Immortal’s sophomore release, Pure Holocaust is a quintessential black metal recording. It is a pure manifestation of one of the extreme possibilities of black metal: blast beats, tremolo and speed, speed, speed. However, what makes the recording so brilliant is not the quantity but the quality of the compositions; the subtle changes in chord progressions, the dramatic ebbs and flows of the rhythms and the fluidity of the guitar work. Immortal’s third release, Battles in the North pushes the sound of Pure Holocaust into even greater degrees of intensity. It is faster, heavier and even more chaotic. However, it is not better. Though Battles in the North is quantitatively more extreme, it is qualitatively more conservative, relying on more predictable extreme metal techniques to create a demanding atmosphere. The result is an album that lacks the compositional brilliance of its predecessor.
Make no mistake about it, this album is heavy. The opening notes hit your eardrum like a Mack Truck and with the exception of the closing track, Immortal never let up. Battles in the North is a loud, heavy and fast barrage of frigid tremolo picking and hammering percussion. Based on these measurable factors, Battles in the North blows Immortal’s other albums out the water. However, the quality of the performance is by no means brilliant. The riffs are nowhere near as imaginative or powerful as those on Pure Holocaust or for that matter, Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism. All the melodic textures of the prior releases are gone and what is left is a bunch of heavy, one-dimensional bone crunching riffs. Now this is not intrinsically bad, and indeed this album is quite powerful. One feels as if they are trapped in a blizzard with the heavens emitting endless waves of snowfall onto the listener.
There are also a few unforgettable hooks hidden amidst the deluge of bone-crushers. “Cursed Realms of the Winterdemons” centers on a glorious, watery riff that provides a hypnotic intermission at the midway point of the album. It’s as if for a moment the snow has let up and one can see the majestic white landscape in which he or she is surrounded. Then of course, there is the closer, “Blashyrkh (Mighty Ravendark)”. The track is slower in tempo, more epic in spirit and contains more compositional shifts. “Blashyrkh (Mighty Ravendark)” foreshadows the epic style that Immortal will take up on At the Heart of Winter. Though the song contains some killer riffs, it lacks flow. The stop and start nature of the song structure results in a somewhat awkward listen. One last issue with this recording (as well as every Immortal album to follow) is Abbath’s vocals, which have lost the organic, predatory tone of the early recordings and have transitioned into a choppy and overly mechanical tone.
It is fair to conclude that Battles in the North effectively achieves its goal. It creates a smothering and dominating atmosphere that will freeze you to the bone, even during an equatorial summer. Considered in itself Battles in the North is a very good album. However, after seeing what Immortal achieved on Pure Holocaust, it is a little disappointing. It’s like getting a PhD from Harvard and then teaching at a community college. You’re still doing well, but everyone knows you can do better. As fun as Battles in the North is, everyone knows that this not Immortal at its best.