With last year's 'At the Heart of
Winter', Immortal not only reinvented themselves after the departure of founder
member Demonaz, they also hit a new (snow-covered) peak in creativity. And, it
seems, they're on a roll. Just twelve months on, their latest icy blast of cold
'Damned In Black' has swept down from the north. Guy Strachan summoned
Frostdemon-in-Chief Abbath Doom Occulta to learn the latest.
- "Yes, it turned out the way that we wanted it and we definitely chose the right producer as well. Horgh and I have a great dialogue and there's a lot of co-operation between us and everything turned out right. Not that things could have got any worse, but I think that things are stable now. We are quite satisfied."
So says Abbath on the subject of the career-vindicating reactions to 1999's 'At The Heart Of Winter'. Following as it did several years of turbulence for the band, notably the loss of founder member Demonaz and the ensuing line-up problems (now solved with the addition of Iscariah, formerly of Enchanted replacing session bassist Ares of Aeternus full-time) and the occasionally less than glowing responses to 'Blizzard Beasts'. After all that, was the change in sound that 'Winter...' exhibited a conscious change to move on? There was also the new logo, not having your picture on the sleeve....
- "Well, we were only a duo at the point, me and Horgh, and we had an offer from Osmose to use a professional painter and I sent him an idea for the cover and when he sent back a sketch I thought that it was perfect. I told him to go for it and the end result was just amazing. We [Demonaz and I] wanted the cover of 'Battles In The North' to be exceptional so we chose to do it that way and also I changed a lot of guitar riffs and we started to work with a lot of studio machines which we never did before and also we have grown as musicians and we are more focused more on getting the right sound out of our equipment and we learnt a lot from working with Peter Tägtgren as well."
Why did you choose to record at Abyss?
- "I talked to Dimmu Borgir and Marduk and they all said that Peter was really great to work with and I also spoke to Peter himself who said that he wanted to work with us and that he had wanted to do so for some time. Osmose were also very interested in us using Abyss and I'm glad that we did. The understanding between Peter and us was just perfect. When we came to record 'At The Heart Of Winter' we were not sure what kind of sound we wanted and he was the mentor for us. This time, we knew exactly what we wanted and gave it. He's so easy to work with and he has this great understanding as to what we want and what we need."
A comment that has been noted several times about 'Winter...', and also something that extends to their latest 'Damned In Black' opus, is that Peter has given Immortal a warmer sound. Any truth in this?
- "I think that the arrangements are getting colder and the arrangements are getting clearer and more biting," reckons the diamond-faced one, "but everything is so much more professional but at the same time it's not polished. It's still fucking brutal and it's up to what we make out of each arrangement. I would still say that it sounds cold and that's down to the guitar sound being biting on both 'At the Heart of Winter' and 'Damned'."
In titling the album 'Damned In
Black', it appears as though Immortal are at last moving towards Satanism as a
subject matter for their lyrics. Having only had the album on a CD-R, I can't
comment on whether the subject matter extends to the lyrics. Although they have
long been held up as one of the 'true' Black Metal band, the fact remains that
their lyrics have rarely been Satanic. Euronymous himself once claimed ('Kill
Yourself' fanzine #2) that Immortal were not a Black Metal band because of
their lyrical slant ('Winter Metal', anybody?) but what they did fitted the
visual element of BM perfectly. With that in mind, does the title of the new
album mean a move towards Satanism for Immortal?
- "Maybe more devilish," comes the cryptic reply.
In what way?
- "Well it's our obsession you know? We love the black, dark side and it's a lifestyle which we are damned in and which we can't get out of and we don't want to get out of. Maybe this time everything is more open, musically and lyrically everything is more marked but it's still 100% Immortal, we've just taken it to another level, that's all. "
How easy was it for you to gravitate into playing guitar? You didn't seem that comfortable on stage on the 'Blizzard Beasts' tour and your guitar work sounds simpler than Demonaz's if more open?
