Before Darkthrone became one of the most important bands in the history of black metal, it released a single atmospheric death metal album—Soulside Journey. While the album does create an intensely alienating atmosphere, the disinterested pathos seems to infest the band’s performance. While the music is fairly interesting, the performance is lethargic and plodding. The result is a technically efficient but emotionally stale recording.
Musically, Soulside Journey is fairly standard Scandinavian death metal circa 1991. There is lots of muddy tremolo picking, a fair share of slow, harmonious passages and a few brisk solos. The vocals are husky, but not excessively deep. They are heavily reverbed, which gives them a supernatural sensibility. It’s as if some massive apparition were speaking to you from another realm. The elements that manage to distinguish Soulside Journey are the production and keyboards. In spite of the thick riffs, this album feels very open. Perhaps it’s all the echo and reverb, but this album creates immense space not unlike the landscape on the album cover. This is accentuated by the keyboards, which from time to time cloak the music in alien tones and ghostly choirs. The lyrics, which constantly reference vast landscapes, further help Soulside Journey create a distinct atmosphere.
Where the album falls short is in song-structure and energy. Many Darkthrone songs have unconventional song structures and on albums like A Blaze in the Northern Sky and Under a Funeral Moon they provide quite a few thrills. However, here the songs often feel directionless and unorganized. Songs often seem to end out of the blue. A number of songs end on guitar or bass solos (i.e. “Neptune Towers” and “Sempiternal Sepulchrality”), which are played at a notably faster pace than the rest of the song. It is an unnatural and unsatisfying way to end a song. Considering these songs are all fairly short (3-5 minutes) Darkthrone should have taken the time to provide more fluid outros.
However, the biggest problem is that the album is just so low on energy. None of the musicians sound inspired. The riffs are dry and the though the vocals are atmospherically effective, they lack emotion. Similarly, the keyboards often feel exhausted. Furthermore, the tempo shifts are high in quantity but low in intensity. Most the album is played in a slow tempo, so it would be nice if when the band shifted into a faster tempo the music received a jolt of life. Unfortunately that never happens, and consequently, the tempo shifts are fairly unmoving.
Soulside Journey is a sedating album. The atmosphere is interesting and the musicianship is stellar, but when combined with the tired performance and emotional emptiness, Soulside Journey can be a somewhat dull listen. This is all quite shocking when one considers that Darkthrone would release one of the most cathartic and energetic albums in the history of extreme metal only a year later. Odds are that the bland flavor of Soulside Journey is a product of a band playing a style of music that is not their strong suit. That said, there are enough interesting riffs that it is worth listening to a song or two every now and then. Not a bad album, but by far the weakest of the band's early releases.
Overall: 5.5/ 10