Why a farewell to Norway? I write this piece with nothing but my usual good will to Norwegian black metal. But there’s a sense in which the hegemony of Norway as the central creation myth of black metal is beginning to slip with each new generation of fans. The allure of the scene, replete with its Greek tragedy of a back story is as strong as ever. But from a musical perspective it needs to be contextualized into a wider European story of extreme metal’s evolution throughout the 1990s. But the visible compulsion to move away from Norway amongst younger fans is not just born of a desire for historical accuracy. There’s a real sense in which youthful rebellion has finally come full circle.
Now that edgelord style rhetoric has become part of the furniture in the adult world, there’s a sense in which youthful rebellion now means compassion, sincerity, and community-based cooperation. The music is still violent, abrasive, reflective of a world filled with violence, but the motivation is shifting. The sound of Norwegian black metal has been appropriated ad nauseum, but the philosophy and motivations of the musicians are now being segregated off in the fandom of youth. Dispensed with as unnecessary, counterproductive.
I write this as an observer and not necessarily a participant in this new trend. So why a farewell to Norway? Maybe elder millennials will be the last generation of black metal fans to have absorbed and appropriated the entire package of Norwegian black metal, misanthropy and all. Maybe we will be the last holdout against a grand reinterpretation of metal’s history that is in the making. In that spirit, let’s dig out some of the less discussed fossils of this scene…for old time’s sake.
Tulus are without a doubt the beta-ist of the Norwegian black metal acts. Never reaching the dizzying veneration of the big four of Norway, the commercial success of Satyricon and Disney’s Dimmu Borgir, the quietly dedicated fanbase of Gehenna or the high courtroom drama of latter day Gorgoroth. With so many silverbacks in one scene, it’s little wonder that Tulus struggled to make a mark. But they have value regardless. Their first album seems to beg for legitimacy in being named ‘Pure Black Energy’ (1996). From a bird’s eye view it may sound bland now, but it taps into many of the mainstays of meat ‘n’ two veg black metal, and arguably outdoes many in a crowded middle of the road.
The mix is reminiscent of a Judas Iscariot album. Rough and ready, but not in any characterful or atmospheric way. Everything is close, immediate, it’s as if we are sitting in the rehearsal room with the band. There is no spacey reverb, no wall of static, just bouncy, energetic, riff-based black metal. Despite the lack of talking points in regard to mixing and mastering, one can’t help but applaud the honesty. There is a humble sincerity to the fact that Tulus have given themselves nowhere to hide. The music itself might be rampantly aggressive, almost full of itself, but there is a vulnerability lurking behind the usual bombast.
The music itself is a pleasing mix of classic Darkthrone and Gorgoroth. Plenty of tracks are centered around a mid-paced blast-beat/tremolo riff segment. But the riffs themselves are characterful, boasting a pronounced melodic core. Many of the rhythms stick with jaunty punk marches that bring the music itself dangerously close to black ‘n’ roll at times, but the riffs are kept deadpan, devoid of the humorous swing that defines so much of that maligned offshoot regardless of their catchiness.
Despite the straightforward approach Tulus take on ‘Pure Black Energy’, many of the riffs are not without their quirks. They will jump from a fairly flat chord progression to a jarring key change or an unexpectedly bright lead guitar riff that completely changes the dynamic of the track. The effect is usually creepy rather than cheering however. The tonal centre teeters between mournful and unabashedly happy, resulting in an ambiguity that is truly unsettling. On the track ‘Kaldt’ we are treated to a bass riff that transitions into melancholy strings that exemplifies this balancing act perfectly. Its these subtle inflections that give this album an edge and durability even to this day. The overall presentation may be relatively bland by modern standards, but there are still plenty of clues throughout this album that speak of music with more depth and character than the majority of releases of a similar aesthetic.
Isengard is a project that will be known to any fan of Darkthrone worth their salt. Born in the very womb of Norwegian black metal from the mind of Fenriz, his sole full length under this project, 1995’s ‘Høstmørke’, sees him take the fledging raw black metal aesthetic in a decidedly folk direction. When one thinks of 1995 and all the works Norwegian artists were putting out around this time – Fenriz himself connected to many of them including his own projects in Darkthrone’s ‘Panzerfaust’ and Neptune Towers’ ‘Transmissions from Empire Algol’ – Isengard is something of a black sheep.
The most obvious antecedent to the style on ‘Høstmørke’ is Bathory circa ‘A Fine Day to Die’, repainted with Fenriz’s distinctive clean vocals. The production is modest and raw in a far less stylised way than Darkthrone of this era, and herein lies our main jumping off point when discussing this brief and very early iteration of folky black metal. If Darkthrone of this era was offering an immersive, uncaring, cold experience, replete with all the theatrics of black metal, Isengard is a more intimate, personal affair. It is still raw, grim, harsh, and in places aggressive, a far cry from what folk metal became in its Disneyfied iteration very soon after. But the overall tone is far more jaunty, bouncy, spontaneous. This is in stark contrast to the misanthropy of Darkthrone at the height of their powers.
The chief reason for this is Fenriz’ affiliation with the punk mentality. It goes without saying that the connection between punk and folk runs deep, but here it finds a voice within black metal. The guitar tone, many of the riffs, the raw production, the slip from folky crooning to distorted vocalisations, all put the ‘Høstmørke’ ball very much in the black metaller’s court. But a lot of the riffs would be positively gay if transposed to a major key. The lyrics, borrowed from Norwegian poetry and sung charmingly out of tune, the mid-paced tempos, all speak of a wish to communicate on a more personal and intimate level than black metal was used to doing at the time.
And this ultimately is what makes this album unique even when taken amongst other projects that were cementing black metal’s strong ties to folk. From the early epics of Bathory, finding their continuation in the considerable output of Graveland and Primordial, all were reaching for something far beyond the simple, lyrical pieces of Isengard. But at the other end of the spectrum was the unfortunate blending of folk with a black metal aesthetic and the power/heavy/symphonic pop metal framework of Finntroll et al. With the exception of Absurd and a handful of others, the folk/punk structure set to black metal stylings that Fenriz went for with Isengard was left by the wayside. Which is a shame, as it had the potential to be a humanising arm of black metal. It’s accessible in the sense that the music is simple, easy to play and imitate, democratic, but still harsh, bracing, aggressive, and dangerous.
What to make of these two albums taken together? We essentially have a lesser-known project from one of the stars of Norwegian black metal, and one of the better albums from the least sung project of the scene. ‘Pure Black Energy’ is certainly the more cohesive work, presenting a strong identity and unified character over the course of its short runtime. ‘Høstmørke’ is a curiosity, a first run at an idea that never got off the ground. Closing the album with two fully fledged black metal tracks in ‘Thornspawn Chalice’ and ‘Total Death’ also adds to the lack of focus, cementing the impression that the folky direction was as yet half baked. For this reason, and Tulus’ strength as unremarkable composers with a kernel of idiosyncrasy, we are siding with ‘Pure Black Energy’ as our pick of the week.