Fenriz Isn't Big on Lists, But Told Us His Favorite Albums Of 2016 When We Asked Nicely
We called up the Darkthrone drummer and metal icon to talk about his top 15 albums of the year, and why he swears lists are the worst.
"In my next life, I want to just listen to what I want to listen to." That's Darkthrone drummer, co-writer and sometimes vocalist Gylve "Fenriz" Nagell talking about his more recent sidelines as a music journalist and radio show host. In the interest of due diligence, our man says he spends 40 hours a week listening to new music for potential inclusion in his Radio Fenriz show on NTS Radio. And that only covers some of the music he writes about in the European metal press. Luckily, his lifelong day job in the Norwegian postal industry allows him to listen to music on headphones during every hour of every shift. "At least 70 percent of the time, I'm listening to stuff I don't really want to listen to," he explains. "It's probably the same for you, because you just have to check out new stuff. You and me and all the other journalists probably wish we had just one month to listen to old albums, but there's always new stuff coming out."
All this listening has served to make Fenriz a revered tastemaker over the years—exactly the kind of musician/journalist you'd want to get a year-end "best of" list from. But as it turns out, Fenriz is not a big fan of these lists. "Best-of lists in metal are mostly lies," he ventures. "Everyone loves lists but it's all lies because music is no competition. In the metal world, we are experiencing thousands of releases a year. No one has heard all of them. It's ridiculous."
When I emailed you about this interview, you said you were reluctant to discuss your favorite albums of 2016. Why is that?
Fenriz: Well, it's a long list of reasons. First of all, even before shows like American Idol came on, I felt that music was becoming a competition. Then that show came out—which is fun but kind of sketchy—and now everyone thinks that music is suddenly something to compete in. By continuing to make lists, we cater to that segment in the world—people who grew up with American Idol. Now it will be more and more normal to think that way.
There are many more points. I could probably talk forever about this. But another one is that I was already asked on the 26th of October for my list for the magazine that I work for. And the 26th of October is, of course, way too early. But magazines have print deadlines and everything like that, so it's sort of a hoax. We know that often the best months for us journalists to get albums for the lists we're supposed to make is February until October. Then most journalists will get you on the radar. And we all know this, but we put the lists out there like we don't know these things.
True story. And I would imagine that a lot of folks outside of the journalism world don't realize that.
Yeah. So when my editor asked for my list this year I got so angry because it's not accurate at all. It's just for show. So he said, "Why don't you just drop your column this time and do your list instead, exactly like you are right now: Really angry." So I've got my list here in front of me, and I've also got my list of reasons why it makes me angry. But I'm thinking about how many promos we get sent each year. Some journalists are saying 2500 and telling me this is normal. I was getting about 1200, but I can't delegate. At the magazines, the editors delegate so they don't have to listen to all of them. So if I was someone who didn't care and I listened to 40 albums this year and then I gotta talk to you about the 20 best, that doesn't mean anything. [Laughs] That's bad statistics.
So if you're getting over a thousand promos each year, how many do you think you listen to?
This is the perfect question because I can actually answer that. This year, I got about 1,100 or 1,200 promos, and I touched base—meaning I pressed play—on all of them. And then I erase 60 percent of them maybe. Let's use 1,000 because that's an easier number. So from 1,000, I'd choose 400 to listen to all the way through. That's the first round. That means I'll take them to my workplace and listen to as much as I can bear. I'm happy when I make the wrong choice because then I don't have to listen to the rest of it. When you get that many promos, you don't want all of them to be a mind-blowing experience because that would be a lot of work. [Laughs] I mean, have you ever thought about how many releases there are each year in the metal world, from AOR to grindcore? I'm asking other journalists about this and we're thinking it's maybe like 10,000 every year. Do you think that's too many?
I'm not sure. Seems high to me, but who knows?
If you check with Metal Archives, I think it might be close. But no one can really give a good answer. So this list business is a very subjective sport, and I don't think that really comes through to the punters who read the magazines. They think, "Oh, the journalists are gods and they have chosen!" [Laughs] We're in no way letting them know that we haven't heard everything so it's not really accurate. [Long sigh] And another point: Why is it only full albums? It's so annoying! A demo or an EP can be much better and more important than an album, so this whole album thing is ridiculous.
I agree—and I know what you mean when a magazine or website publishes its top 20 of the year and it's attributed to the staff or mag or site as a whole and presented as somehow definitive. But we just want your personal favorites, which hopefully readers will understand is very subjective.
Yeah, I know. But another thing is, I also don't know if labels can pay their way into these things. Some suggest they can; others say they can't. The whole thing is sketchy. I think many journalists give extra credit to bands they loved back in the day. There should be like a sticker warning or something: "Very Subjective! No One Has Heard Every Album That Has Been Released This Year!" [Laughs] People throw their lives into these lists, it seems.
You like lists, though. You keep track of everything, right?
