So Immortal have split up. It’s taken several days for some of their fanbase to wipe away the frosty tears of grief, but there are sure to be a fair few metalheads whose mourning is limited to the reduced opportunities for amusing Photoshop jobs. But the truth is, it’s not just the usual trve kvlt blåck metäl mob who should be grim at the news. This is one split that heavy metal fans across the spectrum should lament.
For one, Immortal are one of the few black metal bands where any moral, ethical, spiritual, political or philosophical bullshit is wonderfully absent. Don’t like Satanism? Immortal didn’t sing about it. Worried about their questionable politics? Immortal didn’t have any (unless you believe this piece of Photoshopping). Not sure you want to listen to a band whose members have serious criminal convictions? Immortal don’t.
Immortal stand for Kiss, punk rock, the beauty of the bleak and frozen North, Motörhead, and heavy fucking metal. They stand for Immortal, and fuck everything else.
That feeds into another reason Immortal were a glorious exception to a lot of what puts people off black metal: despite the theatrics, they were like us. Sure, they were deliriously over the top visually, but there was no elitist bollocks attached to it, these were rock ’n’ roll fans playing music for rock ’n’ roll fans, with a proper sense of fun and no gurning pretentious bullshit.
Further, Immortal may have been a proper black metal band, no compromise to be found anywhere, with a guitar tone frosty enough to freeze your piss before it hits the bowl, and a vocal rasp coarse enough to strip paint, but they were surprisingly accessible and hugely musical. From the moment the production on At The Heart Of Winter was got so right, the catchiness of the riffs and the clarity of the melody within the extremity made Immortal a band you could get your head around. It makes sense in a way that even Emperor’s accessibility can’t match.
That said, they also helped define a key moment in heavy metal history. If someone wants to know what Norwegian black metal sounds like, you hand them Pure Holocaust. That album typifies the genre, from the production style to the guitar tone and the icy aura of death to the strength of the musical ideas underpinning it. Black metal’s other classics are all either inferior or too idiosyncratic. Burzum’s mesmeric length was atypical; Attila’s voice made Mayhem that much weirder than their peers; Ulver and early Satyricon were still folkier than most, and no one writes riffs like Ihsahn. But Pure Holocaust encapsulated everything.
Further, Immortal only put out good records – a rarity for a band that goes so long. Sure, Diabolical Fulloon Mysticism is clearly an early work, and the production is… “interesting”, and Blizzard Beasts was not brilliantly recorded, but they’re still good records that hold up 20 years later, with Call Of The Wintermoon and Mountains Of Might clearly excellent songs. Pure Holocaust is definitive, Battles In The North is the most superbly cold record you’re ever likely to hear, At The Heart Of Winter and it’s nastier successor Damned In Black are both epically thrashy while Sons Of Northern Darkness and final album All Shall Fall typify all that’s best about black metal in the 21st century: still furious, but embracing production values beyond four-track mixers in a garage, and with a fierce spirit of independence and individuality.
But more than this, no band in heavy metal is as immediately recognisable as Immortal (as long as we’re counting Kiss as a rock band, anyway). Everyone knows who the guys in the black-and-white warpaint are, and even a complete music n00b could look at a photo of Immortal and know they are a heavy metal band. You cannot mistake them for anyone else, and no other band can be mistaken for them – they are just too distinct. Their recognisable image is such that the Guitar Hero franchise based a character – Lars Ümlaut – on Abbath over Gene Simmons or Paul Stanley.
Most of all, Immortal were simply a unique, brilliant, ferocious band, who inspire devotion from their fans and recognition from heavy metal fans in a way you cannot imagine another band doing. No other band could have got the clamour from Bloodstock’s crowd when they were announced as headliners. No other band could get away with inventing their own fantastical world of snow and ice to write lyrics about, nor come up with titles like Grim And Frostbitten Kingdoms nor lines like “rise those who despise the weak, spare none and ride proudly on the winds of death”. No other band could make crabwalking cool or survive endless Benny Hill parodies like that video did.
Abbath is too talented a songwriter for this to be the end of his making good music (that Immortal survived Demonaz’s necessary cessation of guitar duties proved that, even before Abbath’s I project) but Immortal’s place in the heavy metal canon is a special one. All metal should mourn their end.