Darkthrone were always TRYING- even on something excruciating and half-assed like "Goatlord," there was a certain zeal to the music. And herein lies the difference: "The Cult is Alive" is the sound of Darkthrone getting old, fat, comfortable, and smug. It's a transparent fuck-you to the metal scene, and even more disappointingly, is an instance of the band willfully vomiting on their own legacy.
The party to blame for all this, though, is Fenriz. Much in the same way that Morbid Angel's latest excretion was dissected in order to assign proper blame, I've taken a look at the (admittedly smaller cast of characters) involved in this macabre dance, and Fenriz is quite clearly the snake's head manufacturing this horror. To be perfectly fair: Fenriz has always, to a greater or lesser degree, been the public voice of Darkthrone. Nocturno Culto, for all his contributions to the band, has really always been content to rest in the background of the band's natural celebrity status, leaving Fenriz out front to soak up much of the glory and attention. Unfortunately, I think "The Cult is Alive" signifies the exact moment where Fenriz began to believe his own hype. Always an abrasive, sarcastic, somewhat tactless character in the past, Fenriz' attitude regarding Darkthrone's musical shift isn't exactly an entirely new phenomenon, but the sheer degree of his pig-headedness, arrogance, and obsessively self-congratulatory posturing most certainly is. All the more remarkable given the band's madogiwa zoku status in the metal scene, but I'll let that aspect slide.
Half a decade after its release, you've likely heard this already, but I feel the need to clarify some of the (in my mind) massively misguided points made about this album by many critics. The most glaring and crucial: this is not crust-infused. This does not have substantial crust influence, it is not a hybrid of crust and metal, and it's certainly not a straightforward crust punk album, as some have somehow managed to express. I'm not entirely sure what sort of music those describing this album as such have been listening to, but "The Cult is Alive" quite simply doesn't sound like crust punk. I don't hear a trace of Amebix anywhere on here- no Discharge, nothing else from the d-beat category, and certainly none of the more brackish crust bands who would go on to influence grindcore. The d-beats, simple, strummed riffs, and somewhat punky vocal delivery that litter this album do not on their own make this crust punk, and even when isolated on their own are not particularly similar to crust. I'm sure my reiteration of this is tedious, but it's equally tedious to see people express with such conviction that this is somehow in the same pantheon as Siege or something. It's not.
Which I suppose begs the question of what this is, if not crust punk. Well, while I wouldn't describe this as crust, punk is a fair enough descriptive term- or "punky," rather. Not a particularly intense or savage variety of punk either- apart from the d-beats and occasionally more aggressive riffing or drumming, this doesn't even substantially sound like old hardcore (which early Darkthrone did much better.) Many moments on this disc remind me more of the Sex Pistols than Black Flag. More overt than the punk, though, and probably the more substantial influence, is plain and simple rock and roll. Cut from the same cloth as Motörhead's more restrained moments and beefed up with the sort of Celtic Frostisms the band cribbed from way back in the "A Blaze in the Northern Sky" days, the bulk of this music has more in common with rock than any sort of metal, much less black metal itself. All the black metal on this release really comes out through aesthetics and not through composition: buzzy guitar tones, rasping vocals, and simplified drumming. Strip away the distortion, though, and what are you left with? Something even remotely comparable to "black metal" proper? Of course not.
But all this idle chatter about how to classify "The Cult is Alive" is ultimately meaningless, as simply "being black metal" is not an indicator of quality or value, nor is rock influence necessarily the death knell for those either. But even when taken on its own, devoid of the influence of the scene, the band's history, or Fenriz' attitude regarding the music, "The Cult is Alive" still manages to be despicably lazy, inarticulate, and bland. The truly amazing thing about this album isn't just that it's an utter sellout, openly capitalizing on hipsters migrating into black metal in droves, but that it manages to suck so badly from a simple craftsman's perspective. None of this music is interesting, stylish, or even merely catchy: in addition to failing as art, it fails miserably as entertainment, which only serves to make the whole package more shameful.
