|Immortal Throne of Blashyrkh: Russian Tribute to Norwegian Black Metal band Immortal
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INTERVIEWS"Decibel" braves a permanent winter to explore Immortal's grim and frostbitten kingdom
Interview with Immortal from "Decibel" Magazine (October 2009)
If there's one thing that never goes out of style, no matter who's in charge or what the state of the world is, it's the prospect of impending apocalypse. Here in the Stars & Stripes, the red specter of the USSR has been replaced by Muslim extremists. Bernie Madoff is the new Dr. Strangelove. Goldman Sachs is the new Manson Family. Meanwhile, endless 9/11 videos and Mayan 2012 prophecies bear down on the collective consciousness like images of the mushroom cloud over Bikini Atoll. But it's not just us: From Detroit boardrooms to Paris union halls, from Afghan poppy fields to Sudanese killing fields, the consensus is in: The Four Horseman are coming, and they're behind on their mortgages. After eight miserable years of Bush foreign policy and a grueling global recession, even championship optimists and citizens of the world's most stable countries are catching a hot brain-load of End Times Fever.
Take Demonaz Doom Occulta, a.k.a. Harald Nævdal, for instance. As lyricist and former guitarist of recently reunited Norwegian Black Metal monarchs Immortal, and a productive (though currently unemployed) inhabitant of one of the planet's most well-heeled nations, our man just might be in a position to avoid the psychic pitfalls of post-millennial alarmism. After all, he didn't let a debilitating case of tendonitis keep him down-even though it's prevented him from playing live or on any of the four albums Immortal have released since 1999. But as it turns out, he's drowning in the doomsday tar pits with the rest of us despondent plebes. "I really feel that the end is drawing near," he says solemnly over the crackle and pop of a transatlantic phone connection from his home near Bergen, Norway. "That is how I feel about the age we live in. When I think about the things we have done, I think nature wants to take revenge on mankind. That is the theme of our new album."
As the eighth and latest in Immortal's merciless cavalcade of monster riffage, frostbitten grimness and ridiculous promo photos, "All Shall Fall" (out October 6 on Nuclear Blast) is a harbinger of both death and rebirth. While Mother Nature hurls her cryptic vengeance via Demonaz's lyrics-still unpublished as of press time-Immortal have returned from self-imposed exile to scale the arctic mountains of their own private ice kingdom and saw off a few more epic paeans to a permanent winter. Back in 2003, guitarist/vocalist Abbath Doom Occulta (a.k.a. Olve Eikemo), drummer Reidar "Horgh" Horghagen and then-bassist Stian "Iscariah" Smørholm closed the door on Immortal and immersed themselves in other projects. Iscariah went full-bore with his black-thrash outfit Dead to This World; Horgh did the same with thrashers Grimfist (he also played on Hypocrisy's Virus album in 2005), and Abbath formed the Norse supergroup I with Enslaved guitarist Ice Dale, Gorgoroth/God Seed bassist T.C. King and original Immortal drummer Armagedda. Demonaz followed Abbath and composed the lyrics for I's excellent and only album, 2006's "Between Two Worlds".
"We needed a break," Abbath says of Immortal's split six years ago. "Several things were the cause, but not things I wanna go too much into. We were not enemies inside the band, but a lot of problems from the outside became problems on the inside. We all knew from the bottom of [our] hearts that this was just a break, but we didn't want to say that we were just on a break because we didn't want people to stress about it. So, I worked on the I project, and suddenly we were ready to get back in business. I always knew Immortal would be back, but I was waiting for the right time to strike."
"We needed to see from outside," Demonaz adds. "We don't play just for the money. This is a lifestyle. It's something we've done since we were kids. It's music; it's not a factory, and it's very important to us that we don't treat it like that. We don't want to play every day and get exhausted about it and get sick of it. We aren't desperate in any way. It's easy to get into a trap with all these record companies and headlines and people trying to get something out of you. We didn't want to do that, so we decided to stop and have a break. We thought things were getting out of hand, and it was destroying us."
Before the I album was even released in late 2006, Abbath announced that Immortal would be getting back together for a string of shows the following year. "Working on the I album gave me a new direction," he explains. "I'm glad we did it, because we are stronger now than we have been for years. It feels so fucking great to be back."
