Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Immortal- Sons of Northern Darkness (2002)

2000’s Damned in Black marked the beginning of the end for Immortal. It was dull, innocuous, generic and commercial. Both the production and the songwriting were subpar from start to finish. It looked as if Immortal was out of ideas and was content to cash in on their image and the increasing popularity of black metal. For the most part, that’s exactly what happened; however, Immortal still had a few more good ideas left up their sleeves, though not nearly enough to create a whole new album.  The result is 2002’s highly inconsistent Sons of Northern Darkness.

Sons of Northern Darkness fixes a few of the basic problems that plagued Damned in Black. The most notable upgrade is in the production. While Damned in Black sounded overly processed and one dimensional, Sons of Northern Darkness has a more layered sound, closer to that of At the Heart of Winter. As a result, Sons of Northern Darkness creates a much better atmosphere. The textured sound works well with the epic nature of the compositions. On the downside, Abbath’s vocals are overly modulated, making him sound like a cyborg lizard. 

Sons of Northern Darkness is a strange one. While there are three truly excellent songs on this album, the rest of the tracks are total snoozers. The title track displays excellent songwriting, shifting between the biting tremolo of the verse, an unforgettable chorus and the solemn and epic bridge. “Tyrants” is a dark, mean and groovy beast with awesome chant along lyrics. “Beyond The North Waves” is a sweeping epic that vividly depicts vikings traversing the frigid northern seas on the way to battle. All three of these tracks are lively, inspired and energetic. The drumming is sharp and solos are killer. These three songs are on par with anything on At the Heart of Winter

However, the quality of these three songs makes it all the more strange that the rest of the album is so bland. The other five songs are as flat and unimaginative as anything found on Damned in Black. Most of the songs are bloated with plodding choruses, dragged out bridges to nowhere and stale guitar solos. Three of the songs drag out to the seven minute mark, even though they have worn out their welcome within the first four minutes. 

To make matters worse, the lyrics are some of Immortal’s poorest. While Demonaz was never exactly a poet, he did provide some powerful, image-laden lyrics on the early albums. On Sons of Northern Darkness, Demonaz has been reduced to talking about coldness and darkness over and over. He could at least have used a thesaurus. The words “dark”, “cold” and “black” are used in almost every song. Seriously, did Demonaz commission the lyric writing duties to a twelve year old fan? “Antarctica” talks about how cold and icy Antarctica is, but a kindergartener could have told you that. It ends with the hilarious line, “Antarctica, its drama will unfold!” What drama happens in Antarctica? Penguins trying to keep their eggs warm? 

While there is enough quality material on Sons of Northern Darkness to create an excellent EP, it is a pretty pedestrian full length. Far too many of the songs lack quality riffs or melodies. The fact that Immortal seem content to drag out the songs well past their expiration date makes the album all the more tedious. Though this is an upgrade over Damned in Black it is still one of Immortal's weakest releases.  

Overall: 5.5/10

Immortal- Damned in Black (2000)

When news broke that Demonaz was leaving Immortal due to arthritis, it appeared the band’s days were numbered. It was hard to envision Immortal continuing to have success without its heart and soul. Surprisingly, Abbath was able to smoothly transition Immortal away from its signature fast and relentless holocaust metal sound and toward a more streamlined and epic brand of black metal. Their first release in the style, At the Heart of Winter was quite impressive. While there were a few awkward transitions and compositional choices, the quality of the riffs and melodies was top notch. It looked as if Immortal was ready to release a series of high quality epic black metal albums. Unfortunately, all such expectations were smashed with the flat and flavorless Damned in Black.

In principle, the idea behind Damned in Black is pretty good. It mostly sticks to the format of At the Heart of Winter but reintegrates a number of fast paced, back-breaking passages. While such a synthesis of the holocaust metal and epic black metal styles sounds promising, a lack of inspiration, quality and creativity keeps the album from producing anything noteworthy. 

All the riffs on Damned in Black are dull and generic. Most sound like second rate versions of what can be found on At the Heart of Winter. The riffs are “epic” but in a very cookie cutter way.  There’s a commercial gloss to all the songs. Really, other than having significantly less keyboards, the music on here isn't all that different from what one finds on Dimmu Borgir from the same time period. Often the central riffs are bulky and plodding (i.e. the main riff of “The Darkness That Embrace Me”). The faster passages are adequate, but do little more than regurgitate what one can find on Blizzard Beasts, only without the fire and venom. The closest the band gets to a good song is the title track, which contains a memorable, though not exactly good, chorus and fairly interesting guitar work during the bridge. That said, even this song sounds overly processed and uninspired. 

