Immortal’s Pure Holocaust Turns 20

Something happened to Immortal between Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism and Pure Holocaust, something that changed them from a flurry to a blizzard. Maybe it was a voyage between two worlds, a passage from our mundane slip of sunlight to the fantastic realm of Blashyrkh, Mighty Ravendark, where the sun no longer rises. And that there, amidst the snow and sorrow, a pair of dudes named Olve Eikemo and Harald Nævdal, playing under the name Immortal, became Abbath and Demonaz, Immortal.

What actually happened is that the band practiced their instruments a lot. Their music became sharper and colder, faster and more focused. It was as if the songs, the instruments, and the band themselves had been cryogenically hardened. If they hadn’t actually visited Blashyrkh, they sure sounded like they had. They were certainly evoking it more successfully. They’d become the Immortal that we know.

Explaining Pure Holocaust’s appeal involves two skeins of thought. The first is direct and simple: dem riffs. The second is more complicated and we’ll deal with that later.

Immortal’s image and imagery have become a fullblown meme; there’s a Facebook group dedicated to photoshopping the band into photographs because it makes the photographs better. I’m a member of the group and I know I’m not the only person who laughs at the jokes. For some people, it’s mocking laughter, laughter directed at Immortal, not with them, and this is a valid response, because nothing about Immortal is less than over-the-top. If your only positive reaction to Immortal is the “dem riffs” reaction, then chuckling at Immortal is irrelevant. It’s also a convenient way to wave off criticisms: “I only like the music, man.” Therefore everyone knows that you know Immortal’s over-the-top. You avoid being tarnished with nerd. Everyone knows you aren’t an oblivious fanboy. You stay as cool as the Blashyrkh winter.

But please don’t take all of that too harshly. Only liking dem riffs is also a valid response, and metalheads can accept liking Immortal on their face without buying into the Blashyrkh, Mighty Ravendark schtick. It’s everybody else that you gotta worry about.

My laughter though is based partly on respect. Immortal have to know that they’re a meme and sometimes the butt of jokes. Hell, they’ve publicly disowned the absurd “The Call of The Wintermoon” music video, so further cognizance is plausible. