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”
Pure Holocaust is Immortal adjusting their overall approach towards the stereotypical black metal aesthetic, even in spite of such owing much of its existence to efforts like the band’s debut. It’s a more focused album because of this, not given to the same sense of development and journey and instead favoring a violent storm of extreme metal technique. Since Immortal has changed up their style on numerous occasions, I’m hesitant to say they begin to sound like themselves on this album. If you compare this to contemporary death metal and the more violent varieties of black metal, though, it fits pretty well.
Given that even within the Norwegian black metal scene there were plenty of variants, Pure Holocaust sticks to its guns and is a consistently trebly blastfest, although it’s still more ambitious and varied than some bands that would take that approach to its limit, like Marduk. There is little in the way of tempo dissonance here – guitar riffs and phrases keep up with the drums instead of deliberately lagging behind, like contemporary Mayhem. It’s also an especially blurry album due to the way the guitars are recorded and performed – constant tremelo and phasing create an interesting texture; surprisingly this does little to render the content of the guitars difficult to understand. If there’s anything at all that interferes with intelligibility (and I’m not sure there particularly is), it’s probably how evenly all the elements of Pure Holocaust are leveled – I can even hear a hint of the basslines if I focus my hearing.
While the overall approach is somewhat more technically proficient than before, this album shares some of the loose feeling of its predecessor. This might be more of a problem than it was on the first album since the material is more difficult to perform. On the other hand, any imperfections here are probably more stylistically appropriate and effective than they were on Diablolical Fullmoon Mysticum, since the denser sound and increased velocities make for an overall more chaotic experience. Regardless of how you might feel about this issue, it also makes for a reasonable comparison to popular black metal works these days, which tend towards more precise musicianship for reasons shaped like digital audio workstations and generally better studio quality. Pure Holocaust still displays significant advances over its successor’s musicianship, but the songwriting has arguably been simplified from previous band efforts – nothing that matches the structural complexity of something like “A Perfect Vision of the Rising Northland”. The emphasis is more on setting a consistent atmosphere, and since the quality of the two albums is about the same, I guess which one strikes closer to your heart is more a matter of personal taste.
Highlights: “The Sun No Longer Rises”, “Storming Through Red Clouds and Holocaustwinds”, “As The Eternity Opens”
So we’ve been on a bit of a formative black/death spree lately; a throwaway remark can set off weird stuff like that. Like Darkthrone in the last review, Immortal wasn’t quite done purging their obvious death metal roots on their debut. If we’re going to bring up big obvious antecedents like Bathory, it becomes reasonable to suggest Immortal was more interested in that band’s epic “Viking” albums than their earlier raw ones. Entire genres of writing could be spawned from the idea that different people take different ideas from the same sources, and while I don’t think we’ll be doing that today, I’d recommend you take Immortal’s musical ancestors into mind when listening to Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticum if you are in any way familiar with them.
In general, this album ends up combining elaborate compositions with fairly rudimentary (even sloppy) instrumental technique; the latter would improve significantly over Immortal’s next few albums, but songs would become brief until 1999 or so, with the release of At The Heart of Winter. It’s hard to describe the effect with overusing words synonymous with “transition”, but that’s a small price to pay for accurately describing this. The songs here are often quite melodic and even consonant at times, but the bassy mixing occasionally makes me want to throw this in with formative melodeath like At the Gates or Sentenced. However, Immortal rather frequently drops this in favor of dissonant, chaotic material like the majority of “Unholy Forces of Evil”; a technique possibly borrowed from the common musical ancestry of the Norwegian scene. I’m not going to go out and say the band hadn’t forged their own identity, as even Pure Holocaust in 1993 was a major paradigm shift, and the aforementioned At The Heart of Winter often resembles a more disciplined and refined variant on the ideas of this debut.
Because of this, early Immortal ends up with some odd strengths and weaknesses compared to their contemporaries. The push for good arrangements is perhaps not so odd, since even the rawest, filthiest, and most shocking of Immortal’s contemporaries emphasized their song structures. The songwriting here is strangely orderly, though, assisted by the consistent aesthetic and frequently midpaced tempoes. The flaws in instrumental technique actually come in handy for differentiating things – seemingly awkward transitions and messy, pitchy guitar solos that wouldn’t fit the songs if performed with more skill. To my understanding, that’s one of the things that draws people to black metal, although it occasionally results in a swarm of shoddy imitators. That Immortal managed to play such a large role in influencing others even before they had really found themselves is a sign of aptitude on their part.
Highlights: “The Call of the Wintermoon”, “Cryptic Winterstorms”, “A Perfect Vision of The Rising Northland”