Sound: In the past, I have overlooked bands like Immortal: Lots of Norwegians in funny face paint and crude battle armour making purposefully under produced static and claiming it to be some form of art. However, Immortal haven't become well known for being notably bad (like Gorgoroth) but for actually being the closest thing to genre re-inventors.
This album, At the Heart of Winter, would show a distinct shift from gruelling black metal to an experimental black/thrash take on the original sound. It's also the first album that didn't feature Demonaz as a guitarist due to tendonitis. As such, the music is written almost entirely by Abbath. Obviously this has affected the sound, production and overall quality of Immortals current formula.
After experimenting with a death metal mix in Blizzard Beasts, Immortal has melded black metal with melodic thrash metal. Not blackened thrash, but Thrashened black..? Whatever, but this has had an impact on things like song length (the shortest song is 6 minutes and the longest is nearly 9) and structure. It's much more overall much more organised and well put together.
Now I won't throw any cushions around for padding when I say that this thing is epic: in song length and in gigantic riffage. You only need to hear the intro the first song 'Withstand the Fall of Time' to get an idea of what the rest of the album will be like. While most 'true' black metal bands CHOOSE to use broken Roland Microcubes for a guitar tone, Immortal realise the importance of having an audible guitar sound. Although not in any way industry quality (it is Black Metal, after all) its a massive step up from previous albums... even if it does sound like they just turned all the knobs all the way up to 10. Abbath's bass playing is adequate but also highly melodious, working in harmony with the guitar riffing. Horgh's drumming is along the lines of satisfactory because he does the job well (if not very being very imaginative), but his playing is sometimes ironically drummed out by the guitars and vocals. I also thought many of the drum rhythms used could have been replaced with much better ones such as in the intro to 'Years of Silent Sorrow' which features an incredibly awkward groove pattern. // 8
Lyrics: Abbath is sort of an internet meme these days for 'trve grimness' and it's obvious to see why when you read the lyrics. After all, it's probably the song 'Grim and Frostbitten Kingdoms' that started it. Unlike most Black Metal bands, Immortal uses lyrics that focus on nature and well... grim and frostbitten kingdoms, most namely Blashyrkh. It's a bit of a nice change from the usual 'Hail Satan, kill the weak' approach that probably 90% of Scandinavian BM bands use, although I'd hardly go about calling Immortal 'nice'. The thing is the lyrics are one of 3 things Demonaz has left to do in the band, along with managing them and whetting the axes so you can expect him to do a thoroughly good job of it.
However, even if Abbath is one of the better BM vocalists and musicians, an under produced vocal is an under produced vocal. Not only does he sound 'disembodied' (for lack of a better work) in the music, but the heavy use of reverb/delay further emphasises this unconnected feel to the music. At times in the album there are certain moments when the vocals and instrumentation work, but that's only in fleeting moments. Of course, when played live, a good production is always the case no matter how grim/necro the music is meant to be and it's when played live that Abbaths vocals and guitar playing come together.
But despite this, the lyrics work unsurprisingly well with the music which when you're playing with this level of 'epic' is not something you want to leave as an afterthought. // 7
Overall Impression: What I can gather from listening to this album is this: Never dismiss anything until you've actually checked it all out but also go in assuming its BS before it can prove itself otherwise. Immortal are like a jack-in-a-box, only the box is replaced with a carving of a grisly skull made out of a grislier skull marked 'BM' and the jack is a tasty cake (with a spring made of analogy torture).
As an album, it's great thrash and also something great when played live. It has its flaws like any other album yet a big improvement compared to earlier releases and to the sound of Black Metal in general (even 11 years later, bands are still using broken 15 watt amps as a recording tool). It certainly took away my prejudice and most of my breath too.
Songs to look out for: 'Solarfall' is the shortest and fastest song which features a confusingly climactic intro yet also has a fantastically calm acoustic midsection obviously influenced by 80's thrash ballads. 'Withstand the fall of time' is non-stop riff on riff power, featuring some traditional black metal riffs and also some Carcass influence although it can drag on a little. 'Tragedies blows at Horizon' (while hilariously titled) is a solid/slightly lacklustre song but has some interesting moments such as double bass over clean/flanged guitars which are undoubtedly epic. This song is also the first time in the album there are 'traditional' black metal riffs. The title track is the most uplifting song and also the most influentially diverse, containing a majestic intro and a solid guitar solo as well as some of the most powerful riffs ever created (Power metal just seems a bit bland now). However, 'Years of Silent Sorrow' seems somehow unremarkable compared to the previous track yet it's always when you listen all the way through that you hear all the good bits inside it such as at 2:16.. Well, you'll need to listen to find out. // 9