Transilvanian [sic] Hunger is the name of the most controversial album yet released by the Norwegian black metal band known as Darkthrone. It seems as if everything about this album was designed to be outrageous in some fashion or other. For discerning fans of extreme metal, it's one of those things you either love or you hate; there's no middle ground or "well, I guess it's ok" in reference to this album. Of course, it's possible to say that that's the case with the band itself...some people either "get" Darkthrone or they don't. Although it wasn't well-received in many circles when it was released in 1994 (for reasons I will detail in a minute), it is now held in high esteem by most serious black metal listeners and is thought by many to be Darkthrone's best album.
Background and Context
If you're not familiar with the genesis of the Scandinavian extreme metal scene -- and let's face it, most people aren't -- then a bit of contextualizing is needed. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, most extreme metal coming from Northern Europe was of the death metal variety. Most people probably don't see the difference between death metal and black metal, but I can assure you there are many differences. The easiest distinction between the two genres is that while death metal tends to operate more for the sake of rhythm, percussion, and technicality, black metal places more of an emphasis on harmonic structure, melody, and emotion. Whereas death metal has its roots in hardcore and prototypical thrash bands such as Destruction or the very early material from Slayer, black metal is descended more from a mixture of latter-day thrash (such as Sodom or the wildly influential Celtic Frost) and even some early death metal like Possessed. The English band Venom inadvertantly created some of these terms in an interview in the early 1980s meant to publicize their recently-released album entitled Black Metal. It was a throwaway comment that Cronos -- Venom's vocalist -- made to voice his displeasure with metal bands who sought to define their sound as something other than "metal." This is particularly odd, since Cronos himself wrote an entire song describing what exactly "black metal" was. Ironically enough, he's the one who is more or less responsible for for giving modern metal more than its fair share of sub-genre titles and creating a massive headache for the uninitiated.
At the time Venom was operating, "black metal" simply referred to metal bands who used blatant Satanic and anti-Christian imagery in their music. By this standard, bands as diverse as Slayer, Mercyful Fate, and Morbid Angel could have been defined as being "black metal," although none of them would be considered such in today's terms. It's against this backdrop that a discontent Norwegian death metaller named Øystein Aarseth founded the band that would later go on to be called Mayhem in the mid 1980s. Aarseth (who called himself Destructor at this time) was bored with death metal because he felt that as a genre of music, it could develop no further. He set out to create what he called at that time "total death" metal. This primitive total death metal would lay the groundwork for what is now referred to as the second wave of black metal. Aarseth sought to expound upon the aesthetics and the thematic concepts of Venom and the Swedish proto-black metal band Bathory.
Quite frankly, Mayhem's music is fucking terrible. Their best work never really rises above the level of "above average." But 15 or more years ago, their work was ground-breaking. It was some of the rawest, most extreme music ever made in metal. It established Mayhem (and Aarseth -- now calling himself Euronymous -- in paricular) as the artistic and spiritual leader of the Norwegian extreme metal scene. Enter Darkthrone.
In the late 1980s, Darkthrone was a fairly typical Scandinavian death metal band. They released their first album, Soulside Journey, in 1990 and it received some very enthusiastic notices from various extreme metal zines and personas. While it is a good album, it's nothing mind-blowing. Darkthrone then set out to create a niche for themselves that would earn them the famously self-applied appellation "the most hated band in metal."
All at once, the members of Darkthrone gave up their very promising "careers" as death metal musicians and decided to create some of the most incredibly bleak, grim, and minimalistic music ever recorded. Their second album, A Blaze In The Northern Sky, was a complete about face for the band. They actively shunned their death metal roots (read any Darkthrone interview from this time period and you'll see what I mean) and were sometimes even prone to denying the very existence of Soulside Journey. Metalheads weren't particularly sure what happened. In reality, Darkthrone had begun to gravitate more into Aarseth's sphere of influence. In 1993, they released another album entitled Under A Funeral Moon which was more of the same nihilistic black metal they had created with A Blaze In The Northern Sky. In this same year, Aarseth was killed by Varg Vikernes (aka Count Grishnackh of Burzum) in what Vikernes would later claim was preemptive self-defense. More than a decade later, the facts of that case are convoluted beyond recognition. Some claim it was jealousy over a girl, others say it was over money Aarseth owed to Vikernes and his mother, and still others say it was the culmination of a power struggle between the two for control of the Norwegian black metal scene. In any event, Vikernes was (understandably) not a very popular man in most black metal circles at that time. It is against this turmoil that Darkthrone released their fourth full-length album: the infamous Transilvanian Hunger.
One of the most obvious differences between Transilvanian Hunger and all of Darkthrone's previous work is the fact that 6 of the 8 tracks on the album are in Norwegian rather than in English. Up until that time, Darkthrone had only recorded one Norwegian-language track: Inn I De Dype Skogers Favn from their previous album Under A Funeral Moon. It was almost entirely unheard of at the time; the only truly significant bands that recorded in Norwegian at that point were Burzum and Enslaved. Satyricon recorded a few tracks in Norwegian, but never more than half an album as Darkthrone had done.
