It's Black Metal History Month here at Metal Injection so we're going to be turning our Ranking Ray™ on one of black metal's greatest bands, the mighty Immortal!
It's easy to see why Immortal were one of the first black metal bands to achieve tangible mainstream success. They didn't really sing about Satan for one thing (something that no doubt made them more marketable), and Abbath's unparalleled skill with grim but wickedly catchy riffs made them easier to digest for people with a budding interest in black metal. But what completed the puzzle for me, and I suspect a lot of other metal nerds whose early metal experiences took place almost entirely online, was their fierce commitment to character. Their 1992 video for "Call of the Wintermoon," which looks like it was taped over an old wedding video, is a bonafide master work of cringe-inducing geekery. Look at it! There's spikes and corpsepaint, sure, but there's also a wizard's hat, a cape, and a contest to see who can do the best black metal imitation of Madonna's "Vogue" video. This is metal's "Star Wars Kid."
This is not a complaint by any stretch. It's awesome. Immortal crafted a living fantasy realm more complete than anything their peers dreamed up, and they did it not just with their lyrics but with their music, too. Their riffs, especially after Abbath took over guitar duties, reflected the diversity and richness of Blashyrk (one of the all time great dumb fantasy names). They could cut like the silver swords of their their tales, but they painted the terrain as well, mirroring both the mountainous heights and murky depths of the land with airy melodies and watery, echoing chords.
Unfortunately, their outright nerdiness also attracted the attention of internet trolls and their straight up bizarre photo shoots became a popular image macro (though nothing will ever outdo the cognitive dissonance of this Dimmu Borgir photo). And so, unwilling or not, Immortal ended up as black metal's goofy poster boys, a designation that earned them plenty of extra scorn from the genre's purists in their later era.
Still, few bands were ever so equally adept at music and theater, and when Immortal were in the zone they could craft some of extreme metal's most memorable and stirring moments. ON TO THE RANKINGS!
8. All Shall Fall
Ok, right up front, I hate this album with a burning passion. Maybe I was being naive but I was legitimately excited for this to come out. For one thing, It hadn't been that long since Immortal had broken up and Abbath's other interim project, I, was pretty darn good! Maybe they still had the magic. I reserved a copy at the record store. I even made the album cover my Facebook profile picture. How wrong I was. This album is garbage and a blatant attempt to capitalize on the black metal surge of the time. There is no reason for this album to exist. Almost every song on here is either from the Between Two Worlds cutting room floor (See: "The Rise of Darkness") or a crappy version of a better song. The title track is a terrible imitation of "Withstand the Fall of Time," and "Norden On Fire" sounds like Amon Amarth doing a bad cover of "At the Heart of Winter." If I have one nice thing to say, it's that "Unearthly Kingdom" is a decent direct-to-video sequel to "Beyond the North Waves," but who really needs that? This is not The Godfather Part II. If you got burned by this album, just be glad that at least you didn't blow your money on the special edition digi-pack with a (useless/illogical) double-sided poster and the “Special black Immortal plastic bag.” F*ck this album.
7. Damned in Black
Let me start this one by saying that this album is way closer in quality to my #1 pick than it is to the frosty turd pile directly above. Still, as Immortal albums go, this one is pretty boring. The lesser of the band's pair of heavy thrash-leaning albums (the other being Blizzard Beasts), Damned in Black mostly forgoes the melody and catchiness of its predecessor, At the Heart of Winter, in favor of overdriven, blasting, often snooze-inducing thrash. There are some cool epic riffs like on "Against the Tide" and "My Dimension," and the title track is an effective mix of squealing riffs and the epic sounds of ATHoW, but the rest of Damned in Black is a blur. Decent but hardly essential.
6. Battles in the North
I remember buying this when I was 15 and absolutely hating it. I would revisit it every few years as my tastes matured and evolved, thinking maybe I just wasn't in the right place to grasp what was going on. After listening to it yet again (and again) for this column, I can safely report that, nope, nothing has changed. Battles definitely sounds like crap. It's still sloppy and raw as hell, which isn't always a bad thing, but sloppy and raw isn't really Immortal's thing. The guitars are buried in the mix and Abbath's drumming sounds muddy and weirdly off. What's more, the songwriting falls prey to some of mid-90s black metal's worst tendencies, namely endless blasting without enough distinctive riffs to dig out a song. Immortal were better than this and had already proven it with Pure Holocaust. The closing riffs of "Circling Above in Time Before Time" and then "Blashyrk (Mighty Ravendark)" are high points but Battles in the North remains a step back.
5. Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism
Musically, no one will mistake DFM for their best work. Much of it is pretty standard (really good, though), stomping Norwegian black metal. But you can't help but love this album. Yes, it's surprisingly well produced and listenable for the black metal of the time, but more than that, it contains the first tantalizing glimpses into the world of Blashyrk. Demonaz, who wrote the lyrics for Immortal's albums, didn't tell a linear story exactly (that almost never works unless King Diamond is involved). Rather, he revealed bits and pieces, shrouding their mysterious land in tantalizing mystery. Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism is the beginning and, as such, will always remain essential.
4. Blizzard Beasts
The other, far superior half of Immortal's thrash experimentations, Blizzard Beasts isn't always fondly remembered. And admittedly, yeah, I'm still not sure what's up with the production on the opening song. It seems like they just really wanted to let everyone know that Horgh was now their drummer before turning him down to a reasonable level. That quibble aside, Blizzard Beasts is a blackened thrashterpiece that approaches the deft blending of styles that would later be perfected on Sons of Northern Darkness. Whereas Damned in Black had as much atmosphere as the moon, this album feels like an icy tornado sweeping your very soul up into Blashyrk's stratosphere. Songs "Nebular Ravens Winter" and "Noctambulent" possess the driving power of thrash but retain the evil grimness at Immortal's core. Deadly.
3. Pure Holocaust
The first time I heard this I had to double check the year it came out. As expected, this is light years ahead of Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism, but it easily trumps Battles in the North and, yes, Blizzard Beasts, as well. Closer to pure black metal, the sound on Pure Holocaust is biting and clear, letting the upper portions of the riffage sing with the frosty jangle that makes the band's best material soar. The balance of speed and black melody, especially on "The Sun No Longer Rises" and "Eternal Years on the Path to the Cemetery Gates," is staggering, so much so that it makes you wonder what the hell happened on its follow-ups.
2. At the Heart of Winter
Ah, the game changer. The breakout album that transformed Immortal from black metal forest trolls to evil black metal kings. Who hasn't conjured bedroom spells from their top bunk to the strains of "Withstand the Fall of Time," or accidentally punched out their bathroom mirror to the opening riffs of "At the Heart of Winter?" When this album is on it's a life-altering, stadium-filling, un-f*ck-withable riff monster that's just as evil as it is catchy. HOWEVER, and I hate to say this, it's a real Highs and Lows affair. "Tragedies Blows at Horizon" (proofread, guys) is a nearly 9-minute slog that doesn't do much for me, especially after the staggering heights of "Solarfall." Abbath, for all his brilliance, has a tendency to overestimate the power of a riff and will ride it well into the doldrums. Look no further than "Where Dark and Light Don't Differ" and the aforementioned "Tragedies," which could both use some trimming. Still, three Hall of Fame songs will get you pretty darn high up on any list, just not the top spot. That belongs to…
1. Sons of Northern Darkness
Sons is a great album, one that took the best pieces from each of the band's eras ("One by One" would have been the best song on Damned in Black by a wide margin) and fused them into a dark metal masterpiece. "Tyrants" is amazing (even if it's just a slowed down version of "Mountains of Madness"), the title track is heroic black metal perfection, and the razor riffs of "Demonium" can cut steel. It rages and broods and conjures and basically just does everything you want a fantasy-based black metal album to do, musically speaking. But more importantly, to me at least, Sons of Northern Darkness told the perfect end to Immortal's story. Listen to the the marching epic black metal ballad "Beyond the North Waves," with its grandiose keyboards and thunderous riffs, all set to the sounds of a black and hungry ocean. As the song draws to a close, with Abbath's soul-wrecking solo pulling down lightning from the sky, you can see the band on their ship, teetering on the crest of a great wave before plunging into the depths and disappearing into the icy sea forever. It was perfect. Then they had to go and ruin the ending with a crappy sequel. But like every post-season-six Simpsons episode, we're just going to pretend it didn't happen.