The year was 1991. Darkthrone had just recorded their debut full-length album Soulside Journey and injected it directly into the rising flurry of the death metal craze. Disappointed with the modernised standards and the direction of death metal at the time, the band wished to be something more. Soulside Journey was a unique-yet-comfortable spin on technical death metal, but even still suffered production techniques the band was not happy to comply with, disillusioned as they were by the undesirable direction Sunlight Studios were heading, pulling them in with a digital drum kit and triggered bass drums. Yet behind the scenes of Soulside Journey, the band was already busy writing and rehearsing for their next full-length album, Goatlord—an even darker, more technically ambitious, more complex death metal opus that would go on to define some of Norway’s impressive-yet-sparse latter-day death metal bands. Soulside Journey was making waves for the Norwegian scene at this time, solidifying Darkthrone’s place as the true pioneers of Norwegian death metal and extreme metal in general. Mayhem still remained underground and mostly unknown; the Norwegian black metal controversy hadn’t yet taken place, and defining classic De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas was a few years away. Darkthrone, with their connection to then-label Peaceville Records, were granted a lot more exposure early on.
Despite the band’s intense dedication to the material on Goatlord, they scrapped the album after recording a demo rehearsal in order to pursue the true sound in their hearts: black metal. It’s hard to say what would have become of Darkthrone had they continued down that experimental death metal path. Perhaps they would have become eclipsed by the more generic standards becoming the norm, later to be remembered as an oddity in the genre, or much later on a cult classic, along with others in the style that came later and were never granted the exposure deserving of their efforts. Perhaps Goatlord would have been more widely accepted; hot off the heels of Soulside Journey, fans might have expected and enjoyed this sound. But instead the band took the genre-defining route of A Blaze In the Northern Sky, taking extreme metal to new places and defining themselves as heavy hitters and pioneers of a newer form of music, influenced heavily by first-wave black metal manifest in Mayhem, Bathory, Sodom, Tormentor, Sarcófago, Bulldozer, Celtic Frost and Hellhammer. Of course, A Blaze In the Northern Sky was still written by a band that, at the time, was mostly rooted in death metal, so parts of Goatlord and the band’s affinity for death metal snuck into the music. Nonetheless, Darkthrone helped define second-wave black metal with A Blaze In the Northern Sky and the original Goatlord rehearsals were indefinitely shelved, buried in time.
As expected, when Goatlord was finally released in 1996, it was met with derision. Fans around the world had become enamoured with Darkthrone’s raw, primitive sound. From A Blaze In the Northern Sky through Panzerfaust, audiences had come to love Darkthrone for their distinct aggression, their back-to-basics take on extreme metal, their refusal to pander to modernised production values. Cutting, cold, lo-fi black metal with simplistic and impassioned drumming from Fenriz stole the light away from his flashy younger days, his focus now solely on deadly, empowering blast-beats and slow, pounding repetition. Buzzsaw guitars took to a more primal style and Nocturno Culto’s vocals were focused on a high rasp. When Goatlord dropped, all that Darkthrone had built in the intervening years was absent. It wasn’t raw like Under a Funeral Moon or Transylvanian Hunger. It wasn’t deliberately lo-fi and complete. It was a mere demo rehearsal, recorded live, with obviously poor production standards that those unfamiliar with demos couldn’t seem to swallow. On Goatlord, the band’s brand of technical death metal was blistering. With stop-start song-writing mechanics and over-the-top technical drum wizardry performed by Fenriz at the top of his game, Goatlord wasn’t what most fans wanted from Darkthrone, and thus was a rare gem only for those who wished to understand it.
The young boys playing on Goatlord were more ambitious than they had ever been, technically striving for perfection, their experimental qualities separating them greatly from most other death metal in the early 90s. Seen as an album written and recorded between 1990 and 1991, it is truly impressive to hear these kinds of leaps and bounds being made for the genre, and it is a pity that it did not officially see the light of day until ’96. Bands like Demilich and Timeghoul were mere months away from their earliest releases, and even then wouldn’t define their unique sounds as wholly as Darkthrone had on Goatlord until much later. Take a close listen and you can even hear some of Goatlord’s weird, backwards, abstract riffing sharing many similarities with the likes of Demilich still to come.