Like At the Heart of Winter, Damned in Black was recorded at Abyss Studios. However, whereas the previous album had a big, textured sound, the sound quality here is very one dimensional. Part of that is due to the less ambitious songwriting. Without the highs and lows that made songs like “Withstand the Fall of Time” and “Solarfall” so riveting, the production results in a plastic sound. 

Something also needs to be said about the god awful cover. Obviously, Immortal has never been known for tasteful album covers (though Diabolical Fullmoon Mystcism has a pretty cool one) but none of them have looked nearly as atrocious as the cover to Damned in Black. The cover, depicting the three members standing in front of a horribly produced CGI background of red and black smoke, looks like a WWE promo poster. Horgh, who is wearing a goofy smile, looks mentally challenged. 

Damned in Black consummated Immortal’s decent into generic, mainstream black metal. It is simultaneously innocuous, commercial and plastic. It lacks spirit and it lacks ambition. In a phrase, Damned in Black is definitively mediocre. 

Overall: 4/10

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Ildjarn- Norse (1993)

While Ildjarn’s self-titled demo is where the band’s sound really begins to take form, his debut EP, a collaboration with Nidhogg, is where the sound is truly mastered. Norse is twelve minutes of fast-paced, hypnotizing black metal. In comparison to the prior release, the songs are condensed and the harmonies are upgraded. The result is one of Ildjarn’s best recordings.

Norse sets the standard for the rest of Ildjarn’s black metal releases. The songs are all composed of the same small set of elements: buzz saw power chords, taut bass, and imperiously precise and repetitive percussion. In contrast to most Ildjarn albums, where the drums are real, Norse employs a drum machine. Ostensibly, it makes no difference, since Ildjarn's drumming style is very mechanical to begin with. The elements come together to create a sound that has the directness of punk and the catchiness of techno, but an aesthetic that is undeniably black metal. These songs capture a primordial violence; the vicious fervor of the hunter for the hunted.

The production is raw, but not quite as raw as Ildjarn and Forest Poetry. As a result, the riffs are easier to grasp and stick quicker. That’s good news, because there are some really great riffs on this recording. “Morklagt Sti” seamlessly shifts back and forth between a deep and groovy verse and a bouncy chorus. There’s just enough variation between the two passages to pull the listener up and down, but the overall uniformity is totally hypnotizing. “Svarte Hjerter” is a bleaker track that creates a foreboding atmosphere. “Nattens Ledestjerne” is a solid but unspectacular song; pretty typical song from this era of Ildjarn. “Natt Og Tåke” is a phenomenal piece with an undecipherable but nonetheless obsessively good chant along chorus. The song-lengths are perfect: just long enough to lock their hooks sink into your head, but not so long as to become redundant. 

Norse is the perfect introduction to Ildjarn. Because the production is less abrasive and the album avoids the Tolstoyian length of Ildjarn and Strength and Anger, a newcomer will be less distracted by Ildjarn’s frills and can focus on the music itself. Many will be surprised by how effective this simple style of black metal can be (and those who don’t like it won’t have to waste their time sitting through an 80 minute album). Fans who have overlooked this EP should remedy that immediately as this is one of Ildjarn’s most engaging and effective records. 

Overall: 9/10

Monday, August 6, 2012

Ildjarn- Ildjarn demo (1993)

