Immortal: The Brothers Grim
While Norway's black metal scene burned, Immortal were noisily carving out their own style of "grim and frostbitten" extreme music. In this rare interview, founding members Demonaz and Abbath tell the true tale of Immortal's bleak and blackened journey.
In and around the country’s capital of Oslo, churches were burned in opposition to Christianity, and blood was shed in murder and suicide.
Just 300 miles west, in the coastal city of Bergen, Immortal were breathing life into a different strain of black metal. Abandoning many of the explicitly anti-Christian and antisocial themes of their Oslo brethren, they took inspiration from a distinctly more elevated source: the fabled seven mountains that surround their frosted municipality.
It was not uncommon for other Scandinavian black metallers to pay passing tribute to their native landscape, but Immortal took their devotion to a hitherto unseen level. Their music firmly established an aesthetic popularly known as “grim and frostbitten,” a name that originated from one of the best representations of this style, Immortal’s 1995 song “Grim and Frostbitten Kingdoms,” from Battles in the North.
“I had no idea the song would become popular,” says Demonaz, Immortal’s founding guitarist and lyricist. “Now if you go to MySpace or ask any fan of black metal, they know this concept of ‘grim and frostbitten.’ It’s become a popular idea in black metal, and it came from us.”
The bitter Norwegian landscape has been the catalyst behind nearly every facet of Immortal. It’s represented by Blashyrkh, the fictional lyrical realm represented on almost all of Immortal’s seven albums; it’s evident in their winter-warrior mindset (they refer to corpse paint as “war paint” and sport heavily spiked stage outfits) and in the cold production on their ominously bleak, primal and riff-heavy releases.
The group formed in 1990 around the core of Demonaz and bassist/vocalist Abbath. Their first full-length, Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism, released in 1992, featured the duo with drummer Armagedda and earned Immortal notice in the black metal underground. Their next two albums, 1993’s Pure Holocaust and 1995’s Battles in the North, were purely Demonaz and Abbath affairs, with Abbath handling drum duties. The group’s profile rose on the strength of Pure Holocaust,, and the album introduced the frigid themes and production that would define Immortal.
“From Battles in the North on, the lyrics became much more thematically focused,” Demonaz explains. “We moved from the dark…to another dark, a colder dark. And we got more musically advanced in the process, too.”
“That’s how Immortal has always been,” adds Abbath. “All our records are very honest. They represent exactly where we were at that point in time. Many bands are excellent musicians from day one. Not us. We got a record deal early on based only on a bad rehearsal tape. With each release after that, you can hear Immortal developing. I’m glad it turned out that way, because it made each album special and unique.”
Today, Immortal rank among the Norwegian black metal elite, aside such dark stars as Mayhem, Darkthrone, Emperor, Enslaved and Burzum. The status has been bestowed upon them not only for their cold aesthetics and visceral, thrashedbased black metal but also for their showmanship: Abbath has a taste for the grand theatrics of larger-than-life rock gods like Elvis and Kiss, and he’s known for spewing fire, Gene Simmons–style, during performances.
But like every Norwegian black metal band, Immortal have a story punctuated by misfortune. In 1997, following the release of their fourth full-length album, Blizzard Beasts— their first with drummer Horgh—Demonaz was suddenly afflicted with tendonitis in his arms. Its severity forced him to quit playing the guitar permanently, but Demonaz and Abbath were determined to preserve the creative partnership that had been at the heart of Immortal from day one. Abbath added guitar playing to his list of credits, while Demonaz remained in the fold as the group’s primary lyricist.
Two years later, Immortal returned, stronger than before, with the now-classic At the Heart of Winter. Featuring Horgh on drums and Abbath on guitar, bass, keyboards and vocals, the album saw the group pursuing a darker musical direction. Dubbed “blackened thrash metal,” Immortal’s new sound fused black metal and thrash in an opaque and complex amalgam, while the lyrics delved more deeply into mystical occult imagery. The album was acclaimed by the black metal community and set a new course for Immortal.
It was followed by two more powerhouse albums— 2000’s Damned in Black and 2002’s Sons of Northern Darkness—both with new bassist Iscariah, but Immortal’s creative flame was beginning to fade. Rather than carry on half-heartedly, Demonaz and Abbath disbanded the group in 2003.
So it was a surprise when, in 2006, Demonaz and Abbath announced that they had reformed Immortal and would play a handful of live dates across the globe, backed by Horgh and with Aura Noir’s Apollyon on bass. Sensing a rare opportunity, Guitar World invited Demonaz and Abbath to stop by our offices when their 7 Dates of Blashyrkh tour came through New York City this past July. To our delight, they enthusiastically accepted and generously offered to include a lesson in black metal riffing (see this month’s CD-ROM).
After filling up on a take-out meal of burgers, meatball pizza and plenty of Heinekens, Demonaz and Abbath opened up about their band’s frostbitten history, the murder of Mayhem guitarist and vocalist Euronymous, and how Immortal have survived to become one of the strongest voices in Norwegian black metal.
GUITAR WORLD What first inspired the two of you to pick up a guitar?
ABBATH Actually, I started out playing bass. My huge inspiration was [bassist] Joey DeMaio [from Manowar]. I liked [Motörhead’s] Lemmy, too. I liked the lead bass kind of stuff. I also know how to play drums [Abbath played bass and drums on Pure Holocaust and Battles in the North]. For me, it’s never been about just one thing. I don’t practice to become brilliant at just one instrument. It’s really about the whole package. It’s about making music. I don’t pick up the guitar if I don’t feel inspired to make music. It can just stay there for a week and I won’t pick it up.
DEMONAZ You have to be in contact with the spirit and the feeling to pick up the guitar. When the things inside you need to come out, then you play. It has to come naturally.
ABBATH And I do pick up things naturally. I’m bad at guitar leads, but somehow I know how to tap! [laughs] It’s because I learned from watching Joey DeMaio tap on the bass that I can now do it on the guitar.
GW You’re also a big Gene Simmons fan, too, right?
ABBATH The first time I saw Kiss was in 1980. Back then, Norway only had one channel on TV: the national channel. One day, there was this music program on our TV station, and Kiss appeared singing “Rockin’ in the U.S.A.” I was instantly hooked. I was like, ‘Who the fuck are these guys?’ They had instruments and looked like gods!
DEMONAZ Demons! [laughs]
ABBATH After that I collected all the cards, records and posters. Everything in my room was covered with Kiss. You couldn’t see the walls! [laughs] Everybody I knew back then who was a musician was like, “I wanna become the Police.” But not me. I wanted to become Gene Simmons.