Yes, but I'm the Lord Of Reluctancy. I'm really reluctant to write about music as a whole because what I do is I use my ears and my brain and then I present it. Now I'm in a dream situation with Radio Fenriz because that's what I actually want to do: I want to listen to the stuff; I want to pick out what I think is best, and I want to let the music do the talking. So now I'm super-reluctant to talk about music. I don't like to read about it, either. I'm in my own bubble here, more or less, so what can I do here? I can list the albums, but then we go back to the competition thing because we're saying, "This is number one; this is number two…" Not one journalist has ever heard an album and said, "This album is number 17! I can feel it!" [Laughs] So I will send you on email the list so we don't have to talk too much about it. I've got a top 15 because I'm saving room for ones that I missed that will probably pop up from friends next year. And the ones where I go, "Shit, I forgot!"
Fenriz's Top 15 Of 2016
1. Hexvessel - When We Are Death
2. Eternal Champion – The Armor Of Ire
3. Sumerlands – s/t
4. Demon Bitch – Hellfriends
5. Black Viper – Storming With Vengeance
6. Virus – Memento Collider
7. Malokarpatan – Stridzie Dni
8. Rust - Raw Shredding Death
9. Ripper (Chile) – Experiment Of Existence
10. Blood Ceremony – Lord Of Misrule
11. Spell - For None And All
12. Tarot - Reflections
13. Naevus - Heavy Burden
14. Temisto – s/t
15. Vulture - Victim To The Blade
I like that Blood Ceremony made the cut. That was my personal favorite for this year.
Oh! I have a cool side story there. Whenever I get a vinyl in, I want to get rid of a vinyl because I've kind of reached a critical point and I want to strengthen my collection. Lee [Dorrian] from Rise Above asked me if I wanted him to send me three particular albums, including the Blood Ceremony. So I said, "I'm not so hot on those other two. Can you just send me the Blood Ceremony?" So he sent me the fancy diehard package, which comes in a big box that takes the same amount of space as five albums. So I have the vinyl on the shelf where it's supposed to be, but I use the box to elevate the computer when we're using it in bed. [Laughs]
Any honorable mentions?
A lot of people are listing Lethal Steel this year, but I already got the promo from High Roller around March or April last year, so I thought it was supposed to be released in November or December last year. Now I'm seeing it on everyone's 2016 list, but it's not on my list because for me it was a 2015 release. Oh, and I forgot about the Bölzer album, too. I know Invisible Oranges had a problem with it and also the Bölzer guy did a review of their review, but I am friendly with those guys and I think the album works really well with the vocal approach. So I say Bölzer was good then and they're good now. I've got a lot more, like Blood Incantation, Hellbringer, Urfaust, Ill Omen… there's so many. I could do 30 or 40, but let's stop it at 15.
One of my favorites this year was the new Darkthrone album. You and I did an interview earlier this year that was excerpted and reposted all over the place because you mentioned your involuntary political appointment as an alternate to your local town council. Do you feel like the Darkthrone album got lost in the excitement over the political story?
Well, that was one fatal interview, sir. You have no idea how viral it went. It went to the extent that big newspapers couldn't get a hold of me, so they got a hold of the political party in trying to contact me. It went from Japan to South America, dude. So I put a total press stop on it and put my version of what happened on our Facebook page and that was it. I haven't talked to anyone else about it. I've tried to focus on the new Darkthrone album instead, which I've done 61 interviews about. Whenever anyone asks about [the political appointment], I just refer to the Facebook statement or copy and paste it into the interview if it's email. So yeah, maybe… no, I don't think it got list. Our interview came out in September, so a couple of months later now I feel like the two things got separated. We've been on so many best-of lists this year that I feel we've had a breakthrough after 17 albums. So that was fun.
I felt kinda bad when I saw your Facebook statement because I realized the interview had created a problem for you.
Yeah, but I was creating the problem myself. We couldn't know that it would go viral. Our press person in England said that we could not by a long shot create this much interest if you wanted it or paid a lot of money for it. They asked, "Do you want to ride this wave?" And I was like, "No!" [Laughs] I figured I had to shut up for about a week because when things go viral, they last about a week and then there's some other person that is going to be viral the week after. That actually happened here in Norway. A comedian guy went nuts with some guns and shit. So the pressure here in Norway was at least off of me and on him. You just have to stay cool for a while and then it's all over.
Have you hatched any plans or riffs for the next Darkthrone album, or is it way too early to discuss that?
I've hummed three riffs into my phone. And then Ted [Skjellum, guitar/vocals] sent me a note the other day saying, "It seems like the new album is going well. I'm thinking we should do a straight line into the next one." Meaning we won't go off in some fancy direction. But we don't know how the climate will change. I'm thinking we will go into the studio not this year, but next year again. But we're not a planning band. When humans make plans, God is laughing.
J. Bennett is not on Twitter, but still tries to stay cool.laugh