I have to admit that I looked at Astral Fortress with a little trepidation, given how underwhelmed I was with Darkthrone's 2019 album, Old Star. It wasn't bad; it just wasn't anywhere near as good as it could have been. Well, it seems like I missed last year's album Eternal Hails..., which everyone is happily proclaiming a solid return to form, along with a deeper exploration of the doom metal I'd noted on Old Star. As the early reviews for this one seem positive too, I was certainly intrigued but a little worried, given that this a milestone as their twentieth album.
What I found was that the doom angle is certainly working out, at least when Fenriz and Nocturno Culto really want to throw their focus in that direction. The best songs here are the doomiest with The Sea Beneath the Seas of the Sea most notable among them. What surprised me was what the resulting combination of doomy guitar and black metal vocals ended up taking me, which is all the way back to Hellhammer's Apocalyptic Raids EP in 1984, which underlines how that was even more influential than I thought it might be at the time.
This is certainly more controlled than Hellhammer were back then, the musicianship is more solid and the vocals far more focused. However, it's just as bleak and uncompromising, the Candlemass style chugging riffs given an edgier guitar tone reminiscent of Hellhammer and the early years of the band they evolved into, Celtic Frost. Most obviously, the vocals remain black, even if they don't delve into the shriek bag and so remain goblin harsh. Add to that the liquid psychedelic bookends and a solid build that gets under the skin and it's a memorable ten minutes indeed.
The thing is that, while Darkthrone are successfully dipping their toes into the doom pool without ever leaving their black metal heyday sound entirely behind, they don't seem convinced that it's a confirme way forward for them. Caravan of Broken Ghosts is at its best when it ramps up in tempo and Kevorkian Times follows suit. Hellhammer were never as innovative as they became under the name of Celtic Frost and some of these songs drag in the way that some of Hellhammer's did, only without any of the benefit of being outrageously different for 1984.
They do try to be outrageously different at points, such as Kolbotn, West of the Vast Forests, but I have to wonder what the goal of that brief and dissonant instrumental was. It feels like it ought to work as an intro but not to the song that follows, which is Eon 2, a more traditional piece that may well be intended to be a sequel to Eon, the closer from the album at the other end of their career, 1991's Soulside Journey. However, they're very different, as Eon 2 is much slower than Eon, and it's a vocal track without keyboards.
And so this is another mixed bag. I was impressed by The Sea Beneath the Seas of the Sea and I'm pretty fond of Stalagmite Necklace too, the other overtly doom metal song on offer, because of its strong riff. However, some other songs take a while to get moving and some of them drag. Eon 2 is a decent way to wrap up but it's not the emphatic close that it perhaps intends to be, highlighting a twenty album career with a nod back to the beginning.
It's definitely a better album than Old Star but I think I'm going to stay with a 6/10. What I need to do is listen to Eternal Hails... to see what so many people were raving about.