C O L U M N S
Where: Chicago, IL, The Bottom Lounge
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
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'
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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