Everyone's favorite warpainted Norwegians are back after a seven-year absence.
Like it or not, when it comes to Immortal, their image has always preceded them. Most metal fans speak of the Norwegian band with reverence, and deservedly so, but to those nowhere near as well schooled in the history of black metal, Immortal is more commonly known as the panda-faced, axe-wielding fellas from one of the more whimsical Photoshop memes to ever hit the internet. While the pure hilarity of animated gifs of Abbath and Demonaz fighting over a Tootsie Pop is undeniable (even metal fans fully acknowledge how silly their genre can get at times), the actual music the band has produced since the early 1990s cannot be ignored. While nowhere near as innovative as Burzum, as complex as Emperor, as experimental as Ulver, or as primitive as Darkthrone, Immortal has stubbornly stuck to the template set by such albums as Pure Holocaust and Battles in the North, to the point now where extreme metal has advanced so much that their deceptively straightforward approach can sound passé in comparison.
But there's something to be said about the old metal guard, the reliable standbys we can count on for familiar sounding records. Like Motörhead, Napalm Death, and Cannibal Corpse, we know exactly what to expect from Immortal, and although their groundbreaking years are well behind them, the promise of yet another slab of grim, frostbitten tales from the fictional realm of Blashyrkh was impossible for many worldwide to resist when it was announced that the band would be putting out its first studio album in seven years. And if familiarity is what you want, All Shall Fall will not disappoint.
Like their countrymen Dimmu Borgir, Immortal's music has always worked best when removed from the thinner, minimal strains of traditional Norwegian black metal and blown up to extravagant, pompous proportions. Interestingly, it's the same producer, Swede Peter Tägtgren, who played such a pivotal role with both bands. Tägtgren's emphasis on cleaner, fuller sounds Immortal hit its stride on 1999's classic At the Heart of Winter straight through Sons of Northern Darkness three years later, and it feels as though not a day has passed between that last record and All Shall Fall. The opening title track is prototypical Immortal. Drummer Horgh's blastbeats hit us like a blizzard wind. Abbath's trademark snarl spews lyricist Demonaz's post-apocalyptic imagery, which is closer to the fantasy shtick of Manowar than the overtly Satanic fare of their Nordic peers ("Besiege the thrones of reverence / Gods of all fiery fate / Besiege the thrones of reverence / Warriors crowned this day").
It's in Abbath's subtly melodic guitar work, however, where this album's appeal lies. His solos are expressive, his breakdowns often textured, his riffs often teetering towards angularity than the usual chugging, which is especially discernable on the aforementioned "All Shall Fall" and the thundering "The Rise of Darkness". That's not to say that the band's more aggressive side doesn't raise its warpainted head, though, as "Hordes to War" and "Arctic Swarm" both show off Abbath's knack for some superb thrash metal riffing reminiscent of Celtic Frost and Bathory. Again, like Manowar, some rather obvious sound effects are utilized, like a stampede in "Hordes to War" and whooshing winds on "Mount North", and while some killjoys will groan, it fits with that sweeping epic quality Immortal is always preoccupied with.
Smartly, the band doesn't overplay its hand, sticking around for a neat and tidy 40 minutes before calling it a day. Any longer and All Shall Fall would have plunged perilously into repetitiveness, but as the cinematic, eight and a half minute closer "Unearthly Kingdom" marches to its stately climax, it ends on the right note, Immortal simply sticking to its strengths, not so much pushing boundaries as reminding us all just how musically potent they still are. It's a classy effort, right down to the Peter Beste photographs, which likely won't yield any Photoshop gags anytime soon.