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Who: Immortal
Openers: Absu
Where: Chicago, IL, The Bottom Lounge
When: 02.22.11
Writer: Etiam

Immortal. Attempts to encapsulate them--their existence in general, much less their live performance--invariably fall short. Early in the band's career, Abbath and company tapped into an ineffable part of the black metal world's psyche that, despite numberless attempts, no other band has quite been able to recreate. Theirs is a satire so thorough that it becomes serious again, then ludicrous, then infinitely grim, and from thereon out it's turtles all the way down.

It would be easy enough to dismiss Immortal as sideshow pranksters if their music was nothing special, regardless of how long ago they took up their telephone pole weaponry. But there in lies the rub: Immortal's music is seminal, and in three separate eras they have conquered new subgenres. 'Pure Holocaust'--older than 'Transilvanian Hunger'--still lives up to its name; 'At the Heart of Winter' is arguably as epic as anything from Emperor's latter days; and 'Sons of Northern Darkness', a seven-year swansong, was a clinic in millennial black metal and one of the coldest albums ever recorded.
So, who among the front rank of the Norwegian old guard has survived the passage of time better than Immortal? The divine alchemy of Emperor exploded, casting off its constituents into disparate quarters that have never resolved. Mayhem's midlife crisis was almost as lethal artistically as its adolescence was literally, and their mature adulthood has left fans more polarized than ever. Darkthrone have slouched backwards in time, which hardly seemed possible, and now are a black effluvia circling the gutter punk drains (meant in the nicest possible way). Dimmu Borgir claim not to be black metal anymore anyway--what else is news--Gorgoroth imploded in a melodrama worth of any gossip program, and, well, we all know what happened to Burzum.

When Immortal did announce their reunion, conventional wisdom would have told them to not push their luck. The precedent of pioneer metal revivals thus far had been to briefly tour the States, headline some festivals in Europe, reminisce with cohorts about the good old days, and then return to whatever glorious solo projects (e.g. Ihsahn) or second-rate stragglers (e.g. The Haunted) occupies them these days. But Immortal, never short on confidence, saw no reason not to succeed at both the old and the new. Since 'Sons...' was released in 2002, Abbath put aside his spiked bracers and eyeblack for his I supergroup, Horgh has glommed brilliantly onto Hypocrisy, Apollyon moonlights with Aura Noir, and even Demonaz, lyricist and member emeritus, has a solo album on the way. Yet none of this was enough to stop Immortal from releasing a new album in 2009, 'All Shall Fall', which is at once instantly recognizable as Immortal and still a new chapter.

True, few will cite 'All Shall Fall' as the band's greatest release, but it stands strong alone and is a very legitimate continuation of their tradition. What's more, a second reunion tour without new material would have begun to smack of capitalism; having some new material to play gives Immortal's return to Chicago much more artistic legitimacy and punch. Not that Immortal particularly needed the boost--they could have played 'Tyrants' ten times in a row and probably sent at least half of the crowd home happy. But the new album has revitalized them: this new Immortal, striding out to the massive minor barres of 'All Shall Fall', was fresher, sharper, and more vital than the first revival I witnessed in New York nearly four years ago. The parody was there, to be sure, but somewhat more restrained than it had been before. Abbath and company weren't just trotting out the old shtick for our enjoyment--they were proving an enduring relevance, slightly (so slightly) more serious than how they'd left us in 2002.

But this is getting ahead of myself. Let us step back for a moment and find our context--February in Chicago. The beginning of the month saw one of the worst blizzards in recent history, dumping two feet of snow on the city in a night, closing businesses across the region, leaving hundreds of automobiles stranded on Lake Shore Drive, and cutting visibility to virtually zero. In the following weeks, warm temperatures swiftly returned, leading some to think that an early thaw was on its way. And then, on a Monday night the freezing temperatures returned, covering the city in a sheet of ice, shutting down highways, and running tow truck companies to their absolute limits. By the next evening, the climate had subsided enough for regular daily life to resume, but the message was unmistakable--Immortal had arrived.

Their chosen battlefield was The Bottom Lounge, a capacious club west of the Loop with a proximity to the United Center that makes it a regular watering hole for sports fans in Bulls or Blackhawks jerseys. Its front room is a sprawling bar and restaurant of sorts, while the live music takes place in a professionally-outfitted if charmlessly-decorated back room with a capacity of around 700. The line was out the door by the time I arrived, with fans standing nonchalantly in the freezing temperatures, few wearing more than light jackets, long-sleeved metal shirts, or trusty knit caps (also metal band-branded). Once the line began to crawl inside, I could see the dining area full of long-haired and black-shirted types who had been wise enough to arrive early and fuel up for the event. Perhaps I should have joined them--the blackboard up behind the bar read, "Tonight: Immortal, Absu" and on the next line, "$8.50 Hot meatloaf sandwich." A grand triumvirate, if ever there were one. But by now there was no time for distraction--the doors were open and the good spots were disappearing. As the blackboard said, tonight's bill had no other openers, so there would be no time for stragglers to infiltrate a listless crowd while waiting for the real show to begin.

