Using Metallica and ZZ Top as signposts, and moving from their condemned bomb shelter studio to a pro room, the wicked progenitors of Norwegian black metal give off major throwback vibes on their new Eternal Hails.
Norwegian extreme metal band Darkthrone have been shrouded in mystique ever since their 1986 inception. The band's second, third, and fourth albums, A Blaze in the Northern Sky, Under a Funeral Moon, and Transilvanian Hunger—released in 1992, 1993, and 1994, respectively—are commonly regarded as the unholy trinity of black metal. But the band no longer consider themselves purely black metal, and it's questionable as to whether they ever did. They've arguably jumped around stylistically for their entire career—from death metal to doom metal to black metal, and even crust punk, as evidenced on 2006's The Cult Is Alive. They never tour or perform live (their last performance was in 1996), which defines their sound just about as much as any musical influence, as they've long chosen to focus their creative energy on crafting albums in their own makeshift studio, which was located in an old bomb shelter in their hometown, Kolbotn.
Since Transilvanian Hunger, there have been only two members: Nocturno Culto (Ted Skjellum) on guitar and Fenriz (Gylve Fenris Nagell) on drums. Both somewhat reclusive, they work in seclusion from each other when songwriting. Fenriz has a reputation for being ornery and interview anemic, though he hosts the Fenriz Metal Pact radio show/podcast. (He was also elected to sit on his town council after posting a photo with his cat and the slogan "Don't Vote for Me.") Nocturno Culto, who often serves as the band's primary engineer, is more affable.
Darkthrone - Eternal Hails...... (2021) FULL ALBUM
Darkthrone's latest album, Eternal Hails, throws yet another plot twist into their hallowed career. Their 19th release, it's not what one might expect from the most acclaimed progenitors of black metal. The album is brimming with musical and sonic nostalgia that harkens back to an earlier, more formative style of traditional '80s heavy metal and thrash. The word "organic" is often bandied about nowadays to convey something as more real or natural, but Eternal Hails truly earns that descriptor. In contrast to modern metal's penchant for digital enhancement, from quantized drumbeats to auto-tuned vocals, Eternal Hails sounds primitive, like a good, old-fashioned heavy metal record.
There's a loose feel to the performances that gives the heavy guitar riffs a bit of swing, as if they're evoking Black Sabbath. Nocturno Culto attributes this to the lack of a click track. "Since 1987, we have not used any metronome," he says. "That is part of why it sounds organic. It would make no sense to play with a metronome, because, since we started releasing albums—especially since 2005, when we got our own studio—we have this habit of recording one [rhythm] guitar and drums live, and that is what gives us pleasure, to play together." Sure, one could map it all out on a grid in Pro Tools, but that's not the headspace Darkthrone occupies. Fenriz, whose role, in addition to playing drums, has been writing guitar riffs and lyrics, sums up their recording strategy like this: "It's letting yourself be open to coincidence. Throw caution to the wind. It is more important the recording sounds alive, with nerve—that there are people actually playing this [material] in one or two takes."
If a riff sounds good without fuzz, it will most certainly sound killer with fuzz."–Fenriz
Similarly, Sabbath-esque, dark, foreboding songs such as "His Masters Voice" and "Hate Cloak" traverse soundscapes that bound from one section to another, avoiding formulaic verse-chorus song structures. The duo also seem to slow down their pulse from their previous work. "We both feel better [nowadays] playing mid-tempo and slow," explains Fenriz. "All of Ted's songs have slow parts, and all of my songs have slow parts. Ted added the more complex rhythms and strange riffs on 'Voyage to a Northpole Adrift.' I had a complex break in 'Hate Cloak,' but I usually thrive in 4/4—wanting to fill the 4/4 timeframe with as much primitive metal as possible."
With the band's bomb-shelter studio now condemned, Darkthrone were forced to use a commercial studio for the first time since 2005. They chose Oslo's Chaka Khan Studio, where they learned that it's easier to be creative when you have help. "We can go off the initial plan, like in the last part of 'Lost Arcane City of Uppakra,' and create something otherworldly," explains Fenriz. Nocturno Culto concurs, citing that it was a "nice experience to just play guitar and be a musician" without the extra pressure of engineering the sessions, too. But both admit that it also made them nervous to have other people around. "It was 17 years and seven albums with just the two of us in the studio before Eternal Hails," says Fenriz. "We were adamant that we made Ole and Silje [Ole Øvstedal and Silje Høgevold, who engineered Eternal Hails] our friends, too, and not try to boss them around in the studio. We were very hands off. It was the exact opposite of going to a pro studio where many metal bands have been before, and where you know what sound you will get. This was unchartered [sic] territory." Nocturno Culto adds that the older equipment at their disposal at Chaka Khan also allowed them to achieve their desired results. "Take the echo on the vocals. It's not a plug-in. It's this old tape echo recorder," he says. "It's a bit more difficult to have perfect control over it, but we like our studio recordings to live their own life, and we have a vision when we go into the studio."
