Talking about gamechanging records in whichever enclave of rock music can often warrant a little more examination. At the risk of sounding like a member of LFO circa (appropriately enough for this review) 1990, amplified guitar/bass/drums/vocals is a pretty established format with which to approach the business of making music. What gets hailed as ‘original’ or, good gravy, ‘revolutionary’ within this remit tends to in fact be minute tweaks of already extant ideas. Naked ability can be a factor, obviously – most guitarists would be incapable of crafting an album of Malmsteenian shredding, leaving aside the fact that few would actually want to. Into Darkness, though? When you get down to it, basically any heavy metal band of the late Eighties to early Nineties could have made this album. If they’d had the idea, which they didn’t, and Winter did, for which the great and the good of the doom and sludge metal scenes genuflect before them to this very day, and why Greg Anderson’s Southern Lord label has finally stepped up and reissued this extraordinary and perpetually out of print LP.
Forming in New York circa 1988, Winter’s idea – the gamechanging one – was, essentially, to play death metal, but extremely slow instead of extremely fast. They were by no means entirely without precedent; still, most if not all of the bands who serve as signposts towards Into Darkness also altered the path of extreme metal, and this is very much a case of innovation begetting innovation. Swiss teen nihilists Hellhammer and the band which evolved from their lo-fi battery, Celtic Frost, cast a considerable shadow here, as they do on a large swathe of extreme music. Reasonably for a band equally at home on crust punk and hardcore bills as death metal ones, the more apocalyptic wing of the UK’s bath-avoiding community – Amebix and Axegrinder, notably – also holds sway here. It’s reasonable to think that the chain-whipping dread of Swans might have trickled from one NYC community to another, and to wonder about the pre-internet reach of discs which were, at the time, virtual one-offs, like Dream Death’s Journey Into Mystery and Melvins’ Gluey Porch Treatments (Winter drummer Joe Goncalves plays with a distinctly similar style to Dale Crover, fearsomely hard but lithely loose).
Like Gluey Porch Treatments, the album begins with several (six) minutes of wordless water torture, titled ‘Oppression Freedom’. As much as this suggests some serious stones on Winter’s part, every baton assault on the floor tom is compelling, every detuned-radio guitar pigsqueal arresting; it wouldn’t be an absurdity if it was twice as long. However, when it segues into ‘Servants Of The Warsmen’, you start to twig why this is a golden brick in the house of doom/death. John Alman’s vocals, for better or worse a likely influence on the ‘cookie monster’ end of metalcore, are entirely death metal-styled; Stephen Flam’s guitar solos are like Kerry King, if you were listening to Reign In Blood through a wall of codeine and Ambien. The lyrics, written by Goncalves, amount to so much fantastical apocalyptica: Winter did not purvey the outraged anarcouplets of Eighties grindcore, thrash metal’s social realism or the straight-to-VHS gore chat of a lot of DM. Not to suggest that the words were assembled without care, but from the listener’s position, they mainly serve to enhance the power of the music. You pick up, in Alman’s solar plexus-powered roar, Very Metal phraselets like “Northern winds … eternal screams” (‘Destiny’); “hear the piercing cries of the fourth horseman” (‘Goden’); or “frozen tears escape eternal frost,” on, yes, ‘Eternal Frost’, which if you only read the lyrics you’d assume was by some European power metal goons.
Driven by a unyielding, Saint Vitus-ish classic doom riff, and creeped the fuck out two-thirds through by a sample of what sounds like an early-century opera singer (if I had a blog and no self-respect, I’d consider using this to construct a thesis about hauntology in extreme metal), ‘Eternal Frost’ is possibly the best, probably the weirdest cut on Into Darkness, itself a high water mark of extreme music. There may have been heavier bands before and since – this shit isn’t really measureable – and back in 1990 there were certainly slower ones on the horizon, notably the insanely negative funeral doom bands lurking in Scandinavia. Winter, however, made an album that wasn’t just angrily downtempo and muddily downtuned: it swung, and had a punk spirit. (The start of ‘Into Darkness’, the song, reminds me of something off the first Nirvana album, but hey, it’s probably just me.) To cover all these bases and not dilute anything is a rare treat.
This likely also explains why Southern Lord have reissued this without adding any bonus tracks or unnecessary remaster – just a bunch of photos and flyers, which everybody can dig – because they know how revered this album is among a certain kind of metalhead. No arguments here. As astonishing as this must have sounded 21 years ago, if it had emerged in any year since, Into Darkness would at the very least have been a comprehensively crushing 46 minutes of music. If you like anything even tangentially related to ‘doom’ or ‘sludge’ it is a mandatory purchase.
9Noel Gardner's Score