Darkthrone‘s catalog can be broken into several phases. If you leave the super-early thrash incarnation of the band aside, the band begins with death metal, moving into what we know as the “classic black metal” phase, a late black metal phase, and now the crust/thrash/old-school phase we’re currently in. The late black metal phase, at least to me, begins with 1996’s Total Death and ends with 2005’s Sardonic Wrath (a record I consider to be an unrecognized classic). Within this realm lurks 2001’s Plaguewielder, an album with a score of 63% on Metal Archives, and one that is often panned or overlooked by fans.
But Plaguewielder is not a bad album. It’s a very consistently solid offering of energetic black metal. What the album suffers from perhaps is a lack of highlight tracks that qualify as classics and fan favorites. It’s consistent to a fault. There’s no moments that recall the feeling of urgency at the opening chords of “Under a Funeral Moon” or the groaning feedback of “In the Shadow of the Horns.” But there are several moments that qualify as worthy additions of their own: the double-bass breakdowns on “Weakling Avenger,” the black metal crunch on the second half of “Raining Murder,” and the glorious chanting of “Command.” Michael Nelson said much the same in a countdown of the band’s albums for Stereogum:
“The greatest sin committed by Plaguewielder is simply that it feels a bit generic: There’s no shortage in this world of ably performed atmospheric black metal, and Plaguewielder brings nothing new to that subgenre, while also sort of burying its creators’ musical identities in the process. Like Ravishing Grimness, the album is probably more worthwhile for keeping the band alive when they were on the verge of death than it is for any musical contributions”
And it’s true, if you put the record on without telling someone who it was, he or she is more likely to guess it was made by one of the band’s imitators. But I don’t quite agree that it brings nothing new to the subgenre. There are several moments of Plaguewielder that almost feel more like a rock or progressive album experience rather than an extreme metal one. The main riff and chord progressions on “Weakling Avenger” remind me more of later Enslaved than anything off Darkthrone’s early 90s output.
None of the songs here are bad, it’s just that the best ones go on for a bit too long. My personal favorites are the album’s bookends, the aforementioned “Weakling Avenger” and closer “Weakling.” Both of these reach toward greatness, but could just use a bit of editing or cutting. “Weakling” packs some fantastic Celtic Frost-influenced riffs, making it possibly the only song I’d place on an essentials retrospective of the band’s work. Keep an ear out for the Panzerfaust-esque riff that kicks in around 4:20.
Another interesting note on the album is a song called “I, Voidhanger.” Is that were the record label got its name? Again, this song is very emblematic of Darkthrone’s 1996-2005 stage, very good, energetic black metal that doesn’t offend but doesn’t necessarily entrance either. And after all, if you like good black metal, then is there anything actually wrong with this album? No. The only thing that hurts it in any real sense is the knowledge of the listener of what came before it, but this is somewhat unfair. And if you want to take that route, I’d argue it’s much, much better than Total Death. Unhappy though he apparently still was, a few years off between that album and Ravishing Grimness clearly did Fenriz well from a creative standpoint. And the Peaceville re-release of the album with updated artwork certainly did it a few favors as well.
Our time to delve deep into the bands we love is limited, and thus we must prioritize certain records over others. But even with that in mind, after you traverse the heights of A Blaze in the Northern Sky and Under a Funeral Moon, put some time aside for this album. It certainly won’t be time wasted.