At the Heart of Winter is the fifth L.P. from Norway's Immortal, released in February 1999. After hitting a creative brick wall with the previous effort, the band returned with renewed energy, though utilizing a different approach, somewhat. In November 1998, they went to Sweden to record at Peter Tägtgren's Abyss Studio. Say what you will about this studio becoming the Morrisound of Scandinavia, but it was a vast improvement over the terrible job they received on their previous album and it sounds pretty suitable, especially considering their change in musical direction.
Some time after releasing the awful Blizzard Beasts album, Demonaz encountered some health issues that resulted in him being unable to play the guitar. Because of this, Abbath handles the guitars on this album, as well as the bass, synth and vocals. Despite the fact that he could not play guitar, Demonaz still wrote all of the lyrics for the band.
The album begins with "Withstand the Fall of Time". The trademark freezing cold tremolo riffs are ever present, chilling your skin. The band’s death metal roots carried from Old Funeral have been all but completely abandoned here in favor of a clean cut riffing style based very closely on the German thrash scene. Tremolo picked melodies occur sparingly alongside varying melodic breaks and rhythmic breakdowns. The bass and drums provide a powerful back-up to these crushing riffs. Everything seems to have a purpose, working toward the same goal. Around the 3:00 mark there is a sorrowful and cold tremolo melody that will haunt you in your deepest sleep. It must be said that Abbath's vocals are in top form, as well. Truly, Immortal seem to be embracing their own past as this is sort of a return to the epic song structures found on Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism. While the sound is not the same, the atmosphere has not changed so much. Looking at most of the other Norwegian bands, they had all changed (drastically, in some cases) yet Immortal remains true to the same freezing cold spirit that they always have.
"Solarfall" begins with another epic and sorrowful melody. The production is the only thing modern-sounding about this. It is amazing how much better the songwriting is just from the previous album. After a couple minutes, there is a quiet acoustic section sounding as if it was recorded through a wall of ice. This builds up to some mid-paced thrash riffs followed by bitter cold arpeggios. The song then returns to the main theme (which sounds quite similar to Iron Maiden's "Where Eagles Dare") as the coldest winter winds wrap you in a cloak of frigidity.
The next song is "Tragedies Blows At the Horizon". This is mid-paced and still possessing the same feeling that has been established with the first two songs. This is a band that started off with something unique now coming around full circle and all but completely rediscovering the original magic that they had during the glory days of the Norwegian scene. Though perhaps not stylistically in line with their debut, At The Heart Of Winter carries the same spirit of epic sorrow and woeful coldness, combined with a form of aggression tempered by a sense of organization, opting to save the truly chaotic moments for when they are called for, rather than blasting straight through at full speed for two or three minutes at a time.
"Where Dark and Light Don't Differ" begins with old school thrash riffs, entwined with a cold sense of melody. It is almost reminiscent of some old King Diamond or Destruction. Abbath shows great skill in sliding from thrash riffs into more frost-covered tremolo melodies. The song construction, here, is far more formalized than any previous release. Riffs and melodic material recur with much greater frequency, ideas are extended much longer and given ample time to mature before moving on. This was somewhat of a problem, even on Battles in the North. The vocals here are much deeper and overdubbed to give even more of a sinister and demonic effect. About midway through the song, Abbath unleashes a beautiful lead solo, surprisingly. At some points, there are even slight similarities to the feeling created on Dissections' Storm of the Light's Bane.
Possibly the most epic composition of the album is the song "At the Heart of Winter". This begins with an ominous and somber intro. The acoustic melody is enough to cause your heart to wither as the cold winds are blowing in the background. The synth use is actually very suitable as an intro, helping to create a mystical aura. Indeed, this is a very ambitious song. The powerful and melodic guitar riffs are accompanied by the most grim vocals of the album, with Horgh keeping a moderately relaxed pace throughout. Certain riffs create a real sense of tension and anxiety, before the frostbitten tremolo melodies carry you deeper into the realm of Blashyrkh. There are plenty of tempo changes and even another brilliant solo to be found here. Out of an album filled with great songs, this is probably the highlight. Much like "One Rode To Asa Bay", this possesses an epic atmosphere that has to be heard to be truly understood.
"Years of Silent Sorrow" begins with a total old school feeling from both the drumming pattern and the guitar riffs. That is one great quality about this album: the guitars are the focal point, much as it should be. The thrash riffs lead into more cold arpeggio riffs, transitioning then to some brief tremolo bits, before returning. While the pace is more relaxed than on some earlier albums, the structures seem more complex. With this song, you can truly feel that you are nearing the end of an epic journey. The lyrics do well to support this:
"Farewell... nothing breathes within me
Harnessbells... sounding cold behind me
A demon... with frozen eyes opened
This journey black behind me..."
There is definitely a sense of finality that is conveyed through this song. A stream of wintry melancholy flows beneath, rising up and overtaking you at certain moments. This song brings At the Heart of Winter to a fitting conclusion.
Regarding this masterpiece, I may be a bit biased as I first discovered this during one of the few pleasant periods in my existence. It was the middle of winter, I was spending all of my time studying Norse mythology, reading Tolkien and walking through the forest where I would get lost for hours, on the coldest days. This also preceded me meeting someone very important, so the sentimentality may cloud my opinion. Either way, I recommend this to fans of Immortal, as well as those who appreciate Dissection, Bathory and even German Thrash such as Kreator.