A HISTORY OF GRIMNESS
Like many of the Black Metal bands that stormed out of Norway in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Immortal's mythology has been enriched in the eyes of many by their fleeting connection to Varg Vikernes. Both Abbath and Demonaz were once members of Old Funeral, a Bergen-based Death Metal band that later included Vikernes amongst their ranks. In May 2009, Vikernes was released from prison after serving nearly 16 years for the infamous murder of Mayhem guitarist Øystein "Euronymous" Aarseth. Abbath says he has not spoken to Vikernes since the latter's release, and has no plans to: "I have nothing against him personally," he clarifies. "He hasn't done anything to me. What he did and what happened was a tragedy, and I don't really feel like talking about it. But he has served his time and he is out, and I hope he makes better decisions in his life."
In 1988, Demonaz formed a Death Metal band called Amputation with two other members of Old Funeral, and Abbath joined the fold shortly thereafter. After releasing two cassette demos, Amputation went tits up in 1990, which is when Abbath and Demonaz formed Immortal. Hervé Herbaut remembers the transition well. As founder of the French metal label Osmose Productions, he received the Amputation demos and would go on to release Immortal's first six full-lengths. "What attracted me to them was their move from Death Metal to Black Metal," Herbaut tells "Decibel" via email. "We were talking a lot over the phone with Demonaz, who was promising us something different from Amputation, and this happened with the first [Immortal] album. The first time they came to do phone interviews at our old office, I remember Abbath was puking because he was so drunk."
That album was 1992's "Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism", which was followed the very next year by "Pure Holocaust". In the interim, original Immortal drummer Armagedda jumped ship and Abbath took over on drums, a duty he would maintain on the band's third album, "Battles In The North". (In 1993-94, Immortal enlisted Erik "Grim" Brødreskift as their live drummer. He would later play in Borknagar and Gorgoroth before committing suicide in 1999.) ""Pure Holocaust" was a milestone for me," says Hypocrisy frontman Peter Tägtgren, who also produced Immortal's last four albums, including "All Shall Fall". "I was always on Osmose Productions' ass to let me record them from that album on, but for some reason or other, they didn't get the message until about five years later."
With its snow-white album cover-unheard of in Black Metal at the time-1995's "Battles In The North" cemented Immortal's legend in underground infamy. An equally white promo video for the song "Grim And Frostbitten Kingdoms" set the snowblind standard for corpsepaint clips while helping to popularize the term "grim and frostbitten" in the Black Metal vernacular and introducing Mayhem drummer Jan Axel "Hellhammer" Blomberg, who appeared behind the kit in the video, as the genre's premier drummer-for-hire. The album also happens to be Herbaut's favorite from the Immortal oeuvre. "Back then, "Battles In The North" was a strong missile in the face of metal music," he enthuses. "We took a lot of risk with the white cover sleeve, and we've been insulted [to this day] because of it. But musically speaking, I was totally blown away by their musical direction."
1997's "Blizzard Beasts" followed. It was the first to feature Horgh on drums, but Abbath wasn't particularly psyched on the results. "On "Blizzard Beasts", we tried to play too fast," he told "Decibel" back in 2007. "We totally misunderstood our own songs." Tägtgren couldn't agree more. It was the last album Immortal recorded before he took over as producer. ""Blizzard Beasts" was like a chaos album," he says. "It was really weird to hear that from them. I was just like, "Holy shit! What happened?" It's so intense and such a shitty sound that I couldn't figure out anything they were playing."
Immortal bounced back with an ice-cold vengeance in 1999 on "At The Heart Of Winter". By now, Demonaz's tendonitis had officially set in, and it was decided that Abbath should resume double duty, this time on bass and guitar. Recorded at Abyss Studios in Sweden with Tägtgren, the album was instantly hailed as a masterpiece, scoring a 9 out of 10 review in "Terrorizer" upon its release and landing in "Decibel's" Hall of Fame in 2007. ""At The Heart Of Winter" was a turning point for us," Abbath agrees. "Peter really helped us find the right sound for Immortal."
Before recording "Damned In Black" the next year, Abbath turned the bass over to Stian "Iscariah" Smørholm. A satisfying-if vaguely disappointing-album in the wake of the face-ruling "At The Heart Of Winter", "Damned In Black" would mark the end of Immortal's alliance with Osmose Productions. ""Damned In Black" wasn't really a major move [musically] as we can hear with their previous recordings," Herbaut recalls. Which isn't to say that Immortal were dropped; Osmose Productions' main man assures "Decibel" that they left of their own accord. "We couldn't put on the table the amount of money they were asking," he explains. "It was something like 280,000 euros as far as I remember."
