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.