The last couple of years have been fairly turbulent and eventful for Bergen, Norway-based black metal pioneers Immortal. The mystic realm of Blashyrkh has seen a great deal of conflict and battle recently. Most of said battles seem not to concern itself with Blashyrkh although they are still fought in the North. As in the Northern courts. First Demonaz and Horgh battled estranged frontman (and multi-instrumentalist) Abbath over ownership of the ailing brand. The result was the uniformly and universally barbaric "Northern Chaos Gods" in 2018. Apparently in the intervening five years there was a falling out between co-founder Demonaz and longtime drummer Horgh. The sternly bearded, spiked, and corpse-painted Norsemen spent the pandemic years fighting each other over the trademark plunging the once unstoppable and war-forged Immortal in an extended second hiatus. Now that the legal dispute with Horgh has been settled Demonaz (effectively the sole remaining member through sheer will, determination, or attrition) is back with the suitably antagonistically titled "War Against All". Is the third time the charm? As soul singer Edwin Starr famously asked in 1970, “War, what is it good for?”
There’s no contesting the historical importance of Immortal’s contributions to the fledging Norwegian black metal scene. While chaotic and rambunctious “Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism” was a clear delineation between their past in Old Funeral and the present, conceptually and musically. The band truly came into their own and made their mark with “Pure Holocaust”. It offered a barbaric fusion of early Bathory and Blasphemy informed war-like black metal and “Battles In the North” streamlined that sound to ice-cold perfection. Each individual chapter of the Holocaust Metal trilogy stands recognized as an undefeated genre classic. The band started to lose its way with the sloppily executed “Blizzard Beasts”. The recording debut of Horgh was indeed bestial and a love-note to all things Morbid Angel but a subpar demo-like production reduced it to a whiff rather than the veritable storm it was ought to be. After years of performing acute tendinitis caught up with Demonaz forcing him into a more managerial role and Abbath promptly steered Immortal into a more easily digestible anthemic black/thrash metal direction for the trio of "At the Heart of Winter", "Damned in Black", and "Sons of Northern Darkness". In 2009 the grim and frostbitten duo reconciled for “All Shall Fall” and the rest, well, is history.
'War Against All' and 'Thunders Of Darkness' open the record in a classic one-two in tradition of 'Battles in the North' and 'Grim and Frostbitten Kingdoms'. 'Wargod' is the prerequisite slow-building epic Bathory worship track and very much modeled after 'Blashyrkh (Mighty Ravendark)', complete with an acoustic guitar break and slight washes of subdued keyboards exactly where you’d expect. 'No Sun' is an apparent callback to 'The Sun No Longer Rises' but is nowhere near as scorching with its steady marching trudge. 'Return to Cold' continues with the mid-paced march and is a very thinly-veiled retread of 'Blashyrkh (Mighty Ravendark)' structurally, melodically, and otherwise. 'Norlandihr' is an instrumental harking back to the days of "Pure Holocaust". 'Immortal' is Demonaz' (very obvious) state of intent and his attempt at creating a contemporary hymn in vein of 'Blashyrkh (Mighty Ravendark)'. Since "Battles in the North" closed out with a Blashyrkh-themed song "War Against All" concludes with "Blashyrkh My Throne". Familiarity tends to breed the blackest of contempt and while “War Against All” is uniformly strong a slightly broader musical scope and some variation (do another gloomy ‘Unholy Forces Of Evil’ or atmospheric ‘Mountains Of Might’ already) would be appreciated.
Having alienated or exhausted any and all former members for this session Demonaz hired latter day Enslaved bass guitarist Arve Isdal who has a well-established reputation as a notorious mercenary unencumbered by trivial things such as integrity (artistic, personal and otherwise) and who's in the habit of lending his services in the blink of an eye to whichever project is willing to part with the right amount of money. Drummer Kevin Kvåle is a relative newcomer and he follows the template of Horgh by delivering an absolute stellar performance with an avalanche of blasts and a cascade of double bass. The bass guitar was actually clearly audible and integral to the music when it was performed by Peter Tägtgren on "Northern Chaos Gods" here it's conspicuous only by its absence. Thankfully, Demonaz can still solo with the best of them. Perhaps it would be wise for Demonaz to make Kvåle a permanent addition to give Immortal sonic continuity and hire session bass players for live campaigns.
Ever since Demonaz took creative control Immortal has, for better or worse, become enamored with its own legend. If anything Blashyrkh is a concept ripe for expansion and exploration. For whatever reason (mostly nostalgia, if we were to make an educated guess) Demonaz has become a victim of his band's own limited creative mythology and instead of building and expanding upon established and existing concepts the post-Abbath albums are aggressively and regressively intertextual (often close to being embarrassingly self-referential) as far as the lyrics go. "Northern Chaos Gods" was emblematic of exactly that and "War Against All" perseveres with the nostalgic pastiche route regularly bordering dangerously close on parody. Nobody’s expecting Bal-Sagoth levels of detail but the whole Blashyrkh thing comes across as more of an afterthought rather than the supposed central concept. For a realm of might and magic Blashyrkh doesn't come off as very fantastic these days.
Demonaz continues to recycle past assets with this all too familiar looking Mattias Frisk artwork. While not ugly or unfitting it's little different from the monochrome Jannicke Wiese-Hansen drawing for "Northern Chaos Gods" and the Pär Olofsson digital rendering for “All Shall Fall” before that. It beggars belief that Nuclear Blast continues to let him get away with it too. It makes you long for the halcyon days when silly band photos were de rigueur. Now is the time to expand upon these concepts instead of repeating them with little to no variation. Looking to the past for inspiration is one thing but reducing Immortal to name-checking a handful of choice phrases and visual cues is doing nobody any favors. Oh yeah, the iconic (and vastly superior) original logo is still very much absent and very much missed. Make of that what you will. Immortal might be undying, unyielding but new blood is very much needed.