Astute writers have noted that, pound for pound, most of the musical techniques on this album aren't especially new for Darkthrone- really, it's more a matter of what's been removed. Complex melodies with unusual chord shapes- gone. Thrash beats and tremolo riffs- gone. Any sort of variation from track to track: especially gone. "The Cult is Alive" basically relies on a handful of very simple riff paradigms: uptempo, punky strumming, slower open chord chug arrangements (ala "In the Shadow of the Horns,") and the very, very occasional dip into some traditional black metal arrangements, such as on "De Underjordiske (Ælia Capitolina)." Unsurprisingly, when Darkthrone goes in a more substantially black metal direction (like on that track,) the music becomes at least somewhat tolerable. Not great, not interesting, but listenable enough that it doesn't bother you. Unfortunately, this sort of thing is the exception rather than the rule, and for the most part Darkthrone are content to swim around in a fetid pool of rock-based drumming, awful guest vocal spots by Fenriz, and an array of half-assed punk/rock/metal riffs which somehow manage to all sound identical to each other. Nothing conveys anything on this album; the songs just exist to be themselves.
Again, if this album appeared to have effort put into its construction, I wouldn't be as horribly frustrated by it as I am. But the reality is that you can clearly tell through the songwriting that these tracks were rushed out, slapped together, and barely looked over before recording. From a technical perspective, the songs are flawed: riffs transition into each other extremely awkwardly, and rhythms tend to interchange with no real subtlety or flair for organic development. While the obvious, simple alternation of riffs is a pattern that Darkthrone did great things with in the past, in those cases the riffs went together naturally and created a greater sense of the song's structure. On this album, riffs just go into other riffs regardless of how they might flow together because there's no greater sense of interaction between parts. Darkthrone are simply firmly aware that with enough style, attitude, and brand recognition, they can coast through basically anything without criticism- I mean, who's going to bother leveling the barrel at Darkthrone, after all?
And herein lies the truly odious, repugnant part of this album: the adolescent transparency of Darkthrone's goals and the fans who will eagerly lap it up. Even bothering to rebut the points of defense for this album would be dignifying it too much, but those points themselves are enormously indicative of the sort of audience that Darkthrone has decided to attract with this sort of music. Numerous (generally idiotic) people like to say that what Darkthrone is doing here is "authentic black metal," because they're displaying that "they don't give a fuck about anything." Well, I'm sure that's neat when you're thirteen and still gazing slack-jawed at the cover for "Butchered at Birth," but after then, you should have some standards. Yes, that general statement is ideologically in line with black metal- it's supposed to be a genre about independence, a rebellious and romantic perspective on life, and a distaste for "the crowd," whatever that may be. But is Darkthrone's "response" to the perception that black metal has become its own crowd really logical? Becoming a part of another crowd that's just as arbitrary but even more ironic about their appreciation?
More disturbing than this are the large numbers of people (who typically don't listen to metal) discussing this and later Darkthrone albums as being superior to their early work, or even the first Darkthrone material which has appealed to them at all. Now I'm the sort of person who rabidly defends "low culture" as being no less significant than "high culture," but this hipster elevation of beer-swilling, inarticulate, plastic rebellion is nothing short of ludicrous. "Low culture" and its relevance rely on authenticity- and what authenticity is there in summarily disowning the genre you helped create (and the records which brought you all your artistic credibility) in order to grasp at some sort of blue collar aesthetic which is as far removed from your artistic roots as possible? Really? This is what passes for authentic these days- abandoning nearly two decades of incisive, sardonic commentary on life, youthful passion and vigor, and a clear ambition to make something beautiful, compelling, and truly artistic in order to do songs like "Graveyard Slut?" Of course not- it's an embarrassing defense mechanism constructed by people who are afraid their friends will think less of them for listening to an album called "Under a Funeral Moon" without the appropriate level of ironic detachment.
Over the past half decade, "The Cult is Alive," just as much as Velvet Cacoon, Wolves in the Throne Room, or Amesoeurs, has been responsible for bringing a whole sect of people into black metal whose appreciation for the genre begins and ends at how much it can resemble something else. "The Cult is Alive" simply did it in the opposite way as Clair Cassis does today: instead of flattering the sensibilities of a person who wants to listen to black metal without any of the abrasive things that define it, this album constructed a false narrative of blue collar authenticity for those who like to "be metal" on the weekends. "The Cult is Alive" is the musical equivalent of the phone call a trust-fund anarchist makes to his parents to get more rent money: shameless, embarrassing, pathetic, and dishonest beyond belief. Darkthrone not only murdered their legacy with this album, but managed to dig a shiv into the side of black metal itself out of petty resentment for the very community who helped make them who they are. I always knew that albums like "Age of Winters" would always exist- I just never expected the well to be poisoned from within.
Buy this album on Amazon