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This is probably one of the most influential and revered albums of the second wave of black metal. Its fame is at least partly due to the fact it came out in the early nineties, the notorious heyday of the genre. However, there’s a lot more to Immortal’s Pure Holocaust than just its reputation, as it also has plenty to offer musically – in fact, it has everything you’d expect from a “true” black metal album. Shoddy low-fi production? Check. (Though it’s nowhere near as low-fi as, say, Transilvanian Hunger.) Minimalistic black-and-white cover artwork? Check. (This time we get to see the band members in full black metal gear, complete with spiky leather armbands, corpse paint and a seriously pissed-off expression on their faces.) A drummer that seems to have forgotten that you can actually do other things with your drum kit than play incessant blast beats? Check. Totally illegible band logo? Check. Occult lyrics? Check. (Though they don’t deal with Satan here, but rather with icy winter landscapes haunted by demons, or something.) Buzz-saw guitars that sound like a swarm of angry hornets? Check. (Maybe the band had just been stung by said hornets, hence their pissed-off expressions?) A singer who sounds like a raging panther that just got shot in the ass by a tranquilizer dart? Check. Seriously though, what I’m trying to say is that while black metal can be a little over the top sometimes, we definitely wouldn’t want it any other way. That would be like Manowar without their patented fur loin cloths or Lemmy without the warts in his face.
Anyway, back to the actual music. Black metal has given us plenty of great albums over the years, and Pure Holocaust certainly is one of them. While it may not be perfect, it still stands as one of the finest examples of pure Norwegian black metal ever recorded. And it wastes no time getting to the point either – instead of setting the mood first with a spooky keyboard intro or something like that, it immediately starts pummeling the listener with a vicious barrage of relentless blast beats that hardly ever lets up for the entire duration of the record.
The first three songs on Pure Holocaust are all highlights. Whereas the opener has some nice melodic touches in between all the blasting (check the part right after Abbath screams “Unsilent storms in the north abyss”), “A Sign for the Norse Hordes to Ride” is, if that’s indeed possible, even rawer and faster. This is followed by “The Sun No Longer Rises”, which slows things down a bit for the first time and used to be a live staple.
The fourth track, “Frozen by Icewinds”, keeps things fresh by delivering some well-executed brutal mid-tempo passages. Unfortunately, the following two songs – “Storming Through Red Clouds and Holocaustwinds” and “Eternal Years on the Path to the Cemetery Gates” – mark a slight drop-off in quality. Consisting mainly of endless blast beats and lacking any particularly memorable moments, they just rush by the listener without making a lasting impression. The final two songs, however, easily make up for that. Both “As the Eternity Opens” and “Pure Holocaust” are much more varied and provide this album with a near-perfect finish. The former is another slower song with more pounding double-bass drumming and some very nice hints of melody, particularly towards the end, when it speeds up again and the blasting is accompanied by subtle choir arrangements. The title track comes up with some utterly brilliant riffs, which are simply amazing and almost single-handedly justify buying this record. There’s this incredible mid-tempo riff repeated throughout the song that you just can’t get out of your head once you’ve heard it for the first time. As some reviewers have pointed out before, it’s very reminiscent of the Imperial March theme from the Star Wars movies. I don’t know whether Immortal ripped it off or the similarity is purely coincidental, but that riff is so stunning that it doesn’t really matter anyway.
All things considered, this is a fine album by one of the figureheads of Norwegian black metal – maybe not great, but certainly very good. Though it has a few minor flaws, the positive far outweighs the negative, and there’s no doubt in my mind that this is compulsory for everyone with at least a passing interest in black metal. (By the way, feel free to add ten points to my rating for historical significance.)
Choicest cuts: Unsilent Storms in the North Abyss, The Sun No Longer Rises, As the Eternity Opens, Pure Holocaust