Ildjarn’s 1993 self-titled demo is where the one man band’s signature sound begins to take shape. After releasing a pair of demos consisting of bulky and plodding mid-tempo cuts of bloated black metal, Ildjarn made some major amendments to his sound. Ildjarn kicks the music up a notch, playing meaner, harsher riffs at faster tempos (though this demo is still a step slower than the pace found on most the tracks of Ildjarn’s full-lengths). The taut bass provides a stellar compliment of counterpoints to the main riff. The drums are efficient and as precise as a metronome, but not quite as monochromatic as some other Ildjarn recordings.
Ihsahn of Emperor fame provides the session vocals.  While his vocal performances on the early Emperor recordings (especially Wrath of the Tyrant) can be quite obnoxious, here he gives a solid if unspectacular performance. His voice is a little more spooky and serpentine than Ildjarn’s harsh and direct growls. While Ildjarn’s vocals would have served just fine here, Ihsahn’s performance in no way detracts from the recording. If nothing else, it provides the self-titled demo with a novel dimension. 
At its best, the demo provides riffs that grab the listener by the throat and refuse to let go. “Ild” has a great central riff that revels in predatory fervor. “Støv Og Aske” has an entrapping hypnotic riff that foreshadows the entrancing melodies of Strength and Anger. Sometimes, the songs can drag on a bit too long. Tracks like “Sola Skjultes,” and “Fjerde Dag” are interesting at first, but wear out their welcome after the first few minutes. This is one of the last lessons Ildjarn still had to learn; if you want to play simple songs composed of only one or two progressions with little variation, you better keep the song lengths short. 

This demo stands as a key moment in the development of Ildjarn. The basic sonic elements are all in place; all that remains wanting is refinement of the songwriting. There are enough impressive moments that Ildjarn fans will not want to leave this demo unheard, but newcomers would be better off starting their exploration Ildjarn’s discography with his next recording, the Norse EP. 

Overall: 7/10

Immortal- At the Heart of Winter (1999)

In 1997 Immortal received a massive blow when guitarist Demonaz learned that he had tendinitis and could no longer play in the band. Demonaz’s blistering fast-paced picking and exquisite taste in melodies were the central ingredients to Immortal’s “holocaust metal” sound.  With Demonaz down and out, the remaining members of Immortal were forced to decide between dissolving or evolving.  They chose the latter option, replacing the short, lightning-fast back-breakers of the previous three albums and with long, massive, mid-tempo epics. The resulting album, At the Heart of Winter is a surprisingly effective piece of epic black metal.

At the Heart of Winter is not completely without precedent. Both Battles in the North and Blizzard Beasts contain a mid-tempo epic, “Blashyrkh (Mighty Ravendark)” and “Mountains of Might,” respectively. The contents of At the Heart of Winter are not too different from those pieces, though these songs are generally even longer and more accessible. The songs center on a few memorable riffs and choruses that are designed to stick in your head. There are a few darker moments, but mostly this is a quite upbeat album. Calling it happy would be a stretch, but it’s definitely pompous and invigorated. 

The drums are also quite different. The nonstop barrage of blast beats from the previous albums is replaced by a more dynamic and varied performance. The are a number of lengthy, melodic guitar solos as well. Naturally, the change in style results in a change in production. At the Heart of Winter was recorded at the legendary Abyss Studios, which is known for producing clean and balanced black metal albums. This is was certainly a keen move by Immortal. The clean and bright sound of the guitars and the full, echoic sound of the drums results in a massive tone that allows the gloriousness of these songs shine.

While Abbath has no trouble finding catchy riff after catchy riff, his songwriting is less consistent. The songs don’t always flow in the most natural manner. This is most evident when Abbath tries to integrate atmospheric or symphonic elements into the songs. For example, the title track starts with a two minute passage of beautiful, mournful keyboard and clean guitar. This passage would be excellent if it was building toward a dark or melancholic piece of black metal in the vein of Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism, but instead it is abruptly and awkwardly interrupted by a boisterous riff. It’s a painful passage that is not unlike watching a bunch of drunken frat boys barge in on a funeral procession. While this is the most appalling transition on the album, there are a number of less offensive but nevertheless poorly executed transitions.

Still, there are a few moments of impressive songwriting scattered throughout the album. The way in which “Years of Silent Sorrow” builds toward the somber middle passage is quite impressive. “Solarfall” does an excellent job of shifting between fast and slow passages and integrates a magnificent clean section into the middle of the composition. 

With the loss of Demonaz, Immortal was bound to change their sound. While there are a few areas that could have been stronger, At the Heart of Winter is still on the whole a very fun listen. Glorious riffs and choruses abound and the production and atmosphere is quite complimentary. The album avoids the monotony of Damned in Black and also steers clear of devolving into self-parody in the way that Sons of Northern Darkness does. While it’s far from perfect, it’s still a respectable and original contribution to the Immortal discography. 

Overall: 8.5/10