Anyone hoping for a classic or revitalizing take on the black metal genre should take note of the path taken by the acknowledged co-creator of its infamous guitar style: Snorre “Blackthorn” Ruch. On the debut album of his creation Thorns (delayed almost a decade by his misfortune presence at the scene of Euronymous’s murder), he finds himself aided by some of the genre’s most renowned musicians who, through their own bands, shared a similar direction themselves. Although a careful listen reveals that Thorns S/T was able to surpass above mentioned bands on many levels, it is also immediately obvious that it is indeed part of the unfortunate route into industrial/electronics taken by many in the “extreme metal” genre during the early 2000s. Much like their countrymen in Emperor, Enslaved, and Arcturus, Thorns found themselves on a strange journey that an old issue of Terrorizer magazine accurately described as “The Weirding of Norway.”
Leaving the progressive pretense aside, industrial in itself can be either aesthetic flavoring (electronics, samples) or an outright avant-gardism on a mission to search for a new language. It is also in a sense fraudulent because it remains strongest and most communicative at the moments in which it is camouflaged with fairly traditional music underneath. With Thorns we got a bit of both – the flavoring and the avant-garde, albeit the latter is seamlessly incorporated into the whole rather than explicit and far-out. As with almost all mixes (besides folk, but that’s a different story) outside of metal, it is not as potent as it theoretically should be. Thanks to unity of vision Thorns achieved much better mix than its contemporaries, but the result is ambiguous. What supposed to be the anti-humanist and alienating component, diminishing even black metal, is quite light, banal and sounds like music we heard at least decade earlier from the mainstream bands. It is the industrial part which brings more humane aspects and associations here. It gives notion of something familiar to cling to, a haven effectively dispersing whatever the malevolence of Ruch’s riffs, which seeps even through slick production, managed to achieve.
While more notable riffs are definitely Scandinavian and reminds of some of the more death metal moments of Immortal, compositionally Thorns harkens back to older forms of black metal like Samael or Root. It is a step backward to times, to which a post second-wave listener must re-adjust his reception in order to understand logic behind such rudimentary forms. The Thorns mode of storytelling here is more abstract, through strong in repetitiveness of simple rhythms and properly lifeless grooves and with greater attachment to vocals. Most of its riffs are of fairly basic nature, yet they succeed in being meaningful. As a drawback they too often can be perceived as self-contained. Song are driven not by development of an idea, but by succession of isolated and disconnected parts. The staticity of Thorns was already clear on its demos which was understandable at that stage. Given high budget involved with this production we can conclude that what Thorns contributed to black metal was the architecture of the riff and not the overall composition. But unfortunately, guitar parts feels relatively sparse on the whole space of the album as they are intended to be able to blend into the background. This impression is reinforced by how they sound drenched in digital static that is not so much mechanic or even cold but synthetic and grainy. The rest of the space is occupied by electronic sounds of industrial and ambient variety. In these sterile atmospheres, the point of reference is switching between The Self and the abstract as if to reflect proportions and purpose of its main voices.
As an example of more focused avant-gardism within genre it works with, Thorns S/T is well thought, sparing, elegant and sometimes simply good. But for what seems to be such intelligently crafted vision, there is also no denying that its musical value is overstretched. There are some low effort fillers, parts and even whole songs that feels derivative or redundant. Certain industrial elements serves only as a superficial additions and where they are supposed to carry the weight of a piece and be something more than aesthetics, they turn out to be too weak. The ambient sections aren’t trance oriented like Burzum works nor they go anywhere special. And to make matters worse, it is at these parts where guitars beg for better continuations and instead suffer dissolution into vacant atmospheres without much meaning.
Definitive characteristics of Thorns’ S/T are highlighted in juxtaposition with a more recent work than its classic demos. There are but a few such parts here, which shows sparks of insidious and unpredictable mind clearly hiding violent thoughts, as it were on split with Emperor released in 1999. There is also no joy of imperfect experimentation, which was apparent in deconstructions featured there (and which by the way hinted that Ruch already feel better in musical realms other than black metal). Differences in nature of these two releases extends also to less polished and more abrasive sound.
Despite its flaws, the first and only Thorns full length appears to be a dish served cold that doesn’t provide any room for improvement. Like a crowning achievement of an artist after which he can either release watered down versions of his take on a given idea, or try something new, it is a complete work which fulfilled its potential. Still, what should be the most indicative of its legacy is how it fares from perspective: it remains strangely without much impact and relevance. Therefore, it can be concluded that Snorre’s early musical discoveries ultimately ended up in the safer hands of black metal’s pioneering musicians. Thankfully, these men were able to give the genre better direction than he himself probably wouldn’t have been able to.