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There are those albums that are merely good, and then there are those that are amazing. Then, very occasionally, you'll be lucky enough to find an album that completely blows you and everything you hold dear away in a hail of ice and relentless fury. Welcome to "Battles in the North", the third blast of Northern aggression from Norway's legendary Immortal. While, in my opinion, these Norsemen have yet to serve up a single album that isn't fucking awesome, it's "Battles" that reigns supreme above the rest of their mighty catalogue.
To give newcomers an idea of what this album sounds like: this is the record that actually coined the term "grim and frostbitten". With "Battles in the North", Immortal have managed to capture the essence of the most savagely cold and violent blizzard imaginable and stuck it onto a CD for the rest of us to enjoy. The sound they've produced here is utterly fantastic and quite unlike anything else I've heard before or since.
As far as the rest of Immortal's work goes, "Battles" sounds closest to "Pure Holocaust", only far more ferocious in its delivery. While "Pure Holocaust" is an undeniable classic of the genre, for me there was always a certain something missing from that album that meant it never quite delivered the goods. "Battles in the North" however, does not suffer from this problem. The guitars are pushed slightly back in the mix which, far from being detrimental, causes them adopt a constant, swirling wall of noise effect. The chaos of the guitars actually serves as more of a backdrop to the songs than is usual, with the drums and vocals appearing on top of them, creating a rather strange structure of sound. The riffs are far from inconsequential though, and Demonaz really outdoes himself here with great riff after great riff, all delivered at lightning speed. The bass, as you might expect from a second wave black metal recording, is largely inaudible.
Contrary to what the "Grim and Frostbitten Kingdoms" video may have you believe, Hellhammer does not appear on this album, and Abbath mans the kit once more (as he did on "Pure Holocaust"). A lot of people criticise "Battles" due to Abbath's drumming, as it sounds as if he's constantly struggling to keep up with everything else that's going on. As far as I'm concerned however, this is only a good thing. Rather than some robotic blastbeat drumming with pinpoint accuracy, Abbath's attempt lends the album a truly chaotic feeling; as if he were actually sitting atop a mountain in a raging blizzard trying to lay down his drum tracks. It sounds corny, but that's exactly the feeling that "Battles" conjures up.
Abbath's voice is once again in fine form here, and he probably sounds at his most reptilian on this album. The lyrics are classic grade-A Immortal, with more than enough blackstorms, winterdemons and ravendark kingdoms to go around. The songs themselves are pretty much a constant blasting for the most part, and the Immortal boys barely give you time to catch your breath. A lot of the songs begin and end very abruptly, as if they were cut off before they could properly conclude. There are a couple of clean guitar interludes over the course of "Battles in the North", and these are pretty much the only time when things let up a little.
If you're new to Immortal and looking for your first foray into their music, people are going to try to convince you to get "Pure Holocaust". Do yourself a favour and pick up this album first, it really is the pinnacle of that early Immortal sound and one of the best damn albums in the entire history of black metal. Every metalhead even remotely interested in the blacker side of things owes it to themselves to add "Battles in the North" to their collection.