Nocturno Culto's Gear
Nocturno Culto and his Solar Guitars E1.6D LTD scowl at the camera.
Photo courtesy of Solar Guitars
- Solar Guitars GC1.6FAB
- Solar Guitars E1.6D LTD
- Rickenbacker 4004 Bass
- Tube Works Blue Tube
- Fulltone Custom Shop Tube Tape Echo
- Thermionic Culture Freebird 3-channel tube-EQ
- 1972 Hiwatt SA212 with Celestion Sidewinders
- WEM Clubman MK8 with a Celestion Sidewinder
- Avalon AD2022 Dual Mono Pure Class A Preamplifier
- Groove Tubes STP-G Studio Preamp
- Universal Audio Teletronix LA-2A Classic Leveling Amplifier
Strings and Picks
- D'Addario (.010–.052)
- Dunlop .73 mm Nylon Standard
Both band members thought it would be in everyone's best interest to provide the engineers with a couple of albums as a sonic reference point, and it's a revelation to learn which albums they furnished, because, surprisingly, they were not their own. They were Ride the Lightning by Metallica and American doom-metal band Trouble's self-titled fourth album. "Not that we wanted to copy their sound," clarifies Nocturno Culto, "but something to point in the direction of the drum sound and the overall feel." If something hints at a nostalgic element in Eternal Hails, it is likely derived from those two albums.
The overall production aesthetic is important to Darkthrone, even when working with outside engineers. "You want to create its own space, to take the listener to," says Nocturno Culto. "If you see a big painting, you can say that the actual painting is the music. But every good painting has a frame that has to fit and provide an overall experience of watching that painting. And so for us, the frame is the sound. Some people say, 'Let's have a plastic frame, it works.' But it doesn't work for us. We have to carve the little things out and try to make a cozy place out of it."
TIDBIT: With their bomb-shelter studio condemned, Nocturno Culto and Fenriz recorded Eternal Hails—the 19th Darkthrone release—at Oslo's Chaka Khan Studio. It was their first time in a commercial studio since 2005.
While songwriting, Nocturno Culto and Fenriz work separately and spend plenty of time preparing before they begin recording. "Being the only guitarist, I have to basically learn [Fenriz's] riffs quite fast," says Nocturno Culto. "For me, it's important to play a lot of guitar [before going into the studio] and be on top of my game, because there's a lot of things in the studio I have to cut straight away." For Fenriz, he likens his songwriting process to more of a filing system. "I don't know anything about Ted's creative process, but I imagine he sits down to write," admits Fenriz. "I just get my riffs in any situation possible—'Hate Cloak' and 'Lost Arcane City of Uppakra' came after a long hiking trip—so there's nothing else to do than to hum them into my recorder, or play them with my guitar."
For Fenriz, guitar is simply a "vehicle" for writing songs and not something he necessarily aspires to be good at. "I play guitar very loosely and sloppy," he confesses. "I am bad at repetition and bad at copying even my own riffs. I have to take this into consideration, since Ted plays much more militant and sternly, so whenever I make some weird funky detail, I can only hope that it is played in the vicinity of what I originally wanted." Fenriz says he was, arguably, a better guitar player in the past than he is now, but that it didn't necessarily make him a better songwriter. "I didn't make better material. I just made more material," he assesses. "When I am constricted by my Fenix [guitar], which is hard to play, and my lack of skills, it seems I use my brain more for creative angles of primitivity, and I think the riffs are better, and the assembly of the songs are better and more interesting." He also, maybe surprisingly, writes without fuzz. "If a riff sounds good without fuzz, it will most certainly sound killer with fuzz," he concludes.
Fenriz plays drums on Darkthrone's albums, but co-writes the band's songs on his Fenix guitar, not seen here. "When I am constricted by my Fenix, which is hard to play, and my lack of skills, it seems I use my brain more for creative angles of primitivity," he says.
Photo by Jørn Steen
Nocturno Culto, however, is the sole guitarist on Darkthrone albums, and also played bass on Eternal Hails. He draws from a deep well of inspiration, including some unexpected influences, claiming ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons as one of his biggest guitar heroes, in a surprising twist to the band's musical DNA. But listen closely and there's evidence of Gibbons' bluesy swagger, particularly in his rhythm chops. "There's just something about his playing," he says. "I really dig the '70s ZZ Top. His playing there is absolutely stunning. And that goes for the rest of the band as well. When you hear the drummer of ZZ Top, in the '70s, he's holding a low profile, but when you listen enough to ZZ Top, you understand he's a really fucking good drummer—he's amazing."