Immortal found their greener pasture in Donzdorf, Germany, at the European headquarters of Nuclear Blast. Exactly how much cash Nuclear Blast actually ponied up remains shrouded in secrecy, but it's safe to say that neither band nor label went broke. In early 2002, Immortal unleashed "Sons Of Northern Darkness", swiping the title from a lyric in their 1993 song "Storming Through Red Clouds And Holocaustwinds." A highly infectious return to form, it would be the last record they would release for the next seven and a half years.
THEY COME FROM THE LAND OF THE ICE AND SNOW
"All Shall Fall" might be a world-beating revenge scenario set to epic Black Metal, but it's also indicative of Immortal's naturalistic approach to their craft. Over the course of the last 19 years, their lyrics and (despite varying degrees of unintentional hilarity) videos have always been rooted in the rural Norwegian landscape from whence they sprang, while their music often seems to harness the attributes of their frosty surroundings into a kind of holistic sonic force. In that sense, Immortal are perhaps the first eco-Black Metal band, predating the work of popular Cascadian eco-champions Wolves in the Throne Room by nearly 15 years. And unlike the majority of their corpsepainted contemporaries, Immortal have no use for the Satanism and/or anti-Christian ideology that helps define the Black Metal idiom. "I'm not into politics or religion, and Immortal is not a religious or political band-that is for punk bands," Demonaz explains. "We are in it for the epic, apocalyptic, dark Black Metal feel with a Scandinavian signature-always from the Scandinavian point of view. I can't relate to religion; I can't relate to somebody telling me something should happen, but I never see it, never know what it is. But I can relate to evil moods, to atmospheric fog and things that are for real. I can relate to the darkness."
As for Mother Nature and her presumably violent reprisals, Demonaz believes most of us will never see them coming. "I think people underestimate nature," he says. "I don't think they really have a connection to it, because they don't go outside and seek it. I think nature has no problem with destroying us, and it could happen any day."
Of course, it doesn't take a prophet or a clairvoyant or even a grinning, shit-eyed TV prognosticator to arrive at the conclusion that we live in uncertain times. Ours is a world beset by war, pollution, land-rape, resource depletion, corporate motherfuckery and conspicuous consumption. But the truth hurts, so why tell it? Why revel in workaday drudgery when you can inhabit a mythic ice realm lorded over by a winged raven god, a snowy fantasia where the storms only grow colder (thus bolstering one's defenses and steeling one's determination); where obscenely tall mountains block the sun (ensuring perpetual darkness, so one can sleep in) and "valleys drink from the blood of a thousand fallen men" (so you don't have to)? This frost-encrusted wonderland is a place where one can don one's leather, one's spikes and one's corpsepaint, and get one's monster fucking riff on. It's called Blashyrkh, motherfuckers. Come get some.
Blashyrkh first surfaced on "Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism" with the track "Blacker Than Darkness" and would become a running theme throughout Immortal's catalogue, invoked by name in songs like "A Sign For The Norse Hordes To Ride" (from "Pure Holocaust"), "Blashyrkh (Mighty Ravendark)" (from "Battles In The North") and the title track from "At The Heart Of Winter". "When we started, we felt really alone in this because it was a really small community of people into the extreme Black Metal here in Bergen," Demonaz explains. "There were maybe only four or five persons into this-me and Abbath and a few others. We felt very much like us against everyone. We were really in our own world, so we formed the realm of Blashyrkh. It evolved over the years with every album, but it still has the same feeling, the same spirit. We still believe in it. Blashyrkh is not a mythology; it is a way of power. It's a place where we can go. It is our realm, our dark side, where we work as Immortal and not anyone else can join. It's a way to describe our surroundings from our point of view."
It's a point of view that has endured to this day. With "All Shall Fall", Demonaz and Abbath are taking the symbolic step of welcoming fans into Immortal's exclusive ice kingdom. "The cover of the new album is an illustration of the gates of Blashyrkh," Demonaz explains. It's only the second album in Immortal's discography to incorporate an illustration rather than a band photo on its cover. "I think it looks very Immortal," Demonaz says of the blue-gray image of a double-headed raven split down the middle. "It's exactly what I wanted when I started to think about the ideas for the cover. I talked with Abbath, and we agreed that we had to have the gates this time, to let people in at least a little. So, that was the idea. I always loved Possessed's "Beyond The Gates" album, too, and this is in the same spirit."
