This is the first of Immortal’s supposedly more accessible takes on black metal. We could quibbles about just how much has been simplified and streamlined, but a few things are already certain. First, this was actually my first experience with Immortal (thanks, Pandora Radio!), and it definitely sounded like a stereotypical black metal album to my ears. Once I started filling in my Immortal backlog, I found that it’s still distinct from the distinguished albums that preceded it. In short, At the Heart of Winter is a definite style change, even if it’s the type you need to pay close attention to pick up on.
The actual songwriting here isn’t especially different, which definitely takes some time to pick up on after the aesthetic changes. First of all, At The Heart of Winter showcases the return of the extended songs to Immortal’s discography, mostly missing since their debut. Despite their previous absence, Immortal pulls them off very well here, with good content density and pacing keeping things interesting over the consistently lengthy durations. One potential problem is that there’s not much aesthetic or structural difference between each individual song. Immortal’s chosen substyle on this album arguably has more room for this than previous efforts, but instead they stick to what they know, for better or worse. I don’t personally think it’s a problem, but it still bears mentioning for those few who are ambivalent about what Immortal’s doing here.
It’s mostly the surface of Immortal’s efforts that have been rendered more accessible in whatever fashion. First of all, this is by far the best production the band had ever acquired up to this point. Previous albums were consistently intelligible, but At the Heart of Winter has both a sharper edge (through the guitars) and more depth (audible bass and explosive drums). For all the charms of a stereotypical lo-fi black metal mixjob, you have to admit that a more meticulous approach has its merits as well. Even if it’s the stereotypical Peter Tägtgren Abyss Studios sound, it still works out nicely. This lineup showcases greater instrumental skill than the ones before it as well. The drummer (pseudonymed “Horgh”) made his debut on Blizzard Beasts a year back, and that album’s aggressive blasts demonstrated his proficiency on the kit as well. On At the Heart of Winter, Horgh gets to showcase a greater variety of drum technique, which comes in handy for what is often a more midpaced affair. While the other band members (Abbath and Demonaz) also contribute much to this recording, anyone familiar with their previous work will most likely be desensitized to their own merits, but their melodic prowess and instrumental interplay shouldn’t go unnoticed either.
That you should listen to Immortal, and At the Heart of Winter in particular is kind of a truism. Still, as a clearer and better produced take on the strong ideas that launched Immortal to fame, it’s not only a good starting point, but a valuable work in its own right.
Highlights: “Withstand the Fall of Time”, “Tragedies Blows At Horizon”, “At the Heart of Winter”