Darkthrone are among the prominent progenitors of Norwegian black metal, but label Eternal Hails' genre as Black Epic Heavy Metal
Photo by Jorn Steen
The ultimate question is whether the duo consider Eternal Hails to be black metal. Nocturno Culto says, "I don't think we consider ourselves black metal, but I think there is always black metal riffing somewhere on the records." Fenriz highlights a common denominator between all their albums. "Since the first demo, we've been displaying a wide variety of influences. However, the vocals often tie it together and display a more die-cast impression, leaving the total picture to sound less varied than it actually is, perhaps." He adds that during the writing and recording process, the band would joke that the genre label for Eternal Hails is "Black Epic Heavy Metal." Nocturno Culto concludes, "No matter what we do, I think we always end up sounding like Darkthrone."
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Which one do you prefer?
Rhett and Zach unpack the big news for secondhand guitar sellers and buyers: Sweetwater has launched their new Gear Exchange. How does it compare to Reverb, Craigslist, and Marketplace? To find out, Zach takes the site for a spin and buys a pedal. He calls the process both “very easy” and “normal.” They discuss the pros and cons of the various used-gear outlets and share tips for not getting got when buying gear. Plus, Zach grew a mustache, Mythos Pedals is moving, and he talks about his forthcoming line of Strat pickups inspired by Hendrix’s reverse-stagger setup.
Sweetwater vs. Reverb
Get 10% off from StewMac when you visit stewmac.com/dippedintone
To celebrate its 20th anniversary, Xotic Effects unveils an updated version of their classic boost pedal.
Xotic’s RC Booster pedal is back to celebrate its 20th anniversary. The RC Booster’s original design was a customer favorite due to its versatile clean boost, active treble, bass, gain and volume controls. This classic reissue will join their regular pedal lineup permanently.
• Transparent boost pedal for electric guitar
• Up to 20dB of boost for adding volume or sending your amp into overdrive
• Treble and bass EQ controls with +/-15dB range for fine-tuning your sound
• True bypass switching removes the effect from your signal path when disengaged
• Powered via 9-volt battery or optional AC adapter (sold separately)
• 9-18 volts
The first 1000 pedals will contain a special limited edition packaging with special items and actual guitar picks from Andy Timmons, Paul Jackson Jr, Dean Brown, Kirk Fletcher, Allen Hinds, Chris Duarte, Scott Henderson, Oz Noy, Michael Thompson, Yuya Komoguchi, Toshi Yanagi.
RC Booster with limited edition packaging street price is $172.00. More info: xotic.us.
Expanding on the innovations of Cort’s original 8-string multiscale, the KX508 Multi-Scale II features an updated okoume body and a specially designed Fishman Fluence Modern Humbucker.
The KX508 Multi-Scale II is the second iteration of the eight-string KX508, Cort’s first multi-scale 8-string guitar introduced in 2020. Like its predecessor, the KX508 Multi-Scale II has a visually stunning poplar burl top in a Mariana Blue Burst finish. Beyond its visual appeal, the poplar burl is an ideal tonal complement to Cort’s newly introduced okoume body. Okoume is known for its light weight and ability to improve tonal clarity. It has a tight low-end and highly articulate high-end, which matches the overall sonic characteristics of the KX508 Multi-Scale II. The multi-scale, measuring 26.5 to 28 inches, offers a punchy low end while maintaining a familiar feel and tension on the treble strings, which allows for speedy runs and string-bending. Players have unhindered access to the high frets thanks to the low-scooped heel.
The 5-piece maple and purple heart neck not only provides strength and stability, aided by a spoke nut hotrod truss rod, but a strong and focused sound. The Macassar ebony fingerboard (15.75-inch radius) offers smooth playability along the 24 frets with teardrop inlays. Macassar is an ideal tonewood for high-gain applications because of its ability to cut through a dense mix. At the top of the neck, the 2 7/32-inch nut width (56.5 mm) is surprisingly comfortable for an 8-string guitar and is even suitable for players with smaller hands. The individual hardtail bridge with string-thru-body design results in greatly improved sustain, superb string separation for enhanced articulation, and precise intonation. Deluxe locking machine heads offer reliable tuning as well as easier and quicker string changes.
The Cort Sessions | KX508 Multi Scale II Electric Guitar
MSRP $1699.99 USD
MAP $1199.99 USD
For more information, please visit cortguitars.com.
