By 2002, True Norwegian Black Metal had become a shadow of its former self; many of the subgenre's powerhouse bands had either disbanded or outgrown the stringent and artistically limiting conventions of the style. Second wave black metal was by no means dead, but its core aesthetic principals had been abandoned by its founders in favor of slick production and a more adventurous approach to songwriting and composition. It was in the midst of this new era of black metal that Immortal unleashed one of the best albums the sub-genre has ever produced: Sons of Northern Darkness.
Despite Immortal's pedigree as one of the founding bands behind True Norwegian Back Metal, Sons of Northern Darkness is by no means an orthodox black metal album. That's not surprising considering Immortal have never been much for black metal orthodoxy. While the band's first few offerings were stereotypically harsh and lo-fi like their Norwegian peers, only the band's first album, Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism, dealt explicitly with typical black metal themes like Satanism and the occult. Beginning with their second album Pure Holocaust, Immortal started moving toward the fixation on grim, frostbitten wastelands and fantasy worlds they're known for today. Stylistically, Immortal also became more melodic with each new album and began incorporating elements of death metal and thrash into their songs beginning with 1997's Blizzard Beasts. Sons of Northern Darkness is the culmination of all these innovations.
As soon as Sons of Northern Darkness begins, it's apparent that Immortal brought their A-game after 2000's disappointing Damned In Black. On the album opening "One By One," Immortal virtually kick down your front door with fat guitar hooks and flurries of blast beats. It's immediately apparent that the band benefited greatly by signing to Nuclear Blast Records despite what black metal puritans at the time had to say. Sons of Northern Darkness sounds so much better than the band's previous efforts that it's shocking. Everything about the album sounds bigger. The guitar is thicker, the bass actually rumbles for a change, and the drums pummel you relentlessly.
The improved production value of Sons of Northern Darkness goes a long way in establishing the album as one of the best in the black metal pantheon. Immortal have always been skilled songwriters, but Abbath's formidable vocal performances and riff-worshiping guitar work were hampered by the thin, tinny sound synonymous with second wave black metal. That production style worked for other bands more concerned with creating a buzzing wall of noise, but it crippled Immortal who had been writing more muscular sounding, thrash influenced songs for years. The meatier, cleaner production on Sons of Northern Darkness helped the band sound even more menacing than they had on previous albums.
Clean production is something that's always been shunned by black metal purists, but Immortal's steadily improving technical proficiency and use of dynamics and syncopation were what set them apart from their contemporaries. It was always clear that the band were something special within the black metal scene, but when the layer of mud covering the band's sound was wiped away, they really began to shine. The faster songs on the album, like "Sons of Northern Darkness" and "In My Kingdom Cold," are more effective because Abbath's stabbing guitar riffs sound sharper while slower tracks like "Tyrants" and "Beyond the North Waves" are imparted with titanic heaviness thanks to the more prominent bass guitar and drums.
While the production is a major factor in what makes this album great, it's not the be all end all. You can't polish a turd. If it wasn't for the band's musical abilities and Demonaz's evocative lyrics Immortal may have been just another black metal also-ran. The band didn't do anything drastically different from what they'd been doing since At The Heart of Winter, they just did it better this time and with clearer production that exposed what the Immortal was truly capable of.
In the years following the release of Sons of Northern Darkness, Immortal has broken up, released a few decent albums under various side projects such as I and Demonaz, become the butt of multiple internet jokes, reformed, and released another Immortal album that's good but not great. None of these things tarnish the legacy of the band or Sons of Northern Darkness. At this point in their career, having helped create second wave black metal and then releasing one of the sub-genre's best offerings a decade later, the band has nothing to prove. If they were to break up and never create music again it would be a loss for fans of extreme music, but we could at least take solace in the knowledge that this album will continue to be great regardless of how many times we listen to it.