Justify Your Shitty Taste: Darkthrone’s “Ravishing Grimness”

I know, I know: You’re already typing about how this isn’t a “shitty” record in the comments before you even finish reading this sentence like the premature ejaculator you are. But once you’ve grabbed a tissue, take a second to read the hows and whys, it might be a good lesson on perspective. Or at least a minor diversion before you go spread some meme about OSDM or whatever the fuck people do on the internet these days.

At the time Ravishing Grimness was released, Darkthrone was still this mysterious and mythical band: they had just finished a ten year run of records that could all be considered perfect, as close to sacrosanct as you could get (alongside De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas and the early Burzum records before people would call the fucking police on you for acknowledging that). Transilvanian Hunger was the blueprint for hundreds, if not thousands, of copycats the world over. There were tribute records referencing the band as “holy.” This was the sonic royalty of absolute evil. So, when they released Ravishing Grimness, it came as a shock to many in the underground and became a fairly divisive record due to the change in tone, aesthetic and sound. With the cover art of an old man fading into the forest, Darkthrone joined the early ’00s Moonfog roster’s stylized art direction, though—at least for this record—they don’t come across nearly as dated as some of the others.

Ravishing Grimness was released towards the end of 1999, back when the only way you were hearing samples without buying it was if you were in the press, if you or a friend bought it, or if you were a fucking nerd and could manage torrents. My first experience hearing it was in a car after I was picked up at the airport in San Antonio for the Sacrifice of the Nazarene Child Fest, with multiple other like-minded underground fellows. Once the opening whip cracked the previously obnoxiously loud car fell uniquely silent, as everyone within treated the first listen of the new Darkthrone as a serious event. Once we reached our destination a shockingly academic discussion of the record broke out, beginning with someone exclaiming “that sucked!” Was it the emphasis on a “cleaner” sound? More complex songs? None of the think tank could really come up with an answer. It was a divided room and the debate was never settled because someone put on Battles in the North and a new debate about Immortal being crap flared up because we were all in our early 20s and fucking stupid.

(For the record, anything before Battles is gold, everything after is spotty at best.)

Something about Ravishing Grimness grabbed me and by the time I had returned home my copy had arrived for further listening. My initial listen in that overpacked sedan left me curious to dig into it further, regardless of the commotion it caused that night or in whatever chat room I was sinking too much time in. What was wrong with it that caused so much of a fucking stink in zines and forums?

For some more perspective: Back in 1999 we were just getting over a few years of retro thrash being pushed from labels that were considered previously to be solely “black metal labels” (hi, Osmose) as well as the pervasive atmosphere in the underground that bands like Cradle of Filth were somehow going to ruin black metal (jokes on us, black metal was ruined a decade or so later by other means while bands like Cradle and Dimmu somehow kept their integrity, regardless of that being for better or the worse). Darkthrone coming out with a record that was more metal/less black after 10 years of being the kings of the genre was something people just weren’t ready for; while Darkthrone was ready to move into different directions, the underground wasn’t. Decades later there’s still a contingent who view this record as the moment Darkthrone somehow betrayed black metal.

Listening back to the radio show I hosted at the time it was obvious that I wasn’t among them, I played the fuck out of this record. There was something about Ravishing Grimness that had the same kind of feeling that Under the Sign of the Black Mark to me, that raw yet epic (triumphant? I’m at a loss here, something that means the same thing without bringing to mind fucking Viking helmets) feeling, with plenty of earworms that have stayed with me over 20 years later. Sure, the record isn’t incredibly necrotic or raw, but neither was Total Death and that record wasn’t nearly as divisive.

Was it a byproduct of an era where the mystique of the genre was starting to peel away? Songs like “Claws of Time” or the title track have some of the most memorable riffs they’ve ever recorded. The darkness of this record isn’t the jet black drippings of A Blaze in the Northern Sky but it seethes with a maliciousness uniquely its own. A genuinely nasty record, just in a different dressing than before.

I’m sure this will read more as a nostalgia trip to a point in time where the black metal scene was somehow less “civilized” and a majority of you reading this were probably still in fucking diapers, so this record isn’t as much of a turning point for you or you might not be of the age that held Darkthrone as more than just a band. And that’s primarily because of the trajectory this album laid down for the band as well as the changes in the black metal underground it caused, regardless of how subtle and unnoticeable it may appear now. And while I have great fondness for (most of) their output since, Ravishing Grimness marks the last time that a new Darkthrone record was a monumental and memorable occurrence in my life.