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Riff Mountain - 92%

gasmask_colostomy, November 19th, 2014

Let me make this quite clear: Immortal are going to Riff Mountain. And they are traveling by way of Riff Valley, Riff Forest, crossing the Riff River and including a stop at Riff Castle, which I assume is depicted on the front cover of the album. There are, it would seem, a lot of riffs on this album.

The first riff on the first song (the colossal 'Withstand the Fall of Time') will probably indicate whether this album will agree with you. To speak figuratively, there's a grinding sweep of frozen wind from Abbath's guitar and then the gauntlet is thrown down with a mighty sound of rumbling toms and an abyss forming in the earth to open the gates of hell - at which point, the sight of Satan's enormous army brings you to your knees, there's a moment of respite, then the army charge with rusty swords clanking and scraping against bone and stone. That introduction is merely a statement of intent and you will know from that experience alone whether or not you like 'At the Heart of Winter'.

All six songs here are great beasts of epics which take the listener on a wild journey that seems to brave all the elements. The guitar tone is significant here. I'm not sure I've ever heard a more craggy, jagged tone as the one on this album. There are pebbles and little flints dripping off it every time Abbath palm-mutes, especially at speed, and occasionally it actually snags and sound like it's being held back by its own rough edges. The technical fills about a minute into 'Tragedy Blows at Horizon' suffer particularly because they are played in near silence and sound clumsy and unfortunate. In the quicker flow of riffs, with the bass backing up, the tone sounds meaner and in control, while the sound at a slow pace is simply mighty.

The music on offer here is unquestionably grim and aggressive, but there is a slight variation on the style of Immortal's earlier work. There isn't a lot of out and out blasting going on here, but actually a more varied range of extreme and classic beats and fills, nor are all of the riffs really in keeping with traditional black metal. 'AtHoW' sounds more like a frosty, blackened thrash or speed metal band throwing a lot of epic sections and a few crushing doom interludes into their work. It's an odd combination, but it certainly suits Immortal well, especially given that vocals are not a focal point. Abbath growls and croaks at a pretty low frequency throughout, sounding like a very evil frog (or maybe something a little more ethereal) and is more or less narrating the arduous mental and physical journey that the riffs would suggest. The vocal sections are quite short considering the lengthy songs, so they never outstay their welcome, though they actually add as much to the atmosphere as the visceral experience of the album. Leads and clean sections crop up a few times, mostly towards the end of the album, and are all well-judged and welcome changes of pace, especially the more thoughtful parts of the title track.

'At the Heart of Winter' was a turning point for Immortal. It was the moment when they stepped out of the Norwegian black metal scene once and for all and became a unique and epic band in their own right. This album makes the blood run faster not because of the stylistic mould it emerged from or the aesthetic choices the band made, but because Immortal crafted amazingly complex and fluent songs with the most important of heavy metal tools - the riff. And by the time 'Years of Silent Sorrow' ends, we have well and truly arrived at Riff Mountain.