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Winter – Into Darkness

Southern Lord

It’s somewhat startling to realise that more time has now elapsed since the release of Winter’s seminal doom metal masterpiece Into Darkness – twenty one years – than had passed since the release of Black Sabbath when Into Darkness first appeared. For a genre as oft derided, sneered at and generally treated with contempt by the mainstream of ‘serious’ musicians, forty years is a pretty fucking impressive achievement in terms of longevity. Not only that, but compared to many musical genres which are either defunct, stuck firmly in a rut, or corporatised and sanitised to the point of utter meaningless futility, metal is a vibrant and living style whose bewilderingly complex evolution continues with a tenacity that would have Darwin himself throwing up his arms and considering becoming a Creationist instead.

Along that four decade old road, there have been a number of huge milestones – the aforementioned Black Sabbath (Birmingham’s greatest gift to the world, whose massive and incalculable influence is felt as strongly now in the David Cameron era as when Ted Heath was the promising new Tory PM du jour), Venoms 1981 Welcome to Hell (once described as bringing a new meaning to the work “cataclysmic”), Slayer’s peerless 1986 Rick Rubin-produced gorefest Reign in Blood (dubbed by Kerrang! “the heaviest album of all time”), the grindcore of Napalm Death and Carcass, Morbid Angel’s 1989 début Altars of Madness, lo unto the generations and the untold riches brought to us by the new Vikings of Scandinavian metal – they come to pillage us, this time with sound rather than blood axes. Although on second thoughts, maybe with that too, given that Gorgoroth’s epic 2004 gig in Krakow precipitated the need for a full-scale police investigation of its sheep heads on stakes, 80 litres of blood and naked models crucified on stage.

Another of those milestones was very definitely the release in 1990 of Winter’s first and only album. Along with the 1994 EP Eternal Frost, Winter’s tiny but mighty œuvre proved to be a key nodal point in the development of doom metal and all things low-end. Hailing from New York (rather than the snowy wastes of Skøjbard), the trio added another taproot to the dendrite of metal by taking the ‘massive riff with the brakes full on’ template pioneered by the Melvins, and applying it deftly within a metal context. Steering the genre away from the speedier, thrashier end of the spectrum – although losing none of the visceral Thor’s (Hell)hammer in the face power – Winter took it instead in the opposite direction, towards the low, detuned sludge that so many metalheads have come to know and love. Why play death metal fast when you can play it so slow and low that it can drive real human beings clinically insane?

Long revered as an (un)holy relic, yet as unavailable as the Grail itself, Greg Anderson’s Southern Lord label has now re-released Into Darkness back into an unsuspecting world, and, much as the intervening two decades might potentially have stolen so much of Winter’s thunder, that’s simply not the case: it’s as joyously gloomy and worrying as it ever was. Configured as a trio, with John Alman on vocals and bass, Stephen Flam on guitar and Joe Gonclaves on drums – Winter kick off with the binary opposition nightmare of “Oppression Freedom Oppression,” five minutes of headache-induced riffing, double bass drum pounding and queasy background noises like all your Satanic masses come at once. Seamlessly, the album moves into “Servants of the Warsmen,” Alman’s guttural, unpleasant Cookie Monster vocals as genre-inspiring as Lee Dorian’s Black Country death grunt (which I should really consider as the name of a doom metal band of my own…), without ever really losing the clarity of the lyric. Nice. Lyrically the territory is one of unrelenting apocalypse, chaos, death and misery. Double plus nice. In retrospect, there is something surprising and powerful about being able to distinguish the intelligible lyrics, rather like hearing high opera sung in English rather than Italian, its very accessibility startling from the get-go.

Across the albums five other tracks, from the short instrumental “Power and Might” to the nine and half minute magnum opus of title (and closing) track, Winter never deviate from this pulverising formula, laying on a relentless assault of skullfucker riff after shredded larynx (particularly effective in growling out “Eternal Frost’s”’ Welteislehre imagery). The title track, with its counterpoint of ultra slow passages with those of comparative double-time speed, bring to mind Cathedral’s influential début Forest of Equilibrium, released the following year.

In the twenty years that have followed since the release of Into Darkness, the world, and metal’s view of it, have both changed completely and not at all. Perhaps Armageddon hasn’t (yet) arrived in a species-level extinction event for mankind, but the darkness is never far away from the edges, and Winter’s worldview, and method of delivery, remain as relevant and inspiring as ever. For all those that savour every step of that forty year road down the Black Metal Road (Hey Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore), this is one milestone at which to rest, take stock and revel in the cold chill of Winter.

-David Solomons-

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