Disappear the raven deity, and Blashyrkh's winter landscapes and glacial valleys sound a lot like rural Norway. "Blashyrkh has a lot in common with where we are from," Demonaz concedes. "But it is a world of our own, that we can operate in, where we have creative control. I draw elements from what I like-the woods, the mountains, the darkness, the fog-I draw these things into a creative zone. I think only a few people understand this. People who don't have an intense relationship with music don't understand. They might like how it sounds, or they like it because they can drink beer to it. But for me and Abbath, it is everything."
In that sense, Blashyrkh is both idealistic and escapist in that it offers Demonaz and Abbath an alternative to an unsatisfying modern world. "I think that's the right way to say it," Demonaz agrees. "I think the Internet age is a dark age. People can see everything and they don't have to connect so much with each other. I think people are really desperate. A lot of bands are desperate. They'll do anything to be famous. People go onto the "American Idol" show or on reality series; they are exposing themselves on MySpace, on Facebook. It's all about exposure. People who are insecure are sitting home, taking hundreds of pictures of themselves and putting them on the Internet. I think a lot of people have identical crises based on this way of living."
After weathering a rash of fake Facebook pages set up in his name, Abbath concurs with Demonaz's assessment of the Interhole Era. "I don't have a Facebook, and I only use the Internet for email," he says. "I had our manager post a message on our website about the imposters so our fans do not communicate with a fake Abbath. I don't have a problem with people making fun of us, but this could very easily become a mess. I mean, sitting in front of the computer all day and all night, doing this shit? What has the world become?"
Though Demonaz cops to having both a MySpace page and an email account, he doesn't like to spend too much time on ye olde superweb. "I try to cope with it in my own way," he says. "Everybody gets a little affected by the Internet lifestyle because we are seeing it and living it and breathing it every day. But I'm really happy that I didn't grow up with this. It came after my platform was set. It's not easy to have a really straightforward balance in your life. But I think Blashyrkh is part of the balance."
TRANSCENDENTAL WARPAINT RITUAL
To paraphrase a quote Abbath has given in many an interview over the years, plenty of Black Metal bands use corpsepaint-for Immortal, it is war paint. And one could argue that their makeup style is the most instantly recognizable since KISS. Abbath's face-paint in particular is virtually synonymous with Black Metal, becoming the go-to look for both diehard Immortal supporters and a veritable swarm of Black Metal mockers and satirists. "It's so simple and direct," Abbath says of his signature grillwork. "In the beginning of Immortal, we used only white makeup, but then I stood in front of the mirror one day and started experimenting. I marked a simple Gene Simmons kind of thing with the black and then filled it in. Immediately, it just felt right. I showed it to Demonaz and he was totally into it. A lot of people are making fun of us for it, but we don't give a shit. We will have the last laugh anyway."
For Abbath, the war paint is what facilitates his transformation from Olve Eikemo to the bare-chested blizzard beast who stalks the stage like a Scandinavian thunder god. "With the makeup, I become Abbath," he explains. "I wake up my demon. As Alice Cooper said in the documentary "Don't Blame Me", "I'm a member of the split personality club.""
For Demonaz, the ritual is no less important, even though he no longer appears onstage with Immortal. "I still put the makeup on," he reveals. "The last time I did it was for the album photo shoot-we took pictures for the inner sleeve." Even more crucially, perhaps, the makeup stakes out the difference between Demonaz and Abbath as members of Immortal, and Demonaz and Abbath as members of their side projects. With I and his Motörhead cover band, Bömbers, Abbath goes corpsepaint-free-as does Demonaz on the MySpace page that promotes his forthcoming eponymous solo project. As it turns out, the cosmetics cut both ways. "I think if the band went without the makeup, it would not be Immortal," Demonaz posits. "If you throw away the makeup, you'd have to throw away the band."
Even before Demonaz and Abbath had an album out, their iconic black-and-white makeup was a psychic anchor, integral to a trance state ritualized in the Norwegian wilderness nearly 20 years ago. "We were doing makeup every day," Demonaz recalls. "We would even practice with the makeup on. Me and Abbath, we would spend a lot of time in the woods, building fires in the winter. That was the Black Metal lifestyle."
