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On its third album Norwegian black metal duo Immortal come into their own, and deliver their most conceptually complete recording. This third album takes the sound from “Pure Holocaust” and adds additional levels of speed, texture and density to it, without abandoning the atmospheric leanings of the band’s debut. With a cruder production, an even higher tempo in playing and its fantasic Blashyrkh/winter, snow, ice concept worked out to a more detailed degree “Battles In the North” is in many ways the ultimate Immortal album. Released in 1995 it was one of the earlier releases in the Norsecore subset of black metal, and remains the duo’s best work by a long shot.

This is Immortal’s most primitive and fastest album in a number of ways, it also their purest black metal one. The preceding two albums had minor death metal stylings, as would have the album following this one. Later in their career Immortal would up the German thrash metal architecture in their music, and become more of a thrash metal band than a black metal one in the process. However, “Battles In the North” is as atmospheric as it is unrelenting and crude. The atmosphere of Norse desolation, despair and darkness is conveyed through lyrics and Demonaz’ folk inspired melodies with only minor usage of actual folk instrumentation in but one track. Both Abbath and Demonaz deliver commendable work on the string instruments, although Abbath’s performance as a studio drummer for this session is considerably weaker compared to his work on the preceding “Pure Holocaust”. Whether this is to blame on part of the heavier but cleaner production I’ll leave in the middle. It’s one of the inherent charms of the record.

The album is custodian to Immortal’s two most loved live staples ‘Grim and Frostbitten Kingdoms’ and ‘Blashyrkh (Mighty Ravendark)’, which themselves would be subject of a later VHS/DVD called “Masters Of Nebulah Frost”. Both embody two different sides of Immortal, and both are the best of those worlds. ‘Grim and Frostbitten Kingdoms’ is a fast cut, whereas ‘Blashyrkh (Mighty Ravendark)’ is a much slower, almost atmospheric and epic undertaking in tradition of ‘A Perfect Vision Of the Rising Northland’. The latter has a churning church organ, acoustic guitar playing and overall recalls “Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism” in terms of construction and instrumentation, but not vocal style. There are other strong tracks to be found on this record, but these two by and large remain the signature tracks of this session, and will be forever identified with the band.

Whereas the duo’s style was already minimalistic on “Pure Holocaust” here Immortal opt for an even more stripped down and barbaric approach. Taking the template from the preceding record and building further upon its initital framework “Battles In the North” sounds like a storm of frozen stormwinds that carry the sounds of battle. Forgoing an intro Immortal immediately break into the title track, and the crude production by Grieghallen Studio resident producer Eirik ‘Pytten’ Hundvin is the most crunchy yet charming the band had ever had at that point. The guitar tone is far thicker, as are the drums, Abbath’s bass guitar doesn’t feature as prominent as it once did, but there’s far more care put into vocal production. Overall “Battles In the North” is the duo’s best work with a stellar production and fitting imagery that complements the snow, frost, ice subject matter of their lyrics. Blashyrkh finally means something.

As with the preceding album “Battles In the North” completes Immortal imagery. For the first time the duo had accumulated enough funds to afford a professional photoshoot and the album’s photography is nothing short of spectacular in all its goofy glory. The cover photo has both men kneeled in the snow holding their black guitars and bass, decked out in black metal uniform, complete with corpse paint, bullet belts and spikes. The back - and inner sleeve of the digipack feature an additional two or three different photos of the same shoot, all lyrics to the songs and the usual production notes and thank-you lists. Notable is that some of the lyrics contain spelling – and grammatical errors. Apparently Osmose Productions didn’t care enough to correct these faults for the final print, or to bring these to the band’s attention. It isn’t a big criticism yet a very valid one. Amateuristic things like this usually tend to hold the extreme metal genre back.

