Assuming some semblance of history with the lead players involved and a genuine desire to see their approach to icy black metal prolonged, which record do you think would win the most attention if you suddenly found yourself stranded in a cabin after a snowstorm: Abbath’s recently released Outstrider or last year’s return from an Abbathless Immortal, Northern Chaos Gods? Fair to compare? Absolutely. A close fight? All said and done, maybe not? The question mark closing that last statement is emphasized, because the answer ultimately depends on just how heavily you stress the Abbath part of the equation in early Immortal. If he’s indispensable, the contest becomes all the more balanced. At the end of the day, however—following a carving away of the portion of the target demographic that believes this particular realm came to an end following the release of Sons of Northern Darkness in 2002—the current manifestation of Immortal simply does a more effective job of doing what both outlets appear to be hellbent on doing: preserving the hallowed permafrost using icy 2nd wave black metal.
That doesn’t mean Abbath’s latest venture is invalid, though. His 2016 self-titled debut garnered plenty of positive attention, Last Rites included, and few would disagree that the man furtively known as Olve Eikemo still manages to create music that scratches an unmistakable… Blashyrkh-itch. And how could it not? The music remains indebted to the Quorthon blueprint, and the same grim, hourglassed face that graced all those Immortal records is obviously (and very clearly) plastered on the marquee in this latest endeavor. Bottom line: if it looks like an Abbath, crab-walks like an Abbath and blechs like an Abbath, then the end product is destined to sound “Abbath,” no matter who ends up filling the supporting roles. And yes, 2019 features an all new cast of characters providing bass (Mia Wallace), drums (Ukri Suvilehto) and lead guitar (Ole André Farstad).
Speaking to the first point, one walks into this record with pretty clear expectations, and Outstrider does little (if anything) to surpass those expectations. It very simply sounds like Abbath, no more or less. And yes, this is stated with a clear understanding that there is a validity associated with simply wanting to like something and doing so mostly because the material does not end up offending. This record does not perform any wild, stylistic rail jumps. There are zero curveballs in this game. Even though Abbath (the man and the band) is clearly interested in attaining permanent arena status, this release does not pull an “In Flames” in hopes of netting an even wider sub-section of the population.
Consequently, Outstrider sounds relatively safe, despite the fact that it would probably still come across like Hell come to life for anyone with very little black metal experience. True, “safe” is a verboten tag in black metal today, but let’s get something straight right here and now: not everyone interested in this off-shoot is mining the web for Ancient Records demos, and sometimes the only gateway a black metal record hopes to open is one that lures people into the genre. Immortal and Dimmu Borgir did so in the late 90s, and plenty of other bands do similarly today.
Surprise, surprise: the record works best when the formula is at its most fiery. If anyone had any doubts as to whether or not Bathory still plays an important part in Olve Eikemo’s life, there are moments throughout Outstrider where the apple falls close enough to the tree that the chief elements separating the two are mostly a modern production and a stronger emphasis on contemporary melody. “Bridge of Spasms” and the rollicking “The Artifex,” for example. And most notably the best cut of the bunch, “Land of Khem,” which sounds as near to being torn from an old Bathory record as the actual cover of “Pace ‘till Death” that ends the album.
In contrast, when Outstrider is less frisky and wanders into a more melodic, mid-paced gallop, things are…well, just fine. Serviceable, but fairly redundant when compared to the more blazing moments. Padding, in a word, and possible opportunities to split for the pizzard when one of them gets played live so as to not miss the exploding fire during “Land of Khem.” The title track, “Harvest Pyre” and “Scythewinder” are all pretty stock heavy metal in the same way that modern Amon Amarth finds a way to deliver stock heavy metal in 2019. It’s certainly not unappealing, but it feels like window dressing for those of us used to getting mid-paced, galloping heavy metal from the likes of bands such as IronSword. Farstad throws down some good leads in a number of these moments, but they’re still understated enough that you won’t feel compelled to stack them next to Ice Dale circa Between Two Worlds. Again…effective, but nothing that’ll soil the britches.
The simplest way to sum up Outstrider is this: good, not great. Is that really such an insult? I suppose it’s only the extremes that garner attention and clicks these days. “Marketable” would be another simple and apt descriptor—marketable in similar way that At Heart of Winter and Spiritual Black Dimensions were marketable twenty years ago, which is very different than being trendy in the current age. Christ on the bloody cross, it’s strangely refreshing being handed a black metal album in 2019 that has potential for a wide appeal, doesn’t rely on emo or post- crutches, and that skirts anything political. Maybe Outstrider deserves to be bumped a couple notches higher just for that. I’d still say Northern Chaos Gods achieves a similar goal more effectively, but there’s clearly plenty of room for multiple contenders.
Is the record essential? Not really. But it’ll get cranked by plenty of folks from pillar to post, and Abbath the man is undoubtedly the sort of showman with the potential to make these songs even larger from the stage. That in and of itself is sufficient enough to keep this project on the radar.