Immortal’s debut album Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism ends with the stunning track “A Perfect Vision of the Rising Northland”. The song concludes with the unforgettable description of the heavens opening up and sucking the narrator into a portal leading to a bleak alternate planet. It is unclear if there is actually any thematic link between Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism and its follow up Pure Holocaust, but musically, Pure Holocaust certainly sounds like the alternate world where “the sun freezes to dust.” The depressive, woodsy black metal of the debut has been replaced by a relentless exhibition of controlled chaos. Pure Holocaust is an unyielding assault of thundering percussion and whipping tremolo, which together convey the feeling of being trapped on the tundra during an inexorable snowstorm.
Pure Holocaust is certainly a pure recording. The production is clean, but without any gloss. The instruments are sharp, crisp and perfectly audible. The music is straight forward: tremolo picking, bass, blast beats and Abbath’s reptilian growls. No frills. The acoustic guitars and keys from the debut are dropped (other than a brief cameo by the synths on “As the Eternity Opens”). The compositions are tight and focused. While the songs initially appear to be run of the mill “verse-chorus-verse-chorus” fare, subtle shifts and twists within the chord progressions make these seemingly simple compositions deceptively nuanced. The story is similar with the drums. While the drums mostly churn out steadfast blast beats that swirl about like dominating winds, a diverse array of well-timed fills provide colorful intermissions.
The driving force behind Pure Holocaust is Demonaz’s brilliant guitar work. The riffs are simply phenomenal. While all the riffs are played with the same razor sharp precision and breakneck speed, the moods they express are extremely varied. Riffs such as the lead on “The Sun No Longer Rises” depict a tragic beauty while the riffs on the title track revel in a tyrannical evil. The variation in the lead melodies allows for a ton of diversity throughout the recording while the consistent execution provides the record with excellent cohesion. The speed and focus with which the band plays gives the riffs a fluid quality, as if the compositions were meant for the string section of an orchestra. The melodies flow up and down the scales with elegance and ease.
One place where the quality of the songwriting really shines is in the way in which the guitars paint sonic images of the lyrical themes. On “Unsilent Storms in the North Abyss” the lyrics and guitars simultaneously descend into darkness. Every time the lead progression hits the darkest point, Abbath describes a “shadowed face,” a “wintercoffin” or the “dawnless realms.” Then, when the song peaks, with Abbath croaking “unslient storms in the north abyss,” the guitars open into a tortuously beautiful bridge that is so vivid that one can almost see the abyss consuming the horizon in sheer blackness. On “A Sign for the Norse Hordes to Ride” the rapid ascent and descent of the progressions sounds like horsemen riding through a rough and uneven terrain as they swiftly head toward battle. This sort of detailed, expressive interplay between the guitars and lyrics is prevalent throughout Pure Holocaust and is one of the factors that make it such a special album.
Pure Holocaust pushes black metal to toward one of its limits. It simplifies black metal down to a few basic elements—blast beats, tremolo and speed—and then bombards the listener with those elements for the entire album. Typically, these sorts of “pushing genre X to its extreme” albums have at best an enjoyable novelty but little substance. However, the quality of riffs the detail of the compositions makes Pure Holocaust a phenomenal work in itself, regardless of its envelope-pushing. The fact that this album pushed black metal in even more extreme and intense directions is just icing on the frostbitten cake. Both historically integral and intrinsically brilliant, Pure Holocaust is essential listening for all fans of black metal.