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In the twenty-plus years since “Blizzard Beasts”, the not-so-glorious closing chapter of their unsurpassed and rightly revered Holocaust Metal era, a lot has happened in the Immortal camp. They released three albums of more readily accessible epic sounding black/thrash metal with “At the Heart Of Winter” (1999), “Damned In Black” (2000) and “Sons Of Northern Darkness” (2002) that broke them to a massive audience. After a seven year hiatus Immortal returned with the prophetically titled and fantastically overhyped “All Shall Fall” – after which they collapsed amidst personal – and creative differences. In 2014 frontman Abbath left the project in acrimony with the usual aggrieved accusations and lawsuits following suit. Now, a decade after “All Shall Fall”, Immortal (sans Abbath) returns with the “Northern Chaos Gods” 7” vinyl single, a precursor to the album of the same name.

Even without their most recognizable member (whose solo venture wasn’t a grand creative renaissance either) a fire has been lit under sole original member Demonaz and long-time drummer Reidar Horghagen. “Northern Chaos Gods” is lean, mean and the most hungry and combative the duo have sounded in years. As an isolated track it’s nigh on impossible, not to mention misleading at the very least, to gauge how much “Northern Chaos Gods” represents the album it is preceding. In isolation it is indeed an impressive slice of icy Northern wintercold that Immortal used to masters at. The lyrics, steeped in the usual Blashyrkh fantasy imagery, are a thinly-veiled jab at their former frontman and clearly both Demonaz and Horgh have a bone to pick with him. The duo has since gone on record stating that “Northern Chaos Gods”, both single and album, is “the first step in the reclaiming of our past grimness and attitude.” The veracity of that statement will become clear once the record has been released. As of now, we’re very reservedly optimistic about Immortal reclaiming at least a fraction of their old sound and character, hence our coverage of their discography halting after the meager “Blizzard Beasts”.

While Immortal’s chaotic beginnings with “Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism” were a stylistic continuation of the duo’s work with Old Funeral, it was on “Pure Holocaust” and, more importantly, the utterly barbaric “Battles In the North” that Immortal truly came into its own. The “Northern Chaos Gods” single is apparently painfully aware of that fact and is hellbent on rekindling the spirit of those albums. In other words, “Northern Chaos Gods” is the most bestial and violent Immortal has sounded in many, many years. Demonaz’ serpentine shrieks and rasps recall some of the band’s earliest work and the riffing as well as the solo is the closest we’re likely to come to a recreation or reimaging of their landmark third offering “Battles In the North”. After twenty plus years a band is bound to repeat itself and the lyrics for the single reference ‘under the banner of Blashyrkh we ride’ from the title track of “Battles In the North” as well as the ‘kings of the ravenrealm’ from “Blashyrkh (Mighty Ravendark)” from the same session as well as name-checking “Sons Of Northern Darkness”. In the best scenario, this single could potentially be a positive omen.

However that doesn’t mean that there isn’t laziness abound. Songtitles as ‘The Gates Of Blashyrkh’, ‘Grim and Dark’ and ‘Mighty Ravendark’ don’t inspire a lot of confidence, but crazier things have happened. The artwork for the single is an outtake of a larger canvas used for the full length release. Artwork that we haste to mention is nothing short of a monochrome xeroxing from the Pär Olofsson digital rendering used on “All Shall Fall” released some ten years prior. It’s virtually unfathomable that Demonaz and Horghagen weren’t able to allocate proper artwork for an album that was several years in the making. It’s an affront to good taste and sensibility that Nuclear Blast Records saw nothing wrong with such an obvious and advanced level of recycling of past assets. As per the expected Nuclear Blast standard the duo convened at Abyss Studio in Ludvika, Sweden with Peter Tägtgren not only producing, but also providing session bass guitar. Tägtgren, of course, is no stranger to black metal as he headed up the very shortlived but scorchingly excellent The Abyss studio project in the 1990s. Rather interestingly is that the original Immortal logo hasn’t been reinstated as you’d expect of an effort so desperately eager to recreate the magic of the past. Oh well… Next time maybe?

