For as much fuss is made over the worth (or goat forbid, "kvlt" value) of one DARKTHRONE album over another, especially those spanning the last few years, one would think that the music in question is of the avant-garde variety. Hell, it's not even experimental! Any way you slice, it is metal and the only questions asked in any assessment pertain to the degree to which the metal bends more toward punk, black, or traditional styles. As has often been the case, the punk and (of course) black — at least generally — have often been the most apparent, but traditional heavy metal has made its presence felt too, this time in a big way on new album "Circle the Wagons". No matter what the album or circumstance, DARKTHRONE tends to piss off nearly as many people as they please with each release, yet I can't help but attribute much of that attitude to stubborn nostalgia for the "good ole days," an unwillingness to accept any musical straying from a path that was never all that straight and narrow to begin with, and at least a vocal handful of folks that get sucked right in to the endless "debate" — fueled in no small part by Fenriz and Nocturno Culto (songwriting, guitars, bass) — over the wisdom of DARKTHRONE's musical choices at the expense of independent thought and logically based opinion.
Interestingly enough, "Circle the Wagons" has already brought about more whacks to the hornet's nest than perhaps any previous album, which I find even more intriguing in that I consider it to be one of the act's most complete efforts. Then again, I've not tended to get too caught up in all the hair splitting nor have I come across a DARKTHRONE album that I've not found to be at least decent. The thing about "Circle the Wagons" is that as dirty and occasionally punk-edged and blackened as it may be, much of what is heard is based in traditional heavy metal. But more importantly, it is an album that sounds like DARKTHRONE, which says more than anything about the band's development of an identity; one based on not giving a shit, but an identity nonetheless.
The influences are apparent, yet not always easily pinpointed, and that's because it all runs through the gears of DARKTHRONE's diabolical machine and in the case of "Circle the Wagons" the product is one the band's most (reasonably) varied, yet cohesive, albums to date; one that is easily grasped, yet intelligently arranged, and still offers opportunities for it to grow on the listener. That "growing" quality is apparent almost right off the bat, as opener "Those Treasurers will Never Befall You" grabs a handful of shorthairs with a tough, delectably dry riff (the disc is filled with them) and drumming that pounds and punches at just the right times for maximum oomph, yet features a cleanly sung, lower register chorus delivered with pipes (rusty, not golden) that will have most listeners initially taken aback. But I'll be damned if that sucker doesn't grow like a fungus and soon become permanently embedded in the psyche; the song is catchy as hell and still swings a big fucking stick. The title track has a similar effect with its oddly infectious chorus.
The remaining tracks then demonstrate why "Circle the Wagons" is one of the duo's most thoroughly developed front-to-back albums; there just isn't anything resembling filler here and it gets better the more you listen. Ugliness and dread still abounds ("Running for Borders" and "Stylized Corpse") and the punk edges are still felt, to some degree on the anthemic excellence of "I am the Graves of the 80s" (though there is just as much trad-metal) and the cleverly arranged, forceful as hell "I Am the Working Class", which rivals "Those Treasures will Never Befall You" on the slam riffery scale, but the structural bases of the song are more dynamic than may initially meet the ear. That sentiment includes instrumental closer "Bränn Inte Slottet" (wait until you hear the chant) as well.
At the end of the day, "Circle the Wagons" is DARKTHRONE once again doing whatever it damn well pleases. Fortunately, any satisfaction gained by Nocturno Culto and Fenriz from that approach to art translates directly to listener satisfaction. Great album!