- "I've always written riffs for Immortal but Demonaz's guitar technique is very different from mine. Demonaz is a better lead guitar player than I am but it didn't take me long to get into the routine live. I'm more into getting the riffs rawer and clearer than before and also think about the bass and guitar at the same time and how they make a melody together. I didn't think about it before; I'd go to the studio and play the same notes on my bass exactly as the guitar but it's all been a natural development. The bass sounds a lot heavier now and tune in B but the guitar is still tuned to E so it makes it more discordant."
And there I was, going so well. Forgetting the animosity that has existed between the Swedish and Norwegian scenes, I asked Abbath if he thought that in any way, shape or form there was a Swedish element in his guitar playing/sound. Oops.
- "No! No! No way!" he roars. "I'm very inspired by the Eighties; those bands I grew up with still run through my veins, so it's all there and I think that we are taking the old roots from the Eighties and bringing it forward to this day and age, but I'd never say we sound Swedish, no fucking way!"
I'm just thinking of the crunchy downstrokes in the first track, for example. It sounds like the sort of sound At The Gates would have been proud of. No matter how hard I try, Abbath is having none of it.
- "At The Gates?? I haven't listened to them at all. I remember them as Grotesque but I've never listened to them. If that's true maybe they have the same influences as us."
Better make the man happy... 'At The Heart Of Winter' and 'Damned In Black' both have almost a traditional Heavy Metal feel to them. Was this something that you intended, or is it inherent in what you do?
- "It's instinct, you know? I don't think I've got to sound like this or that; I feel in my heart whether it's right or not. I don't worry if it sounds too old or anything. If I like it I use it and I don't give a fuck what anyone else thinks. It's only important to satisfy ourselves, but if we are honest to ourselves then we are honest to the public as well. I grew up with all the Eighties bands. I'm 27 and I started listening to Kiss when I was five or six and all these bands, Motorhead, Iron Maiden, Wasp. Then Celtic Frost, Destruction, Possessed, Venom and Bathory, who have been a very important inspiration since we started Immortal in 1990. The first album I got was 'Scandinavian Metal Attack', then I bought 'Under The Sign Of The Black Mark' and that was so fucking awesome! Actually the first brutal Metal album I heard was 'Hell Awaits' but I didn't hear 'Kill 'Em All' until after 'Ride The Lightening' so Metallica was never my band! The old Manowar albums as well. I feel like a veteran. A young veteran!!" he adds with much laughter.
It's true. I'm 28 and just thinking back to when I saw bands like Celtic Frost, Venom and Possessed live and then remembering what I've been through since makes me feel old.
- "Yeah, but I'm just real proud to have been a fan during that period. I feel strong and I just follow my heart and I know I'm on track. I know that I'm not going to fuck up because I follow my heart and no one can come and tell us what to do. That's why we are very confident with what we do and we don't feel any pressure or any competition. We never have felt that way and we never will. I did an interview with Hard Rock from France earlier today and it was like, they felt 'Dammed In Black' was really good and would we feel any pressure with the next one and it was like, 'no fucking way!'... we don't record anything we don't like."
As one of the bigger bands in the
scene, I would think many of you reading this have notions of Abbath et al
swimming in potfulls of money with a house and car for each album they've put
out. In asking whether he actually enjoys playing live, Abbath gives a
different reason to the one I expected as to why.
- "Of course, other wise I'd never do it! You have to love it to do it because touring is fucking hard. All the travelling sucks. All the waiting sucks but everything is worth it just to get up on stage and get it out. Also, it's the only way that we can live from this. We aren't a Top Ten band, we're a fucking brutal Metal band so we have to tour to live from this so we don't have to back to the shit jobs we had and we want to do this all the time."
How long have you actually been making a living from Immortal?
- "One year." Really? "Yeah, it took nine years [laughs]. I just hope things can be as they are now; we can keep this line-up and tour the world."