As if that wasn't odd enough, half of the album's lyrics were written by none other than Varg Vikernes himself from prison. It was around this point that the rhythm guitarist, Ivar Enger (aka Zephyrous), left the band. To this day, the two remaining members of the band will not discuss the reasons for his departure and have refused to give information regarding his whereabouts. Although there's really no way to be certain of this -- and please understand that this is just my opinion -- it wouldn't surprise me if the decision to use lyrics written by Vikernes precipitated a falling out between Enger and the other two members, Ted Skjellum (aka Nocturno Culto) and Gylve Nagell (aka Fenriz aka Hank Amarillo).
The next most obvious difference here was the piss-poor production. Everyone who listens to black metal can tell you that bad production is an occupational hazard when dealing this style of music. Darkthrone had never had particularly wonderful production anyway, except for Soulside Journey. No, the production here was bad even by Darkthrone standards. The inaccessible format in which the album was recorded turned off a lot of people, especially metal music critics. It is a completely hellish wash of ambient distortion and high treble. I personally am not bothered by the poor production on this album (as I've heard much worse), but some people were and many still are.
There was also something much different about the music itself. It sounded less "evil" and more crushingly depressed. The entire record plays out like a spectral dirge and has an almost dreamlike or otherworldly atmosphere to it. It's impossible not to get lost in its ugly trance.
The next thing that came into question was the album's title. What exactly is the "Transilvanian hunger" and why was the word spelled incorrectly? The second question still has no bizarre answer, so I guess we'll actually just have to chalk that one up to a misspelling on the band's part. The first question, however, is significantly easier to answer. Although some people might claim it's just a reference to vampires (and indeed vampires are referenced in the title track's lyrics), it's a bit more bizarre than that. As it was, Euronymous was not the only major persona in Mayhem. Although he was the guitarist, the song-writer, and the accepted leader, the band's enigmatic vocalist received his fair share of attention. Pelle Ingve Ohlin was a Swedish guy who was pretty well-known in Scandinavian metal circles as the vocalist of the death metal band Morbid. Aarseth invited Ohlin -- who called himself "Dead" -- to join Mayhem as that band's vocalist and lyricist. He agreed and moved to Norway to work with the band. Dead is widely regarded as Mayhem's best vocalist, although the only official recordings of him with the band are the immensely popular live albums Live In Leipzig and Dawn Of The Black Hearts. Dead is and was held in pretty high esteem by nearly everyone involved in the black metal scene. At the very least, nobody really hated him. By all accounts, he was a shy person who mainly kept to himself and stayed out of trouble (for the most part, anyway). He was also incredibly melancholic and obsessed with death. It is claimed that when Mayhem would do shows, Dead would carry a brown paper bag stuffed with a bird's decaying corpse inside and huff its death fumes. Supposedly this put him in the proper mindset to perform. It was pretty normal at a Mayhem show for Dead to tear his shirt off and slice himself open with knives or broken glass bottles. In April of 1991, Dead spoke with a friend of the band whose identity is not known to me. According to Hellhammer (Mayhem's drummer), the two of them had a pretty nice conversation and Dead mentioned casually and in an almost happy manner that he intended to kill himself that evening. The guy shrugged it off because Dead said things like that pretty frequently. He lived up to his word, however, and committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a shotgun that belonged to Euronymous. When Euronymous discovered the body the next day, he took very graphic pictures of it and collected some of his skull fragments before calling the police. One of these photographs was used as the album cover for Mayhem's first live album entitled Dawn Of The Black Hearts. The picture clearly shows Dead wearing a white t-shirt with the message "I <3 TRANSYLVANIA" on it. A rumor went around the scene that Euronymous and Hellhammer had actually collected pieces of Dead's splattered brain and put them in a stew to eat. According to Hellhammer, that part of it was purely Euronymous's idea and that Euronymous was the one who decided to partake in some Ohlin brain stew. Darkthrone knew of this, obviously, and named the album after the incident. I think this was viewed by some as not being in particularly good taste...no pun intended, of course. Despite the fact that the thing had occurred three years earlier, Euronymous's death and Vikernes's subsequent incarceration threw the whole story into the forefront of Norway's media and the Scandinavian metal scene as a whole. The idea of naming the album after a cannibalistic exploit performed by someone who was recently murdered by another person who happened to have written half of the lyrics on the record probably seemed a bit disrespectful. Note: I'm inclined to think that Dead would have thought it was funny.
