IMMORTAL’s part in the Black Metal scene has been fairly auspicious, particularly because they’ve refused to stick to one specific sound within the spectrum of their style. After going through a pretty sizable shift over towards an extreme Thrash riff take on Black Metal on “Battles In The North”, but coming up slightly short in the performance department, Abbath made the decision to put down the drum sticks and thus allow the band to once again become a band of 3 corpse painted riders of the Fimbulvetr (the terrible winter that precedes Ragnarok, for those not versed in heathen Norse mythology). The resulting sound maintains a fair degree of similarity with the previous release, but definitely transitions the band towards something much different than what they’d made themselves known for with the release of “Pure Holocaust”.
The first and most obvious development present is a large move towards an accessible, catchy and formally symmetrical approach to sonic structure. The riffs have a sort of dual sense of extreme Thrash in the old Teutonic German scene, as well as a good amount of Death Metal trappings equal in extremity to the early offerings of BOLT THROWER and MORBID ANGEL, but with a cold and melodic nature that comes off as a more exciting and extreme variant on Melodic Death. A sense of complexity endures in the riff production, at times rivaling the unfettered fury heard out of your standard DARK ANGEL album post-1984, but the entire songs have inched their way even closer to the standard verse/chorus format indicative of earlier metal styles. Demonaz, who traded in his credentials as a lead player for a most riffs alone style beginning on “Pure Holocaust” has come back with a style heavily reminiscent of Trey Azagthoth’s chorus heavy, furious yet short lead bursts peculiar to MORBID ANGEL’s early 1990s work.
In terms of overall aggression and fury, most of what is on here is equal to what was heard on the last album, but with much more polish and precision. Right from the beginning of the blast beat happy, brain scrambling riff frenzy that is the title track “Blizzard Beasts”, the entire arrangement seems to revel in its super-chaotic sense of tightness and unity. You could swear that after hearing sub-3 minute fits of anarchic rage like “Suns That Sank Below” and “Winter Of The Ages” that an army of half Yeti, half polar bear like monstrosities had just trampled over top of you, followed by a gargantuan avalanche of snow burying your crushed carcass and sealing you in forever. Though not lacking in any excessiveness in violence of sound; slightly longer songs like “Nebular Ravens Winter” and “Battlefields” hint at a much more cohesive, Epic Thrash style that puts discernable melodic tendencies on equal footing with the controlled chaos that is expected out of this outfit. Picture a really extreme version of KREATOR’s “Pleasure To Kill” with the Epic anthem tendencies of METALLICA’s “And Justice For All”, combined with a Blackened and cold atmosphere and a vocal delivery reminiscent of early BATHORY.
The one outlier amongst what is basically a compact, Thrashy collection of short songs is the longer epic “Mountains Of Might”. In many ways this song looks ahead to the classic “At The Heart Of Winter”, which I personally view as IMMORTAL’s answer to “Hammerheart”. It is an incredibly consonant and mournful melodic number that showcases a lingering influence of BURZUM’s Ambient music, particularly during the keyboard intro, as well as the use of heavy repetition common to BATHORY’s Viking era, but maintaining the Speed/Thrash sound that the latter band abandoned in the 90s. There are frequent quiet breaks, a variety of melodic tremolo riffs that invoke both NWOBHM and Teutonic Thrash influences, superimposed on a cold atmosphere steeped in a constant double bass rumble, and tempered by a set of poignant poetic verses describing the majestic, snow covered mountains of the north. Put it all together into one lengthy work that just misses the 7 minute mark and you have the archetype for a variant of Melodic Black Metal that would be attempted with lesser success by many others.
Though this isn’t the obscure yet magical classic that “Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism” was, or the triumphant Blackened Thrash homage to Northland glory that “At The Heart Of Winter” was, this is not something worthy of the shelf. It is a testament to the abilities of former guitarist Demonaz, whose maniacal riffs could induce tendonitis in most mortal men, and are now unfortunately beyond his own physical capabilities. Although there isn’t really such a thing as an IMMORTAL album unworthy of purchase, this holds its place high in the band’s catalog and deserves a wider audience. It’s brutal and evil sounding enough to stand face to face with the likes of SUFFOCATION and CRYPTOPSY, but it also carries the multifaceted characteristics of melodic beauty, structural coherence, and lyrical intelligibility that make Black Metal a unique art form within extreme music. The word essential does not do justice to the true nature of this grand, albeit transitional opus.
(Online February 15, 2009)