Touring the world? I've noticed that Immortal play a lot of festivals and package tours, such as the upcoming No Mercy II' package and the March Metal Meltdown in the US. Do you prefer doing this instead of just going out with another band?
- "Well, both is great." He ponders this. "The No Mercy festival is cool because you can meet all the bands. It's more stressing but it's only for ten days. I'm looking forward to meeting Deicide, and Marduk and Angelcorpse are coming. The No Mercy festivals in 1998 were really successful. I wouldn't have done a whole tour like that though! "
Immortal are one of the few bands who haven't done a live album or recorded an avalanche of cover versions. Is there a reason for this or are these things that you've been considering?
- "We'll see. We haven't done any covers on our own records but we did go to the studio and recorded a cover of 'From The Dark Past' for the Mayhem tribute album on Avantgarde and this version came out really cool. It kicks fucking ass! It's one of the best cover versions I've ever heard! It's true! When we did that Darkthrone cover we didn't have any studio time so we had to record it on a four-track machine but Fenriz and the guys really like it. A lot of people hated it but Darkthrone loved it! We have plans to do alive album this year which we will probably record in Lille, France."
On the subject, why the 'At The Heart Of Winter' French tour?
- "That was an offer from a French booking agency who had a co-operation with Osmose. The travelling sucked, we had this small van, my feet were sleeping all the time, shitty hotels but the audience was fucking great and we had a great time. I never expected it to be that successful. France and Germany are where we sell the most records and there may be a couple of dates in England this year. I don't have the details yet but I hope so. When we came over in 1998 we played in Bradford and, er, then we played in Dudley [laughs] where there was forty people! The London show was wild; I wasn't expecting that because of the criticism of the LA2 show with Morbid Angel."
That was probably because you had an appalling sound at the LA2.
- "Yeah, there's been a lot of ups and downs sound-wise but we have our own soundman now. Very often though it's a shitty sound on stage. We don't have our own monitor man and you can give the clearest sign for 'turn down the fucking guitar!' and he fucking turns it up! Typical problem. Then sometimes you get so fucking pissed off that it turns out great [laughs]! "
As he's laughing, I decide to ask him about those infamous/ notorious 'At The Heart Of Winter' photos. Did you mean to give everybody such a laugh? At the merest mention of them, Abbath explodes with guttural laughter.
- "We made a mistake there. We didn't think much about it, we were in a rush so we're not satisfied with those pictures."
But it did break the ice with a lot of people.
- "Yeah, but I don't think that it gave us the right publicity. I don't think that they have the right atmosphere. I wasn't satisfied with my equipment but we were in a rush. There are too many pictures in the booklet as well; there was a misunderstanding. The atmosphere is not right."
It was a shock when we saw them, we thought you'd taken up WCW wrestling.
[Even heartier laughter] - "The album we are totally satisfied with. We'll just ignore those pictures!"
Still, if you thought the photos were funny, just try and track down a tape of the 'Diabolical' film that was made by a Norwegian television station in 1992. The words cheesy and tacky immediately spring to mind and should have been played to anyone that doubted that these Norwegians had any form of a sense of humour. I mean, in my book it gives that Hecate Enthroned promo a run for its money.
- "That was the biggest mistake we've done!" is the confirmation of my suspicions. "We had an offer from TV to make a video and we were young and stupid and they told us to run and jump and whatever. We didn't think much about it and thought that it would be cool and we were sitting in the studio watching it thinking 'oh no!' but what could we do? It was broadcast all over Norway and now the whole fucking scene has it! But we have to move on and do what's right."
- "There's always something and you never remember and then think, 'it's fucking Terrorizer, why didn't I say that?'!" laughs Abbath when I ask him if he has anything that he'd like to close the proceedings with. "Only the music of the truly dedicated dies hard, and to our fans? Die hard!" he offers. With that, he launches into a more than passable Cronos impression. "Legions of War and Steel... DIE HARD!!"