Just before celebrating their tenth year together, Immortal released an album that divided the opinion of their fanbase straight down the middle. Their four previous albums had been predominantly steeped in the black metal tradition, in sound at least if not content, with the focus on machine-gunned blast beats from the drum kit and equally frantic guitar work. However, change was almost imminent as key member, Demonaz (a silly name is a must if you're in a metal band from Norway) had developed arthritis in his hands and could no longer play, resorting to penning lyrics and musical ideas from the back room. Sort of like a black metal Brian Wilson. The resulting 'At the Heart of Winter' is a surprisngly rich affair, and plays almost like a synopsis of heavy metal styles from the last two decades.
Gone are the short and screamier songs, as this is a record that has the word 'saga' at its heart. The tracks here are all between the 6 and 9 minute marks, but there are so many stylsitic and dynamic shifts within them they rarely outstay their welcome. Influences range from Iron Maiden style harmonised guitar attack on opener 'Withstand the Fall of Time', as well as the more melodic elements that surfaced on the likes of Metallica's 'Master of Puppets', as well as leaning towards more multi-part song structures found on that album. They also make the occasional foray into more progressive territory, mixing ambient soundscape moments into the works to add to the atmosphere of bleakness. The calm within the storm is a welcome break from the sonic onslaught. The title track broods with ominous synth sounds that would fit right into the soundtrack to John Carpenter's 'The Thing', building the ambience before coming in with a killer riff that sounds like classic Dio-era Sabbath.
It's also a lot more polished than their earlier affairs, although not to such a degree that would be totally unfitting; it doesn't sound like Opeth or Dream Theater. The mix is nicely balanced, with all instruments audible and the guitars sounding gravelly and punchy. Abbath's vocals are somewhat indecipherable, given the nature of his delivery, but with a bit of concentration it is possible to pick out what he's growling and belching about. Immortal are very much products of their Scandinavian origins, with the lyrics dominated by depictions of their fictional realm 'Blashyrkh', which is all crags and forests and ice, populated with warring tribes and demons. With song titles like 'Where Dark and Light Don't Differ', it's not hard to tell where they're coming from. If you've ever experienced a Nordic winter, there's not much to do in the endless darkness so it's no surprise that their thoughts turn to such bleak fantasies. Either that or they just played too much Dungeons & Dragons in the 80s.
If there are any criticisms to be made, it's that despite all the shifts in style and technique and mood, most of these songs sound like they're written in the same key, which gets grating by halfway through. It wouldn't be hard to modulate them a bit now, guys. Also, Abbath's vocals, while fitting, are downright silly sometimes, especially as he punctuates some of the songs with noises that sound like he has a bad case of flatulence. But it's very atmospheric and thoughtuflly put together, and I like to use it as a backdrop when my geekier side wins out and I end up playing Skyrim or Icewind Dale in the middle of dark winter nights. I think I have a fair streak of Viking in me that tends to wake up in the winter.
Certain fans of the band regard this as the point that they 'sold out' and stopped being all 'kult'. I guess that's probably only because a) they bothered to produce it properly and b) deviated from being solely black metal. I'd say stuff that, it's nice to be able to hear the detail in the playing, and that variety is the spice of life.
This isn't going to appeal to many people, but if you have any sort of interest in metal, this is well worth a listen. Even my cat, who normally prefers Joni Mitchell, likes this one, but since she's a black and white part Norwegian Forest mog I think she feels some sort of innate connection with the corpse-painted Nords.
Depending on the listener's preference, Immortal's fifth album is either the point at which they sold out, or actually started to make decent music for the first time. A far cry from the short, sharp, icy shocks of their earlier material, the songs are now longer, denser and more intricate, possessing actual structure for the first time rather than simply focusing on hammering out some blast beats for three minutes.
Abbath is a much more impressive guitarist than his predecessor Demonaz, even if his riffs and melodies borrow distinctly from the heavy metal tradition, in many places sounding like dead ringers for Iron Maiden, if that band played black metal. Horgh's drums are also more developed and intelligent than Abbath's on previous albums, and while the overall sound isn't exactly softer than the previous albums, the shift in focus from brutality to an extended metal experience is a welcome one, even if a couple of songs run a little over time.
1. Withstand the Fall of Time
3. Tragedies Blows at Horizon
4. Where Dark and Light Don't Differ
5. At the Heart of Winter
6. Years of Silent Sorrow
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Withstand The fall Of Time
3 Tragedies Blows At Horizon
4 Where Dark And Light Don't Differ
5 At The Heart Of Winter
6 Years Of Silent Sorrow