Norwegian death metal retrospect (foundational Northern darkness): Old Funeral and Thou Shalt Suffer

Ah, the innocent days of our death metal youth. It was a simpler time. As Nocturno Culto put it, ‘when you play death metal it’s easy…you don’t have to think’. And you certainly don’t have to run around murdering each other. Do we turn back to these early projects in the hopes of finding a clue to the very germinal of Norwegian extreme metal? Or is there something of intrinsic worth beneath these primitive recordings forged in the ill-disciplined chaos of youth? Do they have value in their own right? Well, in the words of a recently-banned-youtube-channel: let’s find out!

Old Funeral have entered semi-legendary status by virtue of seeing Immortal’s dynamic duo of Abbath and Demonaz and Varg Vikernes pass through their line-up; albeit at different times. Recorded output was limited to a handful of demos, which were collected together in 1999 by Hammerheart Records under the Lovecraftian moniker ‘The Older Ones’. Old Funeral were essentially a collection of dirty teenage metalheads with a crusty sense of humour, and the music on ‘The Older Ones’ sounds like death metal written by a collection of dirty teenage metalheads with a crusty sense of humour.

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Well, maybe that’s a little unfair. Although their choice of titles are often comedic (‘The Fart That Should Not Be’), there is metal of substance beneath this young barbarism. Their earlier works sound like a baby Autopsy, applying the unbridled energy of youth to the early Celtic Frost mould. Riffs collide and bounce off each other with little regard for the conventions of their more restrained elders, which is to their credit. Although it’s not particularly unique for the time, they invigorate this primitive death metal with a sense of urgency and variety that is surprising for what is essentially an early collection of demos.

Abbath takes up vocal duties, his later iconic mid-range rasp yet to manifest, favouring instead a fairly standard death metal growl. His vocals are lent an unpredictable foundation in the form of a restless rhythm section, which shifts tempos on a whim, making for a chaotically entertaining listen. Early grindcore is the other ingredient thrown into this mix. Although the music is structured like death metal – albeit a chaotic take on the old school form – there is a playfulness to the riffcraft and the competing rhythms that was lacking on the works of more mature American and Swedish artists at this time. This means we can forgive the odd sloppy take; it works well within the context of primitive yet competent death metal. When we arrive at later recordings we notice black metal elements gradually creeping in. The production devolves into fuzzy static, the guitars lose their low end, the vocals move towards a higher pitch. Atonality is also side-lined in favour of minor harmonies and arpeggios. Their music morphs into an early version of Immortal’s debut ‘Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism’.

Thou Shalt Suffer were, amongst others, made up of members who went on to form Emperor and one man show Ildjarn; two projects at the very opposite extremes of the black metal spectrum. Most of their material came out in a brief spurt in 1991; before being collected together on a compilation in 1997 after the project had disbanded, entitled ‘Into the Woods of Belial’ after their last EP . Given that in 1991, the peak of worldwide death metal, these musicians would have been young upstarts contributing to an already saturated field, this is remarkably unique. It’s a kind of chronically haunted hybrid of Darkthrone’s ‘Goatlord’ demos and Carcass circa ‘Syphonies of Sickness’.

Ihsahn exhibits an aptitude for the guttural end of death metal vocals that would make Bill Steer tip the hat of approval. They are lent a cavernous charm through liberal doses of reverb, which is also applied to the guitars and drums. There is just enough restraint however to do justice to the complexity beneath the ugliness. And that is really the key word. This is ugly, dirty death metal, devoid of the grace and majesty of Emperor; although many of the riffs would be at home on ‘Wrath of the Tyrant’ (1992), that itself is a notoriously impenetrable release.

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Morbid but energetic death metal is offset by liberal use of keyboards, set to a very lo-fi symphonic choir sound, that when filtered through enough reverb and distortion creates the desired eldritch atmosphere that these kids were probably going for. But beneath the evil aesthetic is sloppy but varied death metal riffage, held together by Ihashn’s keen ear for narrative composition. There are also many ambient and keyboard interludes that sometimes bleed into noise; little wonder that Ihsahn decided to release an ambient album under this name and a kind of testing ground for new ideas; 2000’s ‘Somnium’.

Listening to these early recordings from future giants of Norwegian metal, I cannot help but wonder if there is an alternative timeline where Darkthrone never released ‘Ablaze in the Northern Sky’, and Euronymous just gave up after ‘Deathcrush’ and left the scene. It’s almost certain that the spate of crimes that swept Norway a few years later would never happened. And these artists may have gone in a completely different direction musically. But would we be obsessing over Norwegian death metal in the same way? Would it have become a morbidly unique regional variant of the form?

By the time black metal appeared it gave the stale death metal scene a run for its money. Would a parallel fruition of their death metal selves have made the same impact? Interesting as these youthful releases are, I doubt it. The evolution of these musicians into black metal masters refreshed the extreme metal scene; reimagining DIY values and revelling in the theatrical.

However, for both these artists, and for many other early death metal incarnations of black metal’s household names, I remain curious as to what could have been. Taken in their own right, the work of Thou Shalt Suffer is that bit more weird, interesting, compelling even. The early work of Old Funeral is a fun romp into chaotic old school death metal, but it’s nothing we have not heard before, even for the time it was released. Thou Shalt Suffer were on to something with their haunting and at times genuinely scary form of morbid extreme metal. I guess it’s the closest we’ll get to knowing what Emperor crossed with Ildjarn would sound like, and it remains a fascinating curiosity regardless of what these young musicians went on to achieve through the 1990s and beyond.

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