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There are a handful of albums out there that are known as classics because they present a great band breaking with their own established traditions for newer battlefields. Examples could include Manilla Road’s excursion into the violent realm of thrash metal in “Out Of The Abyss”, Black Sabbath’s reinvented sound after taking on vocalist Ronnie James Dio, or Slayer’s rather unexpected hybridization of doom and thrash metal in “South Of Heaven”. The biggest break with tradition that comes to mind when considering the advent of innovation within the black metal umbrella is the embracing of Viking themes found in later Bathory albums such as “Blood Fire Death” and “Hammerheart”, which marked not only a new sound and set of lyric themes, but the birth of a whole new style of metal that has continued to expand to this very day. One could make a solid argument that “At The Heart Of Winter” equals these albums in both its embracement of a level of heroism, albeit not quite the triumphant sort indicative of Manowar, as well as in its level of musical ambition.
There are a number of different ways of looking at Immortal at this point in their career. Some might say that the band lost its edge and became an unoriginal semi-thrash band without the emotional drive of former works. Others might say that the band suffered a set back at the loss of Demonaz and only succeeded in accomplishing a moderately good album here. By contrast, I see this as a band that started off with something unique now coming around full circle and all but completely rediscovering the original magic that they had during the glory days of the Norwegian scene. Though perhaps not stylistically in line with their debut “Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism”, “At The Heart Of Winter” carries the same spirit of epic sorrow and woeful coldness, combined with a form of aggression tempered by a sense of organization, opting to save the truly chaotic moments for when they are called for, rather than blazing away with both afterburners at full for 2 to 3 minutes at a time.
Though this does not break away from the black metal style as it was established at the height of the 2nd wave, there are enough liberties taken here to bring greater strength to the argument that Immortal has come to resemble a Thrash Metal band, particularly of the German persuasion, just as much as it does the original Norwegian black scene that birthed them. In fact, the band’s death metal roots carried from Old Funeral have been all but completely abandoned here in favor of a clean cut riffing style based very closely on the Teutonic German scene. Tremolo picked melodies occur sparingly alongside varying melodic breaks and rhythmic breakdowns, occasionally reaching back towards pre-thrash German metal riffing ala Accept. Abbath’s vocals walk a thin line between the Quorthon-like garbled/orcish growls of past works and the slightly lighter yet still evil sounding harshness of Angelripper. It is perhaps a tiny bit more intelligible than what was heard on “Blizzard Beasts”, but still well within the standards of what constitutes the aggression needed for this band’s style up to this point.
The principle reason why this album is so well known and respected amongst non-black metal fans and often disowned by traditionally oriented fans of this band and genre is that the song construction is far more formalized than any previous album. Riffs and melodic material recur with much greater frequency, ideas are extended much longer and given ample time to mature before moving on, and the ratio of blast beat sections to slower ones is tilted more in favor of the latter. In some aspects, when considering the heavily melodic and consonant nature of the riffs and the less frantic tendencies in the drum work, this album often resembles a dark variant on epic power metal. Bands such as Kalmah, Children Of Bodom, Ensiferum, Amon Amarth, and many others have done music that is thematically similar to this, though with either a heavy amount of keyboard texture or a less technical approach to riffing that is compensated for with more lead guitar work or a lot of additional instruments aside from the traditional metal arrangement. This focuses almost completely on riffing, putting forth elaborate sections of moderately fast to really fast metallic fury comparable to the likes of “Time Does Not Heal” and “Beneath The Remains”, though presented along more melodic lines.
Selecting a favorite or a stand out song amongst these 6 towering epics is a daunting task, as each basically showcases equally matched though differing variants on a very intricate formula. “Solarfall” could be singled out as being the catchiest and the closest thing to a power metal song on here. It makes use of interesting quiet sections and some thrashing riffs that could have been heard from a number of notable acts in the mid-80s from Kreator to King Diamond. “Where Dark And Light Don’t Differ” works well for someone looking for something closer to a straight up Thrash sound, particularly of the Destruction persuasion. There is also, of course, the heavily ambitious title track, loaded with contrasting riff ideas, epic slower sections, and some really beautiful ambient keyboard work that builds upon what was heard on the previous album by this band in “Mountains Of Might”. When hearing any of these songs, they give off that epic aura that makes you feel as if Manowar heard the finished product before its release and gave their own personal stamp of approval.
This album stands alone in Immortal’s catalog, a fact underscored by the album art, which is the only one to date not showing the band in their corpse painted glory. The band lost none of its power after the loss of Demonaz, as Abbath proves to be a far more competent axe man than a drummer, and even pulls out a few memorable lead slots on “Solarfall” and “Where Dark And Light Don’t Differ”. It’s one of a small number of albums put out by members of the Norwegian 2nd wave that can be recommended to any fan of metal, extreme or not. It does not seek to meet any specific standards, but instead opts to set its own and waits for others to try and match it, and thus far very few have.
Originally submitted to (www.metal-observer.com) on January 25, 2009.