The next bit of controversy surrounding the album related to a message scrawled on the back of the sleeve: "Norsk Arisk Black Metal." For those not familiar with Norwegian, it roughly means "Norwegian Aryan Black Metal." Flirtation with quasi-Nazi imagery was nothing new at the time. Slayer had done it nearly 10 years earlier and even with their substantially higher profiles, nobody really gave them a hard time about it after all the fuss died down. And indeed, almost nobody outside of Norway would have a clue as to what "Norsk Arisk Black Metal" really meant because most people in the world don't speak Norwegian. No, what got Darkthrone in trouble was this little blurb Fenriz sent to the offices of Peaceville Records (the British label to which Darkthrone was signed at the time) that he demanded be included on the album's sleeve:
"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 obvious jewish behaviour."
Needless to say, Peaceville wasn't particularly thrilled with this suggestion, but agreed to include it anyway because "it is not our job to censor any artist." Instead, however, Peaceville issued their own press release saying they would provide for no publicity or advertising or promotion for Transilvanian Hunger. Not long afterwards, however, the band issued a retraction in which they claimed the whole debacle was a cultural misunderstanding. They denied being a "political band" and said that it's common in Norway to use the terms "jew" or "jewish" as a substitute for, say, "stupid." They then proceeded to apologize and to say that they would provide a more complete explanation to anyone who requested one. What they forget to mention is that Fenriz had made a statement in an interview where he claimed the band (and the entire of genre of black metal) to be "fascist in outlook." Additionally, Varg Vikernes was at that time just coming into his own as a racially-motivated musician, which later culminated in his recording of two all-keyboard albums (Daudi Bauldrs and Hlidskjalf) in prison. Some people saw the apology offered by Darkthrone to be completely insincere; and indeed it was. The only thing less sincere than the apology was the original statement itself.
There was no precedent whatsoever for such remarks by the band. The "fascist" quote, in its proper context, refers less to political beliefs and more to the totalitarian imagery so often associated with black metal. Indeed, Euronymous himself had been a member of the Norwegian Communist party and even expressed a great desire to travel to iron-curtaincommunist countries such as Rumania. Even Vikernes claimed to support "all" dictatorships, including communist ones in Albania and the former USSR under Josef Stalin.
Stranger still was the fact that Fenriz himself had previously been a member of a socialist group and even marched in an anti-racist parade as a young man. (It's worth noting, however, that Fenriz writes off his former enthusiasm for socialism and liberal causes as a youthful phase and that he for the most part abstains from political matters as an adult.) Not only that, Fenriz is apparently half Brazilian. Given that fact, I would find it hard to believe that he's got nothing but European blood in his veins and therefore doesn't really have much of a claim to that which embodies "Norwegian Aryan." Ever since that time, the band has never made any sort of "political" statement and in their day-to-day lives, they're fairly normal people (Fenriz either works or used to work as a DJ at a club that specializes in electronic/industrial music).
Beyond that, the statement itself makes no sense. Surely if he was so serious about the infallible nature of the album, he would have asked people to do a bit more than "patronize" those who dislike it. Speaking condescendingly to someone isn't particularly harsh.
"Damn, this new Darkthrone album sucks."
"Ohhhhhh, so you're a Darkthrone expert now! Uh huh."
The more one looks at it, the more it seems as if the whole album and the publicity surrouding it were created for the sole purpose of getting Darkthrone out of their contract with Peaceville. They were doing everything in their power to seem as outlandish and as erratic as was humanly possible so as to force a breaking point. From the terrible production to the bizarre political statements to the really inappropriate (and incorrectly spelled) album name to the missing guitarist to the very idea of sending a Norwegian-language album to an English record label for worldwide distribution, not much else makes any sense. And they got their wish. After Transilvanian Hunger, Darkthrone joined (and has been with ever since) Moonfog Records, a label run by Sigurd Satyr of Satyricon who is both a frequent collaborator and a good personal friend of both Skjellum and Nagell.
Despite all the controversy surrounding it, Transilvanian Hunger is an album that can stand up to scrutiny without a bunch of hype. True, it's definitely not for everyone, but many black metal fans consider it one of the finest records ever created in the genre. Most people agree that Transilvanian Hunger was Darkthrone's artistic peak. They have never managed to recreate the same chilling atmosphere that was present on this album. It stands as a monument to a generation of music of music whose spirit can never be recaptured. Black metal today is pretty bleak; the entire genre is flooded with hordes of imitators and bottom-tier CD-R bands that will contribute nothing to the development of the genre beyond some recycled riffs. The one good thing about this, however, is that most of those riffs were recycled from this album, whose paradoxical influence will be felt in extreme metal for years to come.
Transilvanian Hunger Peaceville, 1994
- Transilvanian Hunger
- Over Fjell Og Gjennom Torner
- Skald Av Satans Sol
- Slottet I Det Fjerne
- Graven Takeheimens Saler
- I En Hall Med Flask Og Mjød
- As Flittermice As Satans Spys
- En As I Dype Skogen