In the spring of 2003, a really good tour came to a premature and ignominious end. The Metal Gods Tour was headlined by then ex-Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford‘s solo band, Halford, with support from Testament, Immortal, Primal Fear, Amon Amarth, Carnal Forge, and Painmuseum. It kicked off at the end of April, but after only four shows, the money fell through or something else went on behind the scenes, and Halford’s management company, which had put the whole thing together, pulled the plug. One of the shows that did take place was the May 2 date, at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in NYC, and I was there.

The club (which closed in 2018) claimed to hold 1000 people, but it felt much smaller and more intimate than that. Its bookers were surprisingly open to metal in the early 2000s; I saw Meshuggah, Napalm Death, Strapping Young Lad, Decapitated, Necrophagist, Neuraxis, and many other ultra-heavy acts there (as well as DJ Krush, Café Tacuba, and others). The Metal Gods Tour was a solid show with a few really high points. I have no memory of Painmuseum; I might have arrived late and missed them, and Carnal Forge were never much more than Slayer clones, moderately entertaining but forgettable, and Testament were…fine; they were born to open for better bands. Primal Fear were a puzzling addition to the lineup, because their singer’s whole thing was his uncanny vocal resemblance to Rob Halford, so why have them on the same bill with the genuine article?

Halford‘s first couple of albums, Resurrection and Crucible, deserve a wider audience than they’ve received over the years. The band blended power metal in a fist-pumping Judas Priest vein with heavy thrash à la Pantera, and if the songs weren’t incredibly memorable, they were good enough for a born showman like the legendary frontman to turn them into triumphant anthems live.

I didn’t know Amon Amarth well when I got there, but it was pretty much the perfect time to see them, as they were making a last-ditch effort to break the US market after three relatively unsuccessful albums, and their then-new Versus the World, released in November 2002, opened with the instantly anthemic “Death in Fire,” which subsequently became their signature song. Frontman Johan Hegg was a commanding onstage presence, tall and muscular with a gigantic beard; he leaned out over the crowd, biceps flexing as he barked their tales of Viking lore. I left the show a fan, and have remained one since.

The other band that really impressed me that night was Norway’s Immortal. I didn’t know it at the time, but they were on their last legs; they would break up in summer 2003. They played a six-song set that included “Solarfall” from 1999’s At the Heart of Winter, “Wrath From Above” and the title track from 2000’s Damned in Black, and three songs — “One By One,” “Tyrants,” and “Beyond the North Waves” — from their then-new album, Sons of Northern Darkness. And they were really good live. Vocalist and guitarist Abbath had a compelling stage presence, bassist Iscariah laid down a surprisingly thick bottom end, and drummer Horgh battered away from atop an unusually high perch. There’s an incredibly shitty-looking single-camera video of the show that their label somehow decided was worthy of release; you can see it on YouTube:

Sons of Northern Darkness turns 20 this month. It remains one of the greatest black metal albums ever made, in large part because of the ways it ignores genre orthodoxy.

Beginning with At the Heart of Winter, Immortal had been moving in a thrashier and in some ways more progressive direction; where their first four albums had featured primitive, grinding production and songs mostly confined to the three- to four-minute range, Heart had just six tracks ranging from six to nine minutes in length and packed with shifting riffs and guitar solos. They drew a line in the sand (or more accurately the snow), declaring that the atavistic assaults of the past were behind them. A major reason for this was that the band’s original guitarist, Demonaz, was forced to put his instrument down after 1997’s Blizzard Beasts due to tendinitis. His creative partner Abbath, who had been the group’s bassist, took over guitar as well in the studio. The two continued to collaborate on the songs, though, and drummer Horgh, who had joined for Blizzard Beasts, gave the music a powerful rhythmic drive, heavier than much black metal. This feeling continued on 2000’s Damned in Black; the songs were a little shorter, and a little thrashier, but they had real muscle.

Sons of Northern Darkness took Immortal all the way into the realm of blackened thrash. The opening track, “One By One,” is built from thrashing death metal riffs which are only “black metal” in the sense that the guitars are slightly thinner and more trebly than they’d be in trad thrash. But the actual riffs themselves could have come straight off any of the first three Metallica albums, and Horgh‘s drumming is not just relentless, it’s complex, constantly taking little pauses only to shift into an even higher gear or deliver a devastating, thunderous fill. Abbath‘s vocals are hoarse and raw, but he’s tempered his previous tendency to sound like Popeye and now often sounds fascinatingly like Skinny Puppy‘s cEvin Key. Immortal have no interest in being “kvlt” or underground on this album; they want you to bang your fucking head, and you will.

After two fast tracks in a row — and a startling moment when Abbath growls, “Come on!” right before the guitar solo on the title track — the band drops into a lower gear for the devastatingly heavy “Tyrants,” built from a death-march riff, a doom-rock chorus, and moody keyboards, initially buried in the mix but emerging for an atmospheric interlude at the track’s midpoint. When the drums come back in, the blast beats roll across the landscape like a wave of napalm. “In My Kingdom Cold,” another track with dynamics on its side, features lyrics pulled from H.P. Lovecraft and a devastating doom section at the four-minute mark. But the most surprising element on the entire album might be the nearly hidden postpunk guitars chiming away in the beginning of “Antarctica.”

Sons of Northern Darkness is an amazing album, made at a time when several black metal acts were attempting to escape their subgenre’s self-imposed confines, and it makes one hell of a farewell gesture. The records Immortal made subsequently — 2009’s All Shall Fall and 2018’s Northern Chaos Gods, the latter without Abbath — and Abbath‘s solo material have all failed to reach the heights they attained for one glorious moment, 20 years ago. I wish they’d never reunited, because they went out as kings.

Phil Freeman

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