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On “Seasons In the Abyss” Bay Area thrashers Slayer settled into its midpaced sound, and wrote its most epic album to date. Almost the entire album (with exception of one track) deals with topical real-life events, the horrors of war and serial killers. “Seasons In the Abyss” was Slayer’s highest charted album at the time, and their best selling. The album was promoted by extensive touring on both continents, and two promotional videos were shot. The most well-known was the title track, which had its video shot in Egypt, whereas the video for ‘War Ensemble’ was shot during the UK leg of the world tour. “Seasons In the Abyss” sees a band in control of its sound but remaining accessible without compromising on what made them famous to begin with. This album just kills.

slayer-1986The band has eased into its slower sound, and works around the new compositional freedom that it allows. On “Seasons In the Abyss” Slayer knows exactly what works and what doesn’t. It further hones and perfects the midpaced sound hinted upon with “South Of Heaven”. In a way it is similar to how Sepultura’s “Arise” perfected the sound hinted upon with “Schizophrenia” and “Beneath the Remains”. Slayer might not be breaking any records in terms of speed or extremity – but it pays off dividends in more involved songwriting and a stronger compositional muscle. On the whole the album is more musically ambitious and calls back more to the long gone times of “Hell Awaits” than it does to any of its immediate two predecessors. In fact in a lot of ways this is Slayer’s second attempt at a more epic and melodic sound but this time with the advantage of having a cutting edge production job that emphasizes its considerable strengths.  “Seasons In the Abyss” is a compromise between the band’s earlier cutthroat style, and their more recent venture into more melodic and midpaced territory. It just works.

‘War Ensemble’ is another graphical World War 2 epic that details the Battle Of the Bulge. The lyrics succinctly describe the hopelessness and desperation of war.  It is one of the most recognizable Slayer tunes, and despite the high sing-along factor of the chorus, the heavy subject isn’t left untouched. The band go on to describe the major German offensive campaign launched through the densely forested Ardennes region of Wallonia in Belgium, France and Luxembourg on the Western Front toward the end of World War II in Europe in loving detail without choosing either side. It shows Hanneman’s interest in war history, and specific that of World War 2 without glorifying the horrors it brought upon those involved. In a way it also counters the argument that Slayer were closet Nazi supporters, as ‘War Ensemble’ talks about the conflict from the standpoint of the Allied forces. Other than that, it is just a very strong track in itself.

'Blood Red' details the Tiananmen Square massacre in Bejing in 1989, where over a thousand protestors were slaughtered. ‘Spirit In Black’ is another horror/satanic themed song with probably the best lyrics the band had ever penned. It vividly depicts the sort of macabre atmosphere that would come to define the Doom video game franchise, and it actually references a number of earlier Slayer tunes and albums. ‘Expendable Youth’ concerns the hopelessness of youths in poverty-stricken, decaying urban areas, and gun-related deaths in gang culture. ‘Dead Skin Mask’ is about notorious 1950’s cannibal/serial killer Ed Gein, the Plainfield Butcher. This real life horror story remains a fixation for various extreme metal bands to this day, as both Deranged and Mortician (among others) have written their own songs about the subject. ‘Skeletons Of Society’ is a “torn-from-the-headlines” apocalyptic tale of a world falling in ruin.

On the whole “Seasons In the Abyss” is refinement of the sound the band started on “South Of Heaven”. It is more accessible compared to the earlier Slayer output, and the production is the best the band would ever experience. Despite the slower overall pace Slayer is still its usual self. When the band plays fast they do go all out, and the solo’ing between Hanneman and King are still a wonder to behold. Kerry King does start to show minor symptoms of his “string-random-notes-together” type solo’ing that would come to define the crowd pandering records after this one. It is also the last album to feature Slayer in its classic wardrobe, and have King have long hair. This is the point where the old Slayer and new Slayer become separate entities. The ill-fated follow-up to this record would herald the downfall of a once considered unattaintable thrash metal royalty. In a lot of ways it is the end of an era for a band that was in constant evolution. After having defined and redefined a genre with much of its output, Slayer is at the verge of becoming usurped by its corporate branch. All records to follow in this album’s footsteps would be born out of market research and crowd pandering rather than a passion for the music. “Seasons In the Abyss” is the last mandatory Slayer record in that regard, although “Divine Intervention” doesn’t nearly deserve the bad rap it usually gets.