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Immortal - Sons Of Northern Darkness (8,5/10) - Norway - 2002

Genre: Black Metal
Label: Nuclear Blast Records
Playing time: 50:10
Band homepage: Immortal

Tracklist:

  1. One By One
  2. Sons Of Northern Darkness
  3. Tyrants
  4. Demonium
  5. Within The Mind Dark
  6. My Kingdom Cold
  7. Antarctica
  8. Beyond The North Waves
Immortal - Sons Of Northern Darkness

There is a thin line, or perhaps even a wide yet somehow taken for granted gap, between listening to a Metal album and understanding it. One involves simply hitting the play button and obsessing over a few superficial details, such as the riffs that own every second they occupy, the wicked yet woeful toneless growls spouting some form of prose, or some other singular aspect of the larger picture. The other involves an active process of scrutiny that spans multiple listens, and usually involves taking into account many other separate albums by the same artist as well as those of other artists within the same genre. Often this can occur spontaneously with certain albums, because they’ve been heard after a lot of others, because they came at the tail end of a long process of evolution, and because these albums function as a stylistic culmination of everything the band has accomplished. The 7th and final installment of IMMORTAL’s 11-year voyage through the icy aesthetics of non-aligned Black Metal, “Sons Of Northern Darkness”, is such an album.

 

Essentially the contents of this final offering before going on hiatus takes note of everything that began with “Battles In The North”, forsaking the first two albums only in the sense that it retains the enhanced production and extreme Thrash influences that they lacked. It doesn’t really match the rabid, raw, hyper-aggressive nature of their 1995 break with traditional Black Metal nor the transitional “Blizzard Beasts”, nor does it stay uniformly within the longwinded Epic style of “At The Heart Of Winter”. It tends slightly to resemble the longer blackened Teutonic Thrash of “Damned In Black” a little more than the others, mostly as a reference point in between the blurring blast sections and the Ambient/clean guitar driven interludes. The riffs continue to walk a thin line between the minimal melodic aesthetics of the 2nd wave and the technical fury of the 80s German Thrash scene, coming off a little less mechanical than on the last album, but still holding that very methodical line.

 

The one area where this album manages to surpass previous efforts is in the lyric department. Aided in part by former axe man Demonaz, Abbath has managed to string together some really interesting pieces of epic storytelling to complement the hurricanes of sonic ice that scream out of each passing riff. “Antarctica” in particular is moving in its vivid descriptions of a place where the only differentiation seen in the terrain is the height of the next ice cloaked peak, and can be readily enjoyed even while being simply read from the booklet without the music playing. When committed to the darkened mutterings heard on the album, what emerges isn’t the typical recitative common to many Black Metal songs where the rhythms seem through-composed or even improvised, but instead a perfectly symmetrical scheme of poetic thoughts.

 

The musical evolution and progression on here, though mostly a mixing of previous efforts, breaks into new ground in one specific area. Somewhere after the very minimal lead fragments of “At The Heart Of Winter” and the MORBID ANGEL sounding brief lead bursts of “Damned In Black”, Abbath somehow crossed over to a sort of technical mishmash of early Thrash soloing and NWOBHM style lead playing. When listening to the solo on the title song, for example, several lead ideas come in and out that bear some similarity to things that you might hear out of Eric Meyer (DARK ANGEL) and others comparable to Nick Bowcott during his GRIM REAPER days. I think there are even a couple of fret board tapping lines weaved into these impressive though still brief lead bursts.

 

A prerequisite for really falling in love with this album is having an equal appreciation for every stylistic shift that the band has gone through. If you really liked the Epic side of the band heard on the only album not featuring the band in full costume on the cover, the slower and almost Traditional Heavy Metal oriented “Tyrants” and the semi-Ambient, mostly mid-paced Thrasher “Antarctica” are the way to go. Both of these contain beautiful sounding clean guitar sections that really portray the coldness of the setting outlined in Abbath’s fictional storybook, while the manic riff section articulate the peril that every character within it faces. Fans of the extreme, blast happy furies of the mid 90s will definitely eat up “Demonium” and “One By One”. And the fans of the old German Thrash scene and the early Melodic Death scene that it inspired will go for just about everything else on here.

 

In the grand scheme of things, this album takes a shot right up the middle and elects to be all inclusive of the band’s various influences, almost like a stylistic “Best Of” album that instead contains all new material. As such, it tends to listen in terms of quality as a solid yet restrained expression of a final thought before closing the story book, at least for the time being as the band reformed a few years afterward. This is reflected through the droning yet triumphant Power Metal-like nature of “Beyond The North Waves”, almost like the dénouement at the end of a grand series of stories where the heroes of the winter realm have finally crushed their sworn enemy.  But even if one falls more in love with the pomp and circumstance of their Epic era, or the frantic climaxes of their extreme Blackened era, the ending is always where the listener reflects on the accomplishment of the tale, and what was accomplished here is in a class by itself. There’s no pandering to the superficial battle between God and Satan that goes on between Black and Unblack Metal or a specific political cause to preach to a captive audience, but the universal struggle between hero and villain, with the underlying message of individuality fixed at the helm. The staunch traditionalists often dismiss this as being a cheesy and non-cult approach, but ultimately it is the one that is easiest to understand, and can transcend the artificial boundaries set between Black Metal and all of the other scenes within the greater Metal kingdom.

(Online February 17, 2009)

Jonathan Smith



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