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What was happening to black metal in the late ‘90s? Many would tell you that the magic of the genre was dying out, but those posers have never heard Immortal’s fifth frostbitten full length, At the Heart of Winter. With this album, Immortal have done an outstanding job of expanding their sound, while remaining completely true to their past. The epic moments of Blizzard Beasts have been kicked up a few notches, and the thrashing grimness of the earlier material remains perfectly intact. This is something that few bands have succeeded in doing as well as Immortal have. This album is notable for being the first Immortal album without founding member, Demonez, in charge of axe duties. Although his absence is missed, it is most impressive that Abbath heroically handles all guitars, bass, and vocals. Thankfully, Demonez still remains involved in the lyric department, a very important aspect of Immortal’s music.
When this grand offering opens up with the blistering, Withstand the Fall of Time, one might note that the guitar work appears to be more melodic. While I wouldn’t dispute this, I think this is more in due part to the production, which does an excellent job of bringing these melodies out into the light. The production on this album is as crisp and clear as a Norwegian winter, but still manages to capture Immortal’s signature, frozen atmosphere. After the epic opener, comes Solarfall, which is faster paced and features some great riffage. Dispersed throughout this track are clean, grimly interludes, reminiscent of the clean moments on Battles in the North. Consistency is what holds this album together so tightly, however, even though each song is great in its own right, the title track gleams like the brightest icicle hanging from the mightiest fortress of Blashyrkh. This one’s a fucking anthem. The gloomy synth introduction offers a tasteful break in the heaviness of the other songs. However, this one moment of clarity is soon crushed by the most enormous, most powerful riff of the entire album. Excellent guitar work, strong and varied drumming, and a great vocal performance by Abbath make this one of the greatest songs these warlords have ever put forth.
The song writing on At the Heart of Winter is the biggest step forward. It’s unfair to compare this aspect with their earlier works, because even though it is technically better, the earlier albums focused more on speed and aggression where this album is full of more intricate and complex structures, but certainly still blasts when it needs to. Abbath’s vocals sound better than ever and Horgh’s drums finally get the production they deserve.
At the Heart of Winter is Immortal doing what they do best, and what’s not to like? It’s got fast, crunchy guitars, blasting drums, and lyrics about really cold places. I highly recommend this album as it is definitely a classic of the genre.