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From The Vaults #10 – Thorns

Norwegian black metal is a genre and a scene filled with heroes. Yet few people know one of it’s most important creative minds – because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The man is Snorre Ruch. The band is Thorns. And the album that we’re digging out from the vaults here is the only full album they ever made.

A Murderous Background

As the Norwegian BM scene of the early and mid 90s passes away from recent memory, turning instead into legend, many wont know the background to Thorns’ music.

So, briefly: Ruch was sentenced to 8 years in prison for his role as an accomplice in the murder of Mayhem’s Øystein ‘Euronymous’ Aarseth. The man who murdered him, Varg Vikernes (Burzum), has played down Ruch’s actual role. You can read much more about this elsewhere, and the whole thing remains far from clear.

Yet that role landed Ruch behind bars at exactly the time he could have and should have been moulding the very shape of the Norse sound.

He’d already been doing it – he’d briefly played in Mayhem, while Faust from Emperor was a member of Thorns in the early 90s before he would commit a murder of his own.

So he spent arguably the prime years of the Norse black metal in jail. Yet when he emerged, it would be he who would make the album that rocketed the sound of the genre into entirely uncharted territory with this album.

The Ultimate In Post Black Metal

Well, perhaps not entirely uncharted. Moonfog, the label set up by Satyr from Satyricon as a vehicle for his very particular post-BM ideas, had been releasing a few albums that were breaking away – in sound and imagery – from the traditional Black Metal ideal.

And of course before that, you did have the likes of Arcturus, Ulver’s ‘Blake’ opus, and, miles away, Aborym.

‘Thorns’ however was something altogether more powerful, futuristic, cold and alien. It may just be the best record to come out of the radical, brief, Post Black Metal aesthetic. Sometimes I think it was the last true development on the genuinely evil expression of Black Metal before hipsters decided to co-opt it.

Cutting Riffs Of Frigid Cold

Right from the start it slays. Hellhammer on drums is at his most clinically potent as ‘Exitence’ rams the very air in front of the speakers.

Yet it’s not that that you notice. It’s the digitized, razor-like bite of the guitars. They embody every ideal of this album: a frigid, terse and pitiless scything, like the sound of metal cutting through metal.

‘World Playground Deceit’ challenges you with its incomprehensibly 8-bit games console riff and relentless drive. That it breaks down into a stomp evoking Metallica’s ‘One’ is all the more surprising.

All this before the otherworldly Alienesque of ‘Shifting Channels’ – a sketch piece of mechanoize, slamming its Godflesh inpsired hammer and anvil samples with incredible heaviness.

Two Classic Tracks

Well lets face it, they’re not classics because hardly anyone remembers this album, at least as much as they should. But there are two tracks on here that are among the most sumblime momemts in Black Metal whole: ‘Stellar Master Elite’ and ‘Underneath The Universe II’.

‘Stellar Master Elite’ is just a punisher of a track. Opening with that instantly recognisable flanger, in short order it combusts into being, led with that Borg vocal sounding divorced from all feeling and intent only on command.

There is no small amount of ‘Domination’-era Morbid Angel in it, both in attitude and delivery.

Of the two ‘Underneath The Universe’ tracks (the first another sketch piece), part two is simply a masterpiece of dark black metal mood music. Its elastic, bending lead riff only increases the force of the crunch that immediately follows it, while the vocal once again plays the part of the omnipotent, cold space-being that lords over this entire album.

Aged Well, Most Unlike Peers

The real surprise though is how well this album holds up. Let’s not beat around the bush: time has not been kind to its contemporaries.

The Dodheimsgard albums now sound thin and weedy; Ulver’s ‘Blake’ a little too earnest; Satyricon like they were trying a bit too hard; Aborym too reliant on the industrial bits; Solefald’s ‘Neonism’ tragically inconsistent – and Mayhem just plain got it wrong. They would all recover to greater or lesser degrees.

Yet this album stands tall fourteen years later. It betrays nothing – not the naivete, crap productions, half formed ideas nor silly stylings the way their peers did, in retrospect. (It’s worth noting that its artwork is still amazing).

Putting on this album deserves time and immersion. It needs listening to in full, as a real concept piece. It says something.

In fact just listening to it again (a lot) recently, it strikes me that this album contains many of the seeds that would go on to germinate in Mayhem’s masterpiece ‘Ordo Ad Chao’ and even as recently as last year’s ‘Esoteric Warfare’. It was obviously formative for Hellhammer – and certainly Blasphemer. I swear I can hear ‘Anti’ and ‘Wall Of Water’ in here, in embryonic forms.

All of this is Snorre Ruch’s predicament. To have crafted one of the finest and bleakly expressive pieces of black metal music recorded, endorsed with performances from the genre’s key talents (Hellhammer, Satyr) – he would retreat straight back into the shadows when it was released.

We have not had a follow up.

And yet perhaps we dont need one. It’s a nigh on perfect piece of high concept, musically compelling extreme metal. It was the product of a very particular time and place, and so perhaps has no need to be repeated or advanced upon.

Could it even be advanced? It’s doubtful.

All the heroes: Euronymous, Varg, Grutle, Ihsahn, Fenriz, Gaahl – they’ve all done important and amazing things.

They’ve never, ever, done an album like this. There can be no way to emphasis enough how much this has to be in your collection.

Earl Grey ::: 16/01/15

  1. I used to listen to ‘Stellar Master Elite’ a lot, but never really got the impression that the rest of the album would interest me much. I should give it a chance.

  2. Eoin McLove Says:

    Funny, I only picked this up a few weeks ago- along with the excellent Dawn debut and demos- and it sounds excellent. Coming to it from the perspective of someone who wasn’t there in the day and wasn’t even there when this came out, I can say that hasn’t aged at all. It sounds modern, but not in a passing way. It is over ten years old which I suppose says it all. Looking forward to familiarising myself with this a bit more.

  3. When this was released first I thought that it could do with few blastbeats here and there. With hindsight though I think Ruch did the right thing to leave them out. It really has dated well

  4. an_slua_sidhe Says:

    An amazing album.

  5. Before now I had only heard the thorns vs emperor split. I have not listened to it in a long time but I remember thinking it was savage. I must give this full length release some proper attention.

  6. This album is unreal. Been listening to it for years. Amazing how many people never gave a listen to it. And you’re bang on as well it’s aged a lot better than most albums of the same vintage. Fuck it, I’m going to have to put it on now

  7. The Emperor split is almost worth a write up itself, so I decided not to even mention it.

  8. Excellent album well executed. Still pretty damn fresh sounding, the split as well is pure class!!!

  9. Eoin McLove Says:

    I picked it up for 8 bills in HMV

  10. That emperor split stood out from the pack and that’s saying something considering the pack was full of big name releases.

  11. justincredible Says:

    Bloody hell, feckin brilliant! I have to go purchase this album.
    Thanks Mr.Ruch and thanks Earl for bigging it up.

  12. Ben Timpson Says:

    I do like this album a great deal.
    This article was brilliant reading, really well written and truly shows how much you love the record.

  13. I was always uder the impression that more or less everyone into black metal were very aware of Thorns and loved this album. Its fucking brilliant.

  14. I’m not so sure DG. Certainly those well attuned to BM would have known about it, but for the general BM fans into (at the time) Dimmu Borgir, Marduk, Emperor, Darkthrone etc on a general level, even this might have been a little esoteric. It made a splash no doubt, but that acclaim could have been limited to one issue of a magazine for even most followers of the genre.

  15. Finally !!!! Someone else thinks this is fucking deadly , after years of trying to sell it to non like minded individuals !! I remember when this came out everyone was saying how it was a rip off of Rebel Extravaganza !! Reality was , it was the other way round !!!

  16. Absolutely stunning record. One of my favourites, it certainly has that same weirdo vibe thats present on ordo ad chao, cold and crushing!

  17. that intro riff to the first song is great.

    only thing about the album that im not really gone on are satyrs vocals for some reason.

    its weird the way this album has been so overlooked ,almost forgotten over the years .

  18. pentagrimes Says:

    Best of the Norwegian bunch I reckon.

  19. When this album came out I was a disappointed with modern and to my ears soulless sound. This is in comparison not only to the demo (which I had quite recently got through tape trading) but also to the split with Emperor.

    Without doubt the riffing is absolutely deadly, but the sound and also the vocals are a bit of a dampener for me. I put it on just last week following this article and I enjoyed but didn’t love it. I think it could have been better if Sorre Ruch had worked with someone other than Satyr.

  20. Tezcatlipoca Says:

    I’ve given this a few listens. I’m actually surprised at how good it is.

    The reason I didn’t bother with it back then is that Norwegian Black Metal was, during that time period in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, total and utter bollocks. I was turned off by the fact that Satyr and Hellhammer were involved, and even though I did like ‘Stellar Master Elite’, I assumed that it was just a good track on a bad album.

    Still, this has aged very well and I imagine it’ll still sound good in another ten or fifteen years time.

  21. Great review Earl cheers, when stone cold classics that Im personally into come up in the Vaults section, it really makes me appreciate them more and know that Im not alone in loving them!…for me this is one third of the absolute unholy trinity of industrial black metal landmarks, the others being Codex Necro and Mysticums debut…come to think of it, ‘In the Streams…’ could definitely do with a Vaults write up eh!!!

  22. Can’t believe you were able to write a whole article on this without mentioning “Interface to God” once. Amazing track, totally underrated. the drumming on it is perfect.

    One thing that I think gets consistently overlooked in Thorns discussion is how important Aldrahn is to the opening track. It sets the tone for the entire record and whilst Satyr’s vocals are cool overall, I don’t think they get close to those on “Existence”.

    Also, whoever wrote the lines….

    “It clings to your mind/
    Like a phantasmal leech/
    Nesting itself deep within/
    The substance of your soul”

    ….deserves a medal.

  23. You should have mentioned Aldrahn. His vocals on this are amazing. The only way that Thorns could have been better would have been letting Aldrahn to do all the vocals.

  24. Love this album and band, classic stuff altogether. One of the best BM albums of all time to me easily top 10. reed with JR above me about Aldrahn his vocals are amazing on this as they are with DHG and his own band The Deathtrip which is well worth checking out and Thornsish. Also worth mentioning are the Thorns Demos which were very influential along with very early Mayhem, Burzum etc in establishing the TNBM sound. I think Snorre and Euronymous were the pioneers of it really. Would love to hear a new Thorns album!

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