Kurt Ballou delivers hip throwback looks and riff-ready tones.
Compound fretboard radius. Great blended-pickup sounds. Good low-end clarity. Excellent build quality.
Expensive for a Korea-built instrument.
God City Instruments The Constructivist
As both an in-demand producer and a member of the hugely influential and long-running Converge, Kurt Ballou has put his sonic fingerprints all over heavy music. In the past few years, he diversified his output and made his way into the instrument business, growing God City Instruments—which shares a name with his Salem, Massachusetts, recording studio—into a unique artist-owned manufacturer of pedals, pickups, DIY PCBs for courageous tinkerers, and guitars and basses.
It’s no surprise that Ballou’s instruments are designed to deliver the massive tones one would expect from his records. But the visual aesthetic of GCI’s instruments includes playfully retro-inspired body styles and bright candy colors. Ballou’s newest are the Constructivist guitar and bass. It’s a model that looks classic, but not overly so, and feels as solid as the riffs you’ll want to head up to Salem and record once you get your hands on one. At $1,749, though, the Constructivist is in a price class with some heavy hitters, which could be hard to live up to for a Korea-built instrument.
Retro Looks and Formidable Function
Like GCI’s other offerings—the Craftsman and the Deconstructivist—the Constructivist wouldn’t look completely out of place in a ’60s Teisco catalog. The cherryburst finish is handsome, and the ash body’s German carve feels upscale and classic. The six-saddle hardtail bridge reminds me a little of a vintage Peavey T-60. And like that model—or at least what I remember of one—it’s a sturdy, comfortable place to launch a variety of picking attacks.
The Constructivist’s bolt-on, roasted-maple neck has a flat-C profile that makes it easy to grip. The satin polyurethane finish is flawless. The playability feels a little stiff right out of the box, but you sense a good breaking-in period would make it feel more personal. The block inlays look good across the bound rosewood fretboard’s flat 12" to 16" compound radius, which delivers easily reachable playability.
With a 25 1/2" scale, medium jumbo frets, and set up for standard tuning with a set of .011s (God City instruments typically ship in D-standard tuning), it’s a riff-blasting beast. I really clicked with the Constructivist when I jammed on the lower end of its range, where I found lots of resonating sustain at higher gain settings. Venturing up beyond the 12th fret, the compound radius provides a nice, even playing field, though it’s not quite as bend friendly as you might suspect.
Creamy, Cutting, and More
Plugged straight into my Deluxe Reverb, GCI’s P-90s deliver a fine creamy tone. I was delighted to hear a wide frequency response from both neck and bridge pickups, which both have lower bout on/off sliders that are nice and tight, so there's no chance of accidental switching. But the Constructivist is no bebop machine—as hip as that might be for a guitar that looks like this—and I restricted my clean playing to strums and open-chord arpeggios.
The Constructivist sounds even better with some dirt. I clicked between a couple different boxes—a Klon KTR, an Analog Man King of Tone, and an EHX Ripped Speaker—where I spent most of my time. The bridge pickup cuts while maintaining body. On low-end riffage, I found a twangy clarity, even when dosed with gain. Up top, I did my finest Duane Denison impression in search of scathing sustained clusters, which seem right in line with the GCI’s agenda, and they sounded screechy enough to be nasty, but clear enough to hear all the notes.
The neck pickup delivers an articulate clarity that doesn’t succumb to swampiness. There’s enough brightness in this P-90 to sing through heavy doses of gain. But I spent the bulk of my time with both pickups on, using each volume knob to carve out tones. The dynamic response of these pickups seems to encourage picking subtleties, which illuminates the nuances found in pickup blending. That’s something I rarely do on my own guitars, but on the Constructivist, I was able to dial in the sound I wanted, adding body to cutting high-end leads and giving dark power chords a little extra edge.
It’s no big surprise that this guitar is a riff machine. Like much of Ballou’s musical work, it’s sturdy, sounds heavy, and is aesthetically tight. Maybe that’s a fancy way to say if you love his music, it’s likely you’ll get down with this guitar.
But you’ll be paying a hefty price to do so. At $1,749 street, the Constructivist is expensive for a Korea-built instrument. Then again, God City uses a small-batch shop, rather than a large-scale contractor. Additionally, compound fretboard radiuses require care to get right. Plus, the attention to detail on this instrument is noticeable—this isn’t something that just left the factory without a good going-over. That said, I’d expect the same quality from any domestic instrument in the same price range. Only time will determine if this is an early indicator of guitar pricing to come, or if the Constructivist is just costly for a Korean import. My gut tells me that, at this price range, it will appeal most to players whose specific tastes really align with Ballou’s. But it’s still a fun, well-built guitar.