One particular night from 1991 stands out in his mind: "I remember we were rowing Abbath's grandmother's boat from the place he lived to an island. We had full makeup on, and we walked all night drinking whiskey. We split up and met again one hour later. We wanted to enjoy the atmosphere and the silence. There were some tourists there and we scared the shit out of them. They were so fucking afraid that they pissed themselves. At five or six in the morning, we started back toward Abbath's house and there were no people outside. A school bus came down the road, just the driver alone, driving through the countryside. He nearly drove off the road when he saw us. A lot of people were afraid of us back then because they never saw anything like that before. People didn't understand what we were doing."
These drunken all-night corpsepaint sessions became the foundations of a shamanistic communion that persists to this day. In September, Abbath and Demonaz will embark upon a weeklong camping trip in Lofoten, in the Nordland region of Norway. "It's an amazing place where all the cod is fished," Abbath says. "We're going to the mountains there to find northern inspiration for the next album."
To the band's detractors, such an excursion might sound like the makings of an Ang Lee cowboy movie set in a sub-arctic fishing hub, but the fact of the matter is that Abbath and Demonaz are practically related. Abbath was once married to Demonaz's sister. In fact, they have a 15-year-old son together. The one-time brothers-in-law say that familial proximity is just one of many manifestations of their artistic relationship. "Me and Demonaz, we share the same vision," Abbath explains. "He's my other half. We're on the same path-always have been, always will be. Very rarely do we disagree."
"Abbath will call me in the night and I'll say, "Fuck, I was just thinking about these riffs,"" Demonaz adds. "And he'll say, "Yeah, that's why I called you." We have a dialogue all the time. It's nearly telepathic because we are so involved."
Their bond is such that Demonaz travels with Immortal to all their shows, even though he is no longer capable of playing live. "If I'm not there, Abbath will not be able to play the same way," Demonaz insists. "We have a connection which is spiritual. We've been working together for 20 years, but it's like we started yesterday."
"It can't be Immortal without Demonaz and his lyrics, so it's great to have him with me at the shows," Abbath concurs. "He always sits with me at the hotel when I put on the makeup. We have a chat and I put Motörhead on the speakers-I always play Motörhead when I put on my makeup. During the show, he goes and sits with the sound guy and the light guy and controls them somehow: "More smoke! More smoke! More smoke!""
For Demonaz, Abbath's pre-show ritual is "part of the magic," he says. "One of the best times for me will always be the half-hour before the band goes onstage, when Abbath does the makeup and I'm there with him. That is the time when we feel the excitement about showing them our steel. I like that. I like when they blow the horn before the battle."
As of 2007, when the band reconvened for a series of select live shows and festival appearances across the globe, the Immortal brotherhood expanded to include bassist O.J. "Apollyon" Moe, who spends the majority of his musical existence stomping nonstop ass with his Oslo-based black-thrash outfit Aura Noir. "Abbath just called and asked and I said OK," Moe tells "Decibel". "Immortal is one of the few bands I always followed. I loved them from the time I heard their first demo, so it was an easy decision to make. I've always admired Immortal for their live shows-because of Abbath, of course, being a great entertainer and Horgh's extremely steady drumming. So, I felt I couldn't ruin anything."
Because of the 10-hour drive between Apollyon's place and Immortal's rehearsal room, the band doesn't practice all that often. "We don't do it that much, but we rehearse quite intensively when we do," Apollyon reveals. "Before a show or a tour, I'll go over there for a week and we'll rehearse every day. But we are all veterans, so we don't really need to rehearse that much because all of us have done it so much. It's also kind of dangerous to rehearse all that much because you get tired of the material, and you can tell when you watch us. If we rehearsed every day, I think we would look a little less excited than we are."
With a world tour on the horizon and four new songs already in the works for a follow-up to "All Shall Fall", Abbath assures "Decibel" that it won't be another eight years before the next Immortal album. It's just a matter of Mother Nature staying her hand. "Humanity is going through big changes," he concedes. "I don't know if we'll see the end of the word, but it's definitely the end of what used to be. Prepare for chaos with a grin on your face. But don't be afraid. Just listen to Immortal."
Author: J. Bennett (© 2009 "Decibel" Magazine, USA)
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