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The unlikeliest of Second Wave masterpieces. - 87%

ConorFynes, August 30th, 2015

I don't think anyone could have rightly predicted At the Heart of Winter when it first came out in 1999. Even years after its release, it still sticks out like a frostbitten thumb in Immortal's discography. How could a band, who had gone from over-the-top and ravenous, to over-the-top and amateurish in the time between Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism and Blizzard Beasts suddenly come out with an album that defied all notions of what the band were all about? Demonaz's unfortunate departure from Immortal meant some big changes were necessary for the project to keep going. Abbath made his propitious switch to guitars, and Reidar "Horgh" Horghagen (first introduced on the horrible Blizzard Beasts) was the new 'second half' of the band. Demonaz yet remained on the sidelines in a purely lyrical duty, but so many changes in the band meant that some evolution was on the horizon. Either that, or Immortal were going to have to resign themselves to the coffin they first created for themselves with Battles in the North some years before.

Change was expected, but not a change like this. At the Heart of Winter truly sounds like Immortal set aside the over-the-top, frostbitten pretence and tried to make a deeply serious, artistic statement, all the while remaining within their own distinctive style. Considering nine tenths of the folk who've heard the band mentioned either associate them for their firebreathing jaunts around the Nordic wilderness, or their frostbitten mad-libs lyrics, hearing them write an album with the musical seriousness I'd sooner expect from Emperor or Enslaved is a major shock. Even the artwork, notably devoid of any frostpainted visage, enforces the idea that these guys were pushing themselves to the next level. Like a lot of fans, I'm torn between seeing this or Pure Holocaust as my Immortal favourite, but there's no doubt that At the Heart of the Winter stands as the most ambitious, musically satisfying record from the band. Anyone who has ever dared to refer to Immortal as 'joke black metal', probably hasn't bothered to listen to this album.

I hate to parrot the central theme of virtually every other AtHoW review to date, but Abbath's ascension to the mantle of guitarist resulted in some of the most consistently impressive riffs I've heard on a black metal record. Demonaz's brushfire rhythms on Pure Holocaust remain my favourite guitarwork on an Immortal (or even Second Wave) album, but while At the Heart of Winter's performance is too clean to conjure the same demons, Abbath is far better at making riffs sound distinctive from one another. He's able to pair intensity with melody on plenty of these riffs, and riffs there are aplenty on this album. Horgh's drumwork sounded almost as bad as Battles in the North when he first came to the band circa Blizzard Beasts, but his playing here is precise and energetic enough to match Abbath. If there's one thing about the way At the Heart of Winter is displayed that could cause tension with purists, it'd be the clear production. Though by no means sterile, the sound here is crisp, and you can even hear the bass guitar. As in virtually all cases of black metal, the clearer production lends less potential for an evil-sounding atmosphere, but with riffs and composition like Immortal were spouting here, a true cult atmosphere would have just been icing on the cake.

As a listener who got into metal (specifically black metal) via a proggy sidedoor, I eternally welcome the idea of Immortal tackling longer song lengths. Historically speaking, Immortal are best when they're doing more involved material. I nearly hated Battles in the North and Blizzard Beasts, but both were slightly redeemed by their longer songs: "Blashyrkh (Mighty Ravendark)" and "Mountains of Might", respectively. At the Heart of Winter would have succeeded if purely on the merit that it reversed the increasingly shitty performance standards the band had veered towards on the past two albums, but it's the bold move to focus on their best qualities that really tempts mastery. Unlike their lesser contemporaries, Immortal give weight and meaning to the longer lengths. The songs never sound overdrawn; to the contrary, there are so many different riffs packed into the album that it's made surprising they were able to keep them all within the 6-7 minute mark.

With few exceptions (such as the Bathory-type intro opening the title track) Immortal stick to a very similar wavelength across the songs. Once you've heard one of the tracks, you have a good idea what the rest are going to sound like. On so many other albums that suffer the same issue, I know I'd be annoyed by that. With At the Heart of Winter, after I've heard one song, I'm just left wanting to hear more of that same punch and quality. The album is so densely packed with riffs and great ideas that it's near impossible to grasp all of it within the first few listens, and near impossible not to want to keep listening once you're a few songs in. Again, I would never have expected to hear something of this weight from a band like Immortal. I do love some of their earlier stuff, but it never gave an impression they could create art that grew on me with each attentive listen. As it happens, At the Heart of Winter is one of the unlikeliest masterpieces I think I've ever heard.