Indeed, when last I saw Immortal, the opening bands served little more purpose than to make sure the lights and monitors were working. It wasn't necessarily their fault; no one goes to a show headlined by Immortal for any other reason than to answer the call of the wintermoon. But this tour was different, for in support Immortal had brought along another trailblazing black metal institution in Absu, from Dallas, Texas. Of all the available American acts, Absu was not the most obvious choice, but they may have been the best. Proscriptor McGovern, the band's eccentric drummer/vocalist/lyricist/occultic mastermind, formed Absu in the same year that that Abbath and Demonaz created Immortal, and has led his project through various iterations, tumultuous lineups, long periods of dormancy, and most recently a comeback self-titled fifth album. Absu are also a trio these days, further strengthening the parallels to Immortal, after the recent departure of a second guitarist.
No band can completely emulate Immortal's live atmosphere, but Proscriptor nonetheless made quite a run of it. His kit was set up without a drum riser in the middle of the stage, flanked by his bassist/vocalist Ezuzu and guitarist Vis Crom. Ezuzu tended to take the lead on vocals, but Proscriptor by no means shirked his duties as the band's defining voice, and regularly emitted his signature raspy shriek. In fact, despite sweating through his face paint (not corpsepaint; more accentuating and subtle) and blasting up a tempest on the kit, his vocals sounded smoother, stronger, and fuller than they do on 'Tara' and earlier recordings. Wearing a head mike secured by a rhinestone-plated sweatband, he spat out the lyrics while alternately fixing his cymbals and various audience members with a wild-eyed, unblinking stare. Between songs, he would leap up from his throne, gesticulate violently, and declaim (still in his croaking voice) the next song with an arch mixture of majesty and mockery. One hand reaches up with fingers writhing: "This song is about...night fire canonization!" His other arm stabs out at the audience, "And it is called....'Night Fire Canonization'!"
The other members did not engage in such antics, but still held their own in Proscriptor's presence. And that is no small thing, given the frenetic pace and wrist-breaking rhythms of his songwriting. In fact, it almost seemed that they played some songs faster than on record, though the violence and vigor of their performance could have just made it seem as such. Again, it was Proscriptor who was mostly responsible for this; metal drummers are fierce engines, but we rarely get to see them up close, much less screaming maniacally and staring down the front row of headbangers. I was close behind them, so I couldn't keep much lookout for a moshpit, but from what I gathered the audience was enthusiastic and I saw a decent handful of red Absu t-shirts scattered about.
Their setlist did not pull as much from 'Tara' as I would have liked, yet did a reasonable job spanning their more than 20 years of existence. It ran (more or less): 'The Coming of War', 'Night Fire Canonization', 'The Thrice Is Greatest to Ninnigal', 'Swords and Leather', 'Manannan', 'Four Crossed Wands (Spell 181)', 'Amy', 'Highland Tyrant Attack', and closed with the first Absu song ever written, 'Never Blow Out The Eastern Candle'. Seen later on in the evening, Proscriptor had shed his rhinestone headband and his mad wizard mania along with it (at least to some degree). He mingled briefly on the main floor, and seemed welcoming to commentary and questions. Altogether, my high expectations for them were met, musically, and exceeded, theatrically.

Throughout the evening we had, blessedly, only a single crowdsurfer, though I have heard other dates were rife with them. Early on, there was still space enough to still rubberneck around and get a look at the crowd. By the time Absu wrapped, it was a packed house--sold out days before the show--ranging from teens with black Xs for 'underage' smeared across their upraised fists to hoary veterans, some content with their beers in the back, others as boisterous and mosh-happy as any youngster. During the substantial layover, audience members were talkative and several chants were picked up and dropped (including a creative but rather grating adaptation of 'Thunderstruck'). Conversations petered out when the fog began to blow, and soon thereafter Immortal took the stage. Immediately, all personal space vanished as the audience rushed against the barrier with upraised fists and camera phones waving wildly.

As I soon discovered, this was the kind of concert where a fourth row spot inadvertently becomes a front and center, solar plexus-crushed against the barricade spot after about half a set. Often, there was not enough space to put two feet down at the same time. From this vantage point, I was close enough to see the definition in Abbath's thigh muscles through his tights, to hear the picks scrape against the strings, to almost get kicked in the face by Apollyon, and to pick out the smallest details of Abbath's stage attire. It was, I should note, a marked upgrade from his last US tour when he came out with a cutoff Darkthrone t-shirt that had armholes sagging down to his hips. This time, he wore a more becoming black leather jacket, modestly spiked (if such a vestment can ever be modest), and adorned with a single patch from the Briksdal Glacier, shaped like a shield and emblazoned with the Norwegian flag. When he stepped close to the audience and swung up his guitar, I was treated to a brass-colored belt buckle of a demon skull. It reminded me of Tim Curry as the great demon Darkness in 'Legend', and was almost as outrageously proportioned as Curry's prosthetic chin in the film.
Of course, Abbath had to trot out a few hip shimmies and the crab walk, which can carry him from directly in front of the amplifiers to aggressively looming over the audience with sneaky speed. As I watched him perform, the sweat beginning to pop up from beneath his paint, I realized that the best way to explain Immortal to the uninitiated comes by way of Batman: Jack Nicholson's Joker is to Heath Ledger's Joker as Gene Simmons is to Abbath. In both character sets, the former is the pioneer whose iconic representation will always be remembered. But it is the latter who took the fundamental idea and transformed it into something much more unfathomable, all-consuming, incongruously insidious, and simply impossible.

