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Among all of the bands that were heavily influential in the height of the 2nd wave of black metal, Immortal tends to be either worshipped as those who perfected the style, or shrugged off as a band that played well enough but coasted stylistically and didn’t add anything substantial to the genre. This is particularly the case as it applies to their sophomore effort “Pure Holocaust” due to it being the best known of their works, and often the most lauded amongst their fan base. It presents itself as an image rendered in pure darkness, especially when taking into account the album cover, which presents the band as stalwart and extremely forbidding characters. But the underlying question posed is, does this album really capture the far reaching essence of this style to the point that it deserves to be called the greatest ever?
To an ear not yet accustomed to extreme music, each one of these songs could be summarized as an insane rush of darkened wind, perhaps comparable to the torrential winds enveloping the damned in the 2nd circle of Dante’s Inferno. The flurry of fuzz driven guitar chords and minimalist lead ideas put forth by Demonaz, in particular, gives most of the contents here a frigid, wind-like quality that compares pretty heavily to Euronymous’ work on “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas”, though perhaps leaning a bit more towards an atmospheric quality rather than the percussive, thrash-like quality of said album. The drum work on here mirrors the extremely technical work of that Hellhammer did with Mayhem, but with much more precision and a clearer sense of organization. In fact, one of the reasons why this album is often derided as being unoriginal is there being a lot of similarities to Mayhem.
The only place where Immortal seems to break away from the model established by their controversial cohorts is in the vocal department. Abbath’s garbled goblin speak does not really resemble Dead or Attila very much, but seem to reach back further to Quorthon’s early approach, but meshed with a greater level of rawness that makes the words slightly less intelligible. Part of this may be fed by the music surrounding the vocals being a bit more layered and deep than the proto-thrash riffs that populated most of the 1st wave of black metal, as well as the vocals not quite being as high in the mix as they tended to be on your average Sodom, Celtic Frost, or Bathory album during the early to mid 80s. It’s definitely deeper and colder sounding than the imp-like ravings of Hat on Gorgoroth’s “Pentagram”, but sounds a bit lighter and less threatening than what you’d hear out of Nocturno or Ihsahn circa 1993-94. The closest comparison to a well known extreme vocalist for those not familiar with this era of the style would be Shagrath, though obviously what surrounds Abbath is pretty different from Dimmu Borgir’s more melodic/symphonic offerings.
Perhaps the real source of discontent amongst some in the fringes of the black metal scene, or perhaps its most consistent adherents to its anti-establishment nature, is that this album is pretty accessible in its structural makeup. Each of these songs, in spite of their viciousness and speed, are fairly compact and simple, resembling songs rather than elaborate compositions. In the particular cases of “Frozen By Icewinds” and “As The Eternity Opens”, you could actually refer to this music as fairly catchy. The recurring lyrical passages containing the song titles could be treated as refrains/choruses of sorts, and the symmetrical sense of riff development and beat constancy versus contrast result in songs that adhere closer to traditional structure than what Darkthrone, Burzum and Enslaved were up to at this point. The title track “Pure Holocaust” actually is catchy and formulaic enough that an elimination of the constant double bass blur could morph it into an extreme thrash offering ala Destruction or Morbid Saint.
Ultimately this album could be described as being both overrated and underrated. It is the former in the sense that it is seen as some sort of iconic staple of greatness by all genre standards, which discounts the towering greatness of too many bands that were active at the same time. It is the latter in the sense that those who pass it up often do so simply because of a perceived deficit in the originality department. But to ears tempered by nuance, ergo one that can visualize the lines between what is truly groundbreaking and spellbinding; versus what is an enjoyable listen and solid throughout, this is something that definitely deserves praise fitting of the second category. Immortal put forth a fine collection of songs here that can easily be enjoyed by most black metal fans, excluding those who demand nuclear fallout styled, mutation-like leaps in stylistic evolution that uses a subjective time standard on a singular album. It may not be “Hvis Lyset Tar Oss”, “Under A Funeral Moon”, “In The Nightside Eclipse” or “Vikingligr Veldi”, but on its own it gets the job done nicely.
Originally submitted to (www.metal-observer.com) on January 21, 2009.