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Ever since Emperor disbanded in 2001, Immortal has proven themselves as one of the only black metal bands worth listening to, and although At the Heart of Winter was released back in 1999, it shows off a level of skill and power that stays true to the black metal theme while including many subtle touches that make the album even more enticing. At The Heart of Winter is a throwback to Immortal's excellent debut EP Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism, and although current skinsman Horgh blows then-drummer Armagedda out of the water, you'll notice the similar atmospherics between the two albums. Don't let the appearance of synthesizer fool you, however; they appear all of three times on ATHOW, and only once - at the opening of the title track - can you really hear them. The production still focuses on Abbath's blistering guitar riffs and Horgh's amazing, extremely controlled drums. But the songwriting in general is ever so slightly melodic, giving the music an epic feel to match the poetic concept lyrics by former guitarist Demonaz Doom Occulta.
The sound is still as clean as ever. Immortal still, as always, feels like the good garage band of black metal (don't get me started on Darkthrone's production), boasting a studio sound that doesn't focus on overblown effects. The riffing is incredible, and it's hard to believe that only one person is responsible for it - Abbath's riffs are extremely fast but discernable, and never does the band use the wall-of-static approach that many other black metal bands use to disguise their lack of talent; the result is oddly satisfying. Horgh often uses many of the standards of metal drumming, with the meaty double-bass pedals and snare-banging, but in many of the pieces he'll go all over the kit, and you can't help but crack a smile as he keeps up with the incredible pace of the songs, a feat not completely do-able by even some of the most accomplished drummers. And though I loathe the comparision, Immortal is like The White Stripes of the metal world, doing with two people on this album what many bands can barely do with four or five, let alone the 9-person shitsessions of Slipknot. (Author's Note: Whenever fighting off a Mallcore fanboy in heated debate, always, always recommend them some Immortal. That should shut 'em up right quick.)
But where At the Heart of Winter differs from other Immortal albums is a much more musical bent. Abbath and Horgh have already proven over just about every other Immortal album that they've got the speed and power to match up with any black metal or thrash guitarist (especially as many of the riffs bear the same intensity as a good thrash-metal rhythm guitar section), but it's equally amazing when they calm it down ever so slightly. After an extraordinary instrumental opener in Solarfall, the song changes gears twice to a slower, almost atmospheric sound as Abbath switches the distortion off and Horgh goes all over the toms, a move that is as alluring as it is surprising. And the excellent calmer instrumental sections at the middle and end of Tragedies Blows at Horizon flows with great fluidity between the heavier passages, a feat that few bands are able to do with such immediacy. And Abbath's lizard-man growl is still intact and as fitting as ever.
Although a slightly new direction for the band, Immortal easily integrates the melodic sounds with the harsh riffing of their normal repetoire, creating a CD that is epic without ever resorting to cheap prog-metal tricks such as long, rambling solos (which I love, mind you.) The result is a thick, complex album that is as heavy as it is melodic, and above all else, it shows that Immortal has mastered their craft.