To celebrate the recent reactivation of legendary New York doomheads Winter, Southern Lord has reissued the band’s sole full-length album, 1990’s Into Darkness. Yes, folks, you read that right: little Into Darkness is now old enough to stroll into your favorite Stateside pub and get totally maudlin on whiskey. Joking aside(ish), there’s a reason that this album has been rightly heralded as an underground landmark of extreme metal: namely, it’s really only Paradise Lost’s Lost Paradise debut that can rightfully claim to have scooped Winter. Meaning, this shit is revolutionary for 1990 – essentially the first album to which one can comfortably affix the tag ‘doom/death’ without bothering with any ‘proto-‘ nonsense.
All the rest of the usual early death/doom miserablists – Cathedral circa Forest of Equilibrium, My Dying Bride, Anathema, Skepticism, and so on – can barely claim to have been fires in the loin and gleams in the tear-clogged eyes of their respective creators in 1990. Moreover, even Lost Paradise feels more like a death metal album trying to stumble the last few yards into the endzone with three wide tackles draped over its back; Into Darkness has a sheen of utter strangeness to it, like a sui generis heavy metal time capsule from a future in which the great ice ages have returned to return the world to its pre-civilizational element.
That having been said, history don’t mean shit if the music doesn’t hold up twenty years down the line, and on that count, let there be no confusion: Into Darkness is a creepy, crawly, quasi-ambient ass-kicking of the highest order. The guitars whine and disintegrate and occasionally – as on album-opening instrumental “Oppression Freedom Oppression (Reprise)” – approach the flanged oblivion of Thergothon’s landmark Stream from the Heavens – except you’ve got your wits about you and recall that this shit came out a full FOUR years before our hermetic Finnish friends dropped their psychedelic death trip. Frontman John Alman’s vocals are grueling and pinched, but almost always understandable, while the bass and drums lope around and butt heads like cave-dwelling giants stumbling into the piercing light of day. The production is awful, with a mix that is crude and disorienting and utterly perfect. Into Darkness ends up sounding like if these three filthy miscreants snagged a copy of Autopsy’s Severed Survival back in ’89, and just squeaked together enough dough to buy a shitty second-hand turntable on which to play it at about a quarter its intended speed.
It’s not all just about sound, either. The songwriting, such as it is, is all about a minimalistic economy of violence. “Servants of the Warsmen” (what?) rips through some serious Celtic Frost worship, while “Goden” eventually breaks out into what I suppose one could call a guitar solo, but sounds much more like German V2 rockets falling on London – the destruction has already happened before you ever hear a sound. “Destiny” thwops along terminally like a mammoth ocean liner bashing out a crude d-beat with its hull as it dashes itself on some frozen bouldery shallows, and the lumbering mid-tempo of “Eternal Frost” is perfectly calibrated for banging one’s head slowly ‘til insensate, dispersing like an airborne toxic event the “scattered ashes of kings.”
Let’s recap: One, Winter’s got the benefit of “Fuck you, we were there first,” like the Soviets in space, or we Yanks on the damn ol’ moon. But of far greater importance is that two, they’ve got some cracking tunes that make one feel like shit in all the right ways. Truth be told, Into Darkness has not been a difficult album to find (at least on CD, with at least one earlier reissue including 1994’s Eternal Frost EP, which this Southern Lord reissue does not). Nevertheless, anything that brings these dreadful sounds into greater currency among the metal-listening public is pure bliss in my book, so find yourself a seat at Winter’s table. It’s a good time for feeling bad.