Every album has a built in purpose, some wishing to tell an interesting story, others wishing to merely leave an impression. “Battles In The North” is definitely fit for the latter category, and doing so by means of leaving an impression square on the listener’s skull vis-à-vis an exaggerated aggression factor. There is not even the slightest attempt at subtlety here, but instead an utter scorn for the very concept, resulting in every cliché built into the Black Metal genre being amplified tenfold, in much the same manner that DARK ANGEL’s “Darkness Descends” and SUFFOCATION’S “Effigy Of The Forgotten” did in their respective genres, and thus is born the concept of the extreme within the genre. The only way in which this album differs from those two is that the quality of the performance on here lags a bit behind the obvious potential that can be gleaned from these otherwise very well written songs.
As much as this is already known to those familiar with this era of IMMORTAL, it must be reaffirmed that Abbath is not Gene Hoglan, though it seems that he gets closer to that level of accuracy than Hellhammer did on MAYHEM’s 80s material. The frequent blast beats and perpetual machinegun double bass dwarfs that of “Pure Holocaust”, and at times makes the music seem to slow down to a singular elongated attack. The drum sound is pretty top heavy, resulting in cymbal sounds being just a little too audible, the snare attack being just a tad overbearing, and the bass drum having that clicking quality peculiar to modern Death Metal bands that is often decried in purist circles. The actual rhythmic irregularities in the drumming are not immediately noticeable or necessarily offensive, but along with the quality of the drum production causes the drums to standout from the arrangement just a bit more than they should. To be fair to this album, there is variation in the beats that keep things interesting, thus accusations of this album being ten elongated blast beat sessions should be dismissed as hyperbole.
Though flaws in the production may loom, the other aspects in which this album seeks to underscore the extremity of the genre are successful. The distant atmosphere that “Pure Holocaust” exhibited as a whole has been replaced with an up close, drier, and more deadly atmosphere where the blurry guitar riffs and twisted Gollum ravings go right for your jugular. In fact, you could say that this album severs your jugular, drinks your blood, regurgitates it into your neck, patches up your neck, and then proceeds to repeat the same process several times. Wickedly brutal passages of frozen rage like “Grim And Frostbitten Kingdoms” and “At The Stormy Gates Of Mist” make CANNIBAL CORPSE’s “Vile” sound like the theme music to Strawberry Shortcake, the latter of which contains a nice little guitar solo that is heavily reminiscent of the one heard on “Freezing Moon”.
In spite of all the aggression being emitted from this permafrost laden tundra of sound, the band has not forgotten the importance of having a melodic/harmonic underpinning to differentiate it from the percussive nature of extreme Thrash and the atonality of Brutal Death. Sometimes this comes in the form of parallel lead lines woven into the arrangement like on “Circling Above In Time Before Time” in a sorrowful yet vengeful tone, or is built into the harmonic motion of the riffs themselves like the rapid yet catchy main riff to “Throned By Blackstorms”. The band even finds it necessary to break from the constant bludgeoning of the ear drums at the beginning of the latter song, putting forth something that could actually be described as pleasant. The same is done during the 2nd half of “Blashyrkh (Mighty Ravendark)”, though the vocal part during it sounds mechanical and awkward and could have been easily left out without the section missing it.
Despite the overall intrigue that this album puts forth, it can basically be considered one of IMMORTAL’s weaker efforts. It’s a testament to how strong and together they are that this is a weak release as it towers over some of the stuff that was going on at the same time, both inside and outside the Black Metal scene. It isn’t as raw as “Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism”, nor is it as polished as “Pure Holocaust”, but in its own ironically middle route yet ironically extreme sort of way, it has a charm that sets it apart and demands attention. It’s the sort of album that you’d acknowledge as a classic, though you wouldn’t play it more often than maybe once or twice a month. If you already have the first two by these Norwegian blackhearts, or you have any level of familiarity with the 2nd wave of Black Metal, this qualifies as essential.
(Online February 12, 2009)