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Immortal have always been a mixed bag for me. When they get it wrong, it goes horribly wrong but when they hit the nail of the head, surely they’re the forefathers of cold, icy atmospheric black metal? I first discovered Immortal, like a lot of people, within the first few months of my expedition into the black metal minefield. Unfortunately, I discovered them through the notorious ANUS website at the age of fifteen or so. The ANUS site has a well documented list, which has remained unchanged ever since I first saw it, detailing the “best ever” black metal albums. Immortal’s ‘Pure Holocaust’ comes second on that list and therefore I decided I’d check it out since, surprisingly at the time, Immortal’s discography was readily available at my local music store, one that normally sells lots of commercial junk. ‘Pure Holocaust’ was really what got me started on black metal, alongside some other notorious albums from the second wave, but it was Immortal’s ‘At the Heart of Winter’ which really stuck with me over all these years and how better to break the winter months in than with this old school classic? The thing about albums like this is that, yes, whilst they’re cold in certain aspects, I find that some of the melodic riffs, despite their distorted textures, emit a really warm feel, like sitting beside a log fire during a harsh wintry blizzard. Whilst your vital organs remain warm, your hands and feet are as cold as ice. So, whilst the backbone to this album is cold as hell, the riffs are deceptively warm to me.
‘At the Heart of Winter’ is an album which can be set apart from the others in Immortal’s discography. Although ‘Pure Holocaust’ is still good for the occasional session when I’m feeling aggravated, ‘At the Heart of Winter’ is an album which is far more accessible than their other albums simply due to its infectious, intoxicating melodies. There are many reasons why I probably should have hated this album from the very first moment I laid eyes on it but that only reiterates the point that this album is deserving of the “timeless classic” status that so many are unjustly given. As far as Immortal’s discography goes, or even the entire second wave movement, I’ve always felt this album was, and probably still is, rather underrated in terms of the entire genre back then. Back when I first discovered black metal, I had an odd aversion to anything overly melodic and am still not quite schooled in the ways of early thrash metal. Despite all this, ‘At the Heart of Winter’ stuck with me and no matter how many times you play it in a single day, it never grates on my nerves and never ceases to amaze me. Take the main riff on the self-titled song, for example. It never fails to send shivers down my spine as its cold, harsh ways set into skin. This, accompanied with the underlying bass and the flawless drumming, songs like this, which are perfectly conceived and crafted, force me to hold the band in high esteem regardless of whatever faults they’ve had since then.
As I touched upon, a lot of the material here is rather thrash orientated, like a lot of early black metal. The tempo changes, the chord progressions, the amount of diversity on offer on this album is incredible, even today, a whole eleven years after its initial release. To me, this period of Immortal’s discography is a bit of a sore point. I wasn’t keen on ‘Blizzard Beasts’, despite loving the wintry essence and vibe of the content. I could never get into those short songs and the riffs didn’t feel anywhere near as memorable. So much so I really couldn’t pinpoint what I dislike about it because every time I hear the album, I repress it. It doesn’t click with me. Neither does ‘Damned in Black’, though I do tend to enjoy that album more so than ‘Blizzard Beasts’, possibly because it touches upon some of the ideas used here - such as the heavily melodic content of the riffs - albeit not to the same extent. This era of Immortal highlights exactly what has made me view the Norway legends are hit-or-miss. With ‘Blizzard Beasts’ coming soon after the enigmatic ‘Pure Holocaust’, an album which really set the tone for Abbath, in particular, it did nothing to ignite the flame of my passion for the band and instead extinguished it.
So, as you can imagine, coming into this album, I was more than a little apprehensive but it delivers spectacularly and in ways I didn’t even imagine were possible for Immortal at that time. The imagery, the conjuration of wintry landscapes, icy kingdoms and cold weather is superb. It’s one of the major themes of this album which made it such a treasure over the years. Abbath’s typically charismatic vocal approach is brilliant, despite the comical reputation he has since garnered for his over-the-top performance in Immortal’s iconic videos in the woods. It’s easy to forget what he achieved with this album which was almost entirely his doing. Aside from Horgh providing the drumming, which he does magnificently, Abbath controls the bass, guitars, vocals and the synthesizer, which is used exceptionally well on songs like the self-titled, a particular hit on the album, alongside ‘Solarfall’. I often like to listen to the introduction of the self-titled song for the first two minutes whilst glancing over the wonderful artwork. They go hand-in-hand ever so well. The spectacular kingdom amidst the icy landscape whilst the music itself is portraying the same thing, simultaneously, is marvellous. The samples of subtle howling winds may seem clichéd today but they’re ever so affective on this particular album. Especially alongside that symphonic synthesizer, an aspect of the album which is probably unfairly overlooked due to its sparse inclusion. Regardless of that, this album will always be regarded by myself as an old school classic. One that is truly deserving of that acclaim.