Most notable is Fenriz’s drum performance, which is without a doubt his most technically accomplished of his career, from back when he wanted to play a drum solo for the entirety of each song. The drums here are detailed and technical in every way, and it’s amazing to listen to how Fenriz complements every little riff, solo and nuance with the perfect drum beat and flourish. His fills are timed to perfection and avoid sounding typical, while his work on the high-hat and ride cymbals provides details to the music that even the most proficient drummers could only dream of creating. Not to mention his work with the double bass drum, which always kicks in at the right time to add the needed intensity. Nocturno Culto’s guitar gymnastics shift from one extreme to the next, from doom metal to mid-paced death metal to a punk-infused dissonant riff-monster within a small space, but it doesn’t sound too forced or awkward. These songs are experimental and technical in nature, but they’re crafted with care and preciseness. With the opening doom of ‘Pure Demoniac Blessing’ and the heavy metal intro of ‘(The) Grimness of Which Shepherds Mourn’, we see that Darkthrone aren’t just playing around. These riffs mean business, and Darkthrone was a death metal band to be reckoned with. The band went from dark and consuming in their style to grooving, fast and atypically fun. It’s evidenced further in ‘(The) Grimness of Which Shepherds Mourn’ that the band were definitely having fun writing these songs. Some of the deepest, catchiest grooves in the genre are captured within this track, with phenomenal upbeat riffing and energetic drum work, not to mention the blistering and caterwauling solo towards the end.
If there’s one real issue with this album, it’s that when Fenriz recorded vocals over the demo material in 1994, he mixed them a little too highly, which can detract from the togetherness of the material at hand. Other than that, Fenriz’s harsh vocals are filthy and his cleans are performed well. His use of pitch-shifting clean vocals to create several different voices within the album creates a magical atmosphere, and while these vocals are ridiculed by some, it is uncalled for. From the heavenly feminine chants to his emulation of King Diamond and heavy metal cleans, mixed with his various tones and approaches to performing harsh vocals, he created a cast of characters and voices to fully flesh out the atmosphere on Goatlord. The vocals are tied together with lyrical hooks scattered through the album to heighten the experience and memorability (“and in my darkest fantasy, and as I reach for Hell, I am free…”). Dag Nilsen’s bass lines are just as vital to the atmosphere and general tone of the album as a whole. The track ‘Black Daimon’ would not be the same without its sinister bass guitar intro and rhythm. The same goes for the bizarre bass work and solo in ‘(Birth of Evil) Virgin Sin’ which, in tandem with Fenriz’s unique drumming, solidifies this album as being as weird as it is wonderful. The band captures perfect essence of melody (see: the latter half of ‘Green Cave Float’), dissonance and straightforward, pummelling, grooving riffs. The guitar work is a large, diverse tapestry of sounds and explorations.
At first, one can see how easy it is to meet Goatlord with ridicule rather than accolade. It’s easy to give the album a pass based on its poor recording quality, even easier to see Fenriz’s clean, pitch-shifted vocals as laughable rather than effectual. If one takes the time to really listen to Goatlord, it can reveal itself as one of the most rewarding old-school death metal albums there is. See it as what it is: a demo. The material here is so strong for a demo rehearsal, the musicianship so tight, that you can only get caught up imagining what could have been if it were actually put to the studio as originally envisioned. Every track here is meticulously crafted; the band spent countless hours practicing weekly and fine-tuning the album, and you can hear it in this demo. It’s completely unlike the Darkthrone most people know and love. Aside from a few demo mistakes that are hardly noticeable anyway, the band is as idiosyncratic as the listener could hope for. With the frequent rhythmic changes, technical flourishes emerging incessantly and heavy metal-inspired riffs rearing their head under the guise of doom-laden, atonal death metal, Goatlord is a twisting, monstrous, writhing mass of ugly and expansive metal.