While American metalheads were losing their shit to Pantera’s third major label album, Far Beyond Driven, the Norwegian black metal scene was burning hotter than a blazing cathedral. Throughout 1994, the most influential releases from the second wave of black metal were spreading across the globe like viral epidemics. Mayhem finally put out the long-awaited De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (during the wait for the album’s release, guitarist and songwriter Oystein Aarseth was murdered by Burzum’s Varg Vikernes, among other mishaps), Burzum issued Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, Emperor blew minds with In the Nightside Eclipse and Darkthrone released the heralded Transilvanian Hunger.
The latter, which came out almost exactly 20 years ago, remains a template for the construction and lo-fi production of simplistic black metal. In addition to being a sonic time capsule, the album remains emblematic of the scariest, coolest and most sinister elements of Norwegian black metal.
Unlike the band’s earlier efforts, which incorporated aspects of death metal, contained multiple tempo changes or were so tinny they sounded like bootlegs, Transilvanian Hunger, is a pure, unrefined expression of sparse black metal fury, from the repeated tremolo picked hook of the opening title track to the last 15 disjointed seconds of “En As I Dype Skogen,” when the blast beats end and the guitars trail off into a deadly, hissing cloud of hydrogen cyanide. Throughout the record, with the exception of the first four seconds of “Skald Au Satans Sol,” the drums maintain a rapid thrash/blast beat pattern that creates a monochromatic, jackhammer-to-the-skull effect. Once the band locks into a riff, there are few rhythm shifts and little in the way of musical variation. Rather than being dull, the results are mesmerizing, and when Darkthrone throw in a new riff or augment a passage with atmospheric trills, string scrapes or a drum fill, the album takes on an even more harrowing, enthralling vibe.
More than anything, Transilvanian Hunger is an exercise in the power of minimalism. Even the cover art is basic. An ultra-contrasty black-and-white photo of frontman Gylve “Fenriz” Nagell stands in corpse paint, screaming and holding a glowing candelabra. The musician sports a web of tattoos and two inverted-cross necklaces, but most of his body is a mere abstractions bathed in darkness.
Using Fenriz’s image for the cover made sense since he conceived and executed the album almost in its entirety. Not only did he play guitar, bass and drums, he also produced and amazingly finished the entire disc in two weeks before vocalist Nocturno Culto added the vocals, which are all in Norwegian, except for the title track and “As Flittermice as Satans Spys.” Not that it matters: The vocals are more important for their harrowing atmospherics than their literal meanings. They’re more the echoey and sepulchral gurgles of reanimated corpses at the bottom of burial chamber, than any sort of political diatribe—which is good because (and here’s where Darkthrone start to alienate the politically correct) there seems to be a national socialist slant to the album that goes beyond a universal hatred of religions.
The lyrics for four of the songs were penned by Varg Vikernes—the hatred-espousing, anti-Semitic , church-burner who killed Mayhem’s Euronyous and turned the black metal scene into a media circus—and the inside art work for the album included the art work “Norsk Arisk Black Metal," which translates to “Norwegian Aryan Black Metal.”
In a press release for the album, Darkthrone wrote, “We would like to state that Transilvanian Hunger stands beyond any criticism. If any man should attempt to criticize this LP, he should be thoroughly patronized for his obviously Jewish behavior.”
Though reprehensible, such a vantage point isn’t impossible to fathom given the impressionable ages of the teenage musicians and the environment in which the black metal scene developed. Firstly, Vikernes was a one of the main voices for the movement and one of the two-main members of the “inner circle”; the other was Euroymous. Members of scene met in Euronymous’ record store Helvete, got drunk and discussed philosophy, politics and music. Some contributed to one another’s projects. Ultimately, the “inner circle” get-togethers led to the decision by some to burn down churches to demonstrate their hatred for Christianity and their contempt for the way it co-opted Nordic Pagan culture. The movement thrived on hate, so the idea that black metal pioneers hated Jews as well as Christians is understandable.
Furthermore, Norway has a long history of anti-Semitism. The political magazine Standpoint reported that the region’s contempt for Jewsdates back to before the Second World War and has become ingrained in the region’s culture. During the Holocaust, 750 out of 2,100 of the nation’s Jews were sent to concentration camps and historians have stated that many Norwegians collaborated with the Nazis during the five-year occupation during World War II.
Such anti-Jewish sentiment trickled down to the offspring of the families in the 40s and in the ‘50s and ‘60s many Jews hid their religion from classmates and work peers. Fearful that discrimination would lead to violence, some families immigrated to Israel, Standpoint reported. Given the way the cultural and even the entertainment community continued to espouse hate, it’s easy to see why. In 2008, popular comedian, Otto Jespersen, said during a nationally televised act: "I would like to take the opportunity to remember all the billions of fleas and lice that lost their lives in German gas chambers without having done anything wrong other than settling on persons of Jewish background."
It’s debatable whether Darkthrone shared Vikernes and Jespersen’s beliefs, but the band leapt into damage-control mode after critics took aim at their anti-Semitic comments. In the process, the band accidentally stuck its cloven-hoofed foot further into its jagged-toothed jaw.
“Darkthrone can only apologize for this tragic choice of words,” Fenriz and Nocturno Culto wrote in an apology letter that revealed the anti-Semitism in Norwegian society. “In Norway the word ‘Jew’ is used all the time to mean something that is out of order. If something breaks down, if something is stupid, etc… When we wrote ‘Jewish behavior’ in our previous press statement, we could have easily have (sic) written, according to the Norwegian language ‘stupid’ instead.”
The band continued by stating it was not political in any way and that none of its albums had “contained any racism/fascism or Nazi slant at all.” When the controversy continued to rage in certain circles, Darkthrone included the following message in their 1995 album Panzerfaust: “Darkthrone is certainly not a Nazi band nor a political band. Those of you who still might think so, you can lick Mother Mary's asshole in eternity.”
During the 20 years that have passed since the release of Transilvanian Hunger, Darkthrone have spewed nothing but non-political noise in various musical contexts (metal-punk, black-n-roll, doom, NWOBHM). So maybe the ludicrous choice of words they used in 1994 to support and defend the album was actually a naïve reflection of their hateful culture and not their personal credo. Regardless, today even the Anti-Defamation League has to admit Transilvanian Hunger was a game-changer worth its weight in blood to everyone from Carpathain Forest to Wolves in the Throne Room. As simplistic its construction, as primitive its sound, Transilvanian Hunger remains one of the best representations of pure, no-frills black metal.
Read Jon's interview with another veteran black metal band: Carcass.
Jon Wiederhorn is a pure, no-frills dude. He's on Twitter. - @LouderThanHell