This night, Abbath was not wielding his most recognizable axe--the flying V LTD with an 8-ball inlay on the first fret, and his new guitar may be even more fitting. It is thoroughly in his tradition--black, offset flying V made by LTD with a Floyd Rose tremolo--but with a twist: almost tactfully stashed behind his toggle switch and controls, a sticker of Abbath's own corpsepainted visage, mouth open in mock surprise and eyes agog. I hadn't, couldn't have, expected it, but now that I've seen it I'm not surprised. He is the only man in rock--arguably even show business--who could pull this off.

Though lively in his movement, Abbath gravitated mostly around stage right, trusting the other half to the stern gaze of Apollyon. Some years later into his tenure with the band and now with some studio credit to his name, Apollyon now seems entirely at home in the band. He strutted across the stage, neck jutting, feet splayed, and with a perpetual look of mild disgust on his face. Add in his skintight black hose, matching black vest, and the sassy 80s suggestion of curls in his hair, and he looked like the worst acid trip alter ego to ever slither out from underneath Dee Snyder's bed. His primary axe was a 5-stirng LTD towards which he showed no mercy. Picking relentlessly, he would hit virtually every string at once during his attack. Somehow, this didn't result in a muddy rhythm section disaster and instead satisfied the sometimes contrary objectives of locking down the rhythm section and selling the band's attitude with brio.
But of course, the real backbone of Immortal is behind the kit--the inimitable Horgh. I have seen him several times now, both with Immortal and Hypocrisy, and it seems that he becomes more ominous, towering, and taciturn in every appearance. Indeed, if Abbath is the cavorting goblin (and Demonaz now the wizard on the snowy mountaintop, according to Immortal's new music video), then Horgh is the metronomic golem with a penchant for blasting. For this gig, as ever, he was a stoic and relentless, giving the audience a pulse to follow during even the most wantonly random of Abbath's solos, which as often as not seemed to be random ejaculates of tapping noise. Which, in some cases, isn't far from how they sound on record, and therefore was perfectly acceptable. During a quieter interlude, Horgh rose from his throne to lead the audience in a clap, which he punctuated with a double thumbs up and a few hand smashes on his cymbals for good measure. I sometimes suspect his humorlessness to be the glue keeping Immortal's outrageous 'brand' alive.

A final tweak from their last time in the States was the setlist, which drew predominantly from latter-day material. It ran (mostly according to the setlist I snagged, which is ragged, dirt-smudged, torn, and perfect): 'All Shall Fall', 'Sons of N. Darkness', 'The Rise of Darkness (Edit)', 'Damned in Black', 'Hordes to War', 'Solarfall (Edit)', 'Norden on Fire', 'In My Kingdom Cold (Edit)', 'Tyrants', 'Grim and Frostbitten Kingdoms', 'Withstand the Fall of Time', 'One by One', and an encore of 'Blashyrkh (Mighty Ravendark)', and finally 'The Sun No Longer Rises'.

Before the encore, the crush at the front eased enough for me to turn around and take another look at the crowd. The young faces of the Immortal virgins were awestruck. One young man stared unblinkingly at the fog writhing across the stage floor, with one hand pressed against his forehead as if he couldn't quite fathom what he'd just witnessed. The older members of the crowd, those who already had experienced the Sons of Northern Darkness, wore knowing grins and looked around as if to say, "I told you so." Part of this aura may be due to Immortal's rarity: eight years and one disbandment between US tours (with the second tour consisting of only six dates) is a hard thing for fans to endure. And, yes, I have heard a few grumblings in the ensuing days that the band was too long in taking the stage or that their set was a bit sloppy. But these voices are drowned out by a dissenting legion of enthusiasts whose grimaces convey the highest respect.

The show was altogether a most infernal racket, and a glorious one. It is especially refreshing to see an audience pack in to see legitimate (if not particularly underground) black metal and not a Hot Topic-fueled sensation. This crowd was joyous and comfortable, its members more at peace with one another than in the suspicious gloom that surrounds Dimmu Borgir or the Gothic caste system known as Cradle of Filth. Although Immortal can compete with any black metal act for outrageous imagery and absurd internet memes, their performance and their music have an undeniable force that is transcendent. If it takes them another eight years to return to Chicago, I may have some grumbling of my own...but if that's what it takes, I know the wait will be worthwhile.

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