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The fourth Immortal album is the last of their “holocaust metal” trilogy, and primarily an album about changes. After this album Demonaz would depart from live activity with the band, having been diagnosed with acute tendinitis in his arm, instead moving forward as their manager while remaining active as their lyricist. “Blizzard Beasts” is also the first album since the debut to have a dedicated drummer. Reidar Horghagen makes his recording debut with this album, but he had no involvement in the songwriting. It was the first to be recorded outside of Grieghallen Studio and without long-time producer Eirik ‘Pytten’ Hundvin - as a result the production is atrocious, of demo quality and ugly. The album is described as the band’s most death metal – and technical sounding, taking a chunk of inspiration from Morbid Angel’s “Altars Of Madness” in terms of riffing and delivery.

After a short but unlisted intro (which is actually pretty effective and gloomy) the trio bursts into the title track, and they sound more ravenous, determined and hungry than ever before. The blast sections are faster than they ever were before, and the dirge-like slow parts flow better within the general construction of the songs. The tempo is overall much lower than the utterly relentless “Battles In the North”, which was expected as that record pushed speed as far as humanly possible. The ratio of slow tracks does stick out, and “Blizzard Beasts” is closer related to “Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism” than any of its direct predecessors in that way. There is about an equal amount of slow tracks, as there are fast cuts. Of the slow tracks the epic and very atmospheric ‘Mountains Of Might’ is vintage Immortal, similar in construction to ‘Blashyrkh (Mighty Ravendark)’ and ‘A Perfect Vision Of the Rising Northland’. Other slow tracks include ‘Nebular Ravens Winter’, ‘Suns That Sank Below’ and ‘Winter Of the Ages’.

There’s also an increase in the amount of leads/solos compared to the previous album, and Immortal’s atmospheric folk edge is more pronounced on this record. On his last album with the band Demonaz delivers his most acrobatic and technically refined performance on the guitar. The downside is that much of the riffing, the harmonies and the leads/solos are robbed of their effect due to the abysmal production job. On all other fronts “Blizzard Beasts” is a reliable, but ultimately mediocre sounding Immortal album. The record does what it sets out to do, but nothing ever truly stands out in any meaningful way. ‘Mountains Of Might’ is the lone highlight and the only signature track to speak of. That is not to say that any of the other songs present on this record are bad, because they are not. Immortal had written stronger material in the past, even considered as a death metal album isn’t very remarkable, poignant or, well, strong.

Instantly noticeable is how much the production, or lack thereof if we’re being honest with ourselves, hampers the product. The band had holed up in Sigma Recording Studio with producer Henrikke Helland, and the band co-produced the record on its own. What exactly went wrong is hard to tell from an outsider perspective. Why of all bands exactly Immortal befell this fate remains a mystery. The duo, that had otherwise had tolerable to exceptional productions in the past, now was stuck with the most plastic, sterile and soulless production job yet to grace any of their records. Horghagen’s drums sound like thin cardboard boxes and plastic buckets instead of the usually hammering percussion we have come to associate with Immortal. The guitars are washed-out, fuzzy and don’t hold a lot of power. The vocal production is as good, if not better, as on the last album and the bass guitar can be heard plucking and popping away. For a band that usually avoided terrible productions, “Blizzard Beasts” was an experiment in sound that went horribly and terribly wrong. Unfortunately. Equal to the production the photography is horrid and ugly this time around. Immortal are better than this.

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“Blizzard Beasts” marks the end of the first era of Immortal. It is the concluding chapter in their “holocaust metal” trilogy and the end of the classic era. Draped in mediocre songwriting, broken up by the occasional memorable track, and hampered by a subpar production – it is the most divisive Immortal record outside of the debut album. After this the band would venture into a more thrash-oriented epic metal on which the black metal stylings were only secondary at best. As is usually the case with institutions like this the band experienced a period of hiatus before transforming and returning to the scene with a reunion album called “All Shall Fall”. Immortal is one of the classic Norwegian black metal formations and its career trajectory is one of the strangest of that scene, not counting the industrial – and electronic obsessed subsets of the genre. “Battles In the North” set a standard the band weren’t able to live up to. Clocking in at a meager 29 minutes it also is the shortest Immortal album up to that point.