The four Darkthrone albums leading up to 1996's Total Death are unassailable classics, each one somehow building on, while moving away from, everything that preceded it. In hindsight, it seems likely this immense creative surge left Fenriz exhausted. Between 1991 and '96, Darkthrone cranked out a new album every year, and during that same period, Fenriz was also releasing new work with a handful of other projects, including Isengard, Neptune Towers, Dodheimsgard, Valhall, and Storm. This theory is lent some credence especially by the fact that following Total Death, Darkthrone released no new material for three full years, during which time nearly all of Fenriz's other projects went into hibernation, too.
But even before that blackout, there was evidence that Darkthrone's drummer was suffering from fatigue: Previously, Fenriz had been responsible for the band's cover art — and he produced some of the most recognizable images in heavy metal history, defining a genre aesthetic in the process — but for Total Death, he ceded that responsibility, saying later he had "lost interest in the visual thing." (This led to a series of generic, occasionally ugly album covers that lasted until 2007, when Fenriz was finally again ready to take over that aspect of the band's production cycle.) Prior to Total Death, Fenriz had written all Darkthrone's lyrics (except for five songs across two albums penned by Burzum's Varg Vikernes); this time around, however, Fenriz contributed no lyrics whatsoever — Nocturno Culto wrote lyrics for half the album's tracks, the other half came courtesy of scene luminaries: Garm of Ulver; Ihsahn of Emperor; Carl-Michael Eide of Ved Buens Ende; and Satyr of Satyricon. Finally, while the two albums preceding Total Death were recorded at the band's 4-track home studio, Necrohell, this one was recorded in a traditional studio, Ancient Spectre Ruins.
None of these chemical changes should necessarily have resulted in a lesser work, but Total Death is a mediocre Darkthrone album just the same, and it suffers especially in comparison to the four masterworks that precede it. Total Death continues down the songwriting path set off on by the band on their previous album, 1995's Panzerfaust, minus that album's wintry hypnotic blasts: These are all big Celtic Frost riffs set to mid-tempo rhythms, played loud and loose. But even in this regard, the edges have been sanded down; the loose ends and knots neatly trimmed. While Panzerfaust feels like a Cessna in a snowstorm piloted by a pair of drunks, Total Death feels like a Gulfstream 200 cruising into a patch of mild turbulence. The production here is a good deal cleaner, and the mix fuller, than anything on the four albums that preceded it — and that's not an unwelcome stylistic shift, either, but all these factors combine to achieve a general air of ambivalence and sluggishness, qualities not evident on any prior Darkthrone release.
Still, these are not criticisms of Total Death, exactly, but Total Death in relation to the body of work surrounding it (and especially preceding it). Many fans claim Total Death is the first "inessential" Darkthrone album, but that's simply not true: It follows Soulside Journey in that regard. Many claim Total Death marks the beginning of a mid-career lull, but even that seems inaccurate: It's a logical stylistic evolution from Panzerfaust, followed by a three-year hiatus — an absence exactly half as long as the band's time in the public eye to that point. If anything, Total Death is the final chapter of Darkthrone, Part 1, not the first chapter of Darkthrone, Part 2 (it's sort of a neat bookend to Soulside Journey in some ways). And while Total Death may not be a heavyweight champion, it still knows how to kick some ass. If you're sitting around at night, drinking or bullshitting or whatever, and you throw it on the stereo, before you know it, your fist will be pumping. Your blood, too.