Here we are in 2018, with a new Immortal album! Northern Chaos Gods comes a staggering 9 years after their last release, with subsequent years caught up in a mix of touring, legal battles and of course, the departure of frontman Abbath. It’s not an issue that I necessarily want to dwell on, but it is something that’s kind of inherent to discussing this album. It's tempting to use language like “Black Metal Fleetwood Mac” but I feel that would be kind of lazy and also insulting to people on all sides of the argument.
The splintering of Immortal upset me quite a lot when it happened. I was making a tentative return to metal after a couple of years off, and there had been rumblings of a new album after the solid but not spectacular All Shall Fall. Abbath and Demonaz still seemed like an unshakeable duo, coming across as a favourite wrestling tag team in more ways than one. But obviously not all was well…and, well, I don’t run a gossip rag here, but let’s just say that accusations got thrown around from all parties involved.
I actually met Abbath in late 2015, when he was visiting Australia to promote his then-upcoming first album. I was lucky enough to be by the stage door as he was finishing up soundcheck. He was very kind; he accepted my compliments graciously and took time to take several photos with an overweight 30-year old starstruck fan who was trying to find his place in the world again. It was a small gesture, but one that has stuck with me in the years since. So it’s fair to say that I would like a reunion of a more classic line-up, but who knows whether that will happen or not in the future?
Regardless, the dust has now settled and the various legal issues appear to have been resolved; Abbath has pumped out one album and has a second in the works, while Immortal have regrouped as the duo of Demonaz and Horgh. Northern Chaos Gods has been a long time coming, but was it worth the wait?
I decided to be fairly extravagant for Northern Chaos Gods – I picked it up on LP, opting for the white with black splatter vinyl (only 500 released, folks!). I had reasonable faith it would be a high-quality product, if not life-changing.
The sound harkens back to a pre-At the Heart of Winter Immortal, though the engineering and production is more in line with Sons of Northern Darkness – not surprising, given that Peter Tägtgren is behind the decks again and also filling in on bass. Lyrically, it’s exactly what you’d expect. Blashyrkh and Ravendark feature prominently. Immortal’s lyrics have always had the qualities of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign sourcebook filtered through the Norwegian landscape, which is very much one of the reasons I enjoy them so much.
Now I can’t say I was hugely shocked by any of this; Demonaz was the guitarist of Immortal for years before Abbath and remained the lyricist even after departing from active musical duties. In 2011 he also released a solo album, March of the Norse, which definitely shared some auditory similarities with his main band – this should have been a clue, if nothing else.
Yet while it blasts in all the right places, is incredibly and is loaded with the Immortal tropes we’ve come to know and love over the years, I can’t help but feel that there’s a certain X factor missing. The easy answer is to point to Abbath’s absence, but I don’t necessarily think that’s true; one need only look to All Shall Fall to see that his presence is not a guarantee of excellence.
Perhaps it’s more to do with the way the genre has evolved over the years. In the decades since what we now call black metal was developed, it’s taken on a huge myriad of forms far beyond what Venom, Celtic Frost, Celtic Frost and their fellow pioneers could have imagined. Today, staunch retro traditionalists exist alongside the avant-garde – often on the same concert billing – all competing for the listener’s attention. Northern Chaos Gods’ production marks it as a modern product, but in many ways it could have stepped straight out of the mid-90s.
Immortal are, and will likely remain, polarising. Their willingness to embrace the inherent silliness of the black metal aesthetic – if not always knowingly – sours many who consider themselves more trve and kvlt. Yet their lack of involvement in the far-right politics or illegal activities of many of their fellow Norwegians has meant that they’ve also been embraced by many who might have never dipped their toes into black metal otherwise. Whether or not you feel that is a good thing is largely irrelevant at this stage, because that Viking longship sailed literal decades ago. *EDIT* And just to be very clear, I do not think those activities were good. Nor am I in favour of gatekeeping.
In many ways Immortal were in a no-win situation for this album. Release an album similar to older material and be accused of trading on past glories; deviate from the formula and alienate the core fanbase. Ultimately, my suspicions about Northern Chaos Gods were proven correct. It is a high-quality product, though not life-changing – it’s unlikely to win new fans, but I suspect the band themselves aren’t too worried about that at this point. Perhaps more importantly, it sets a promising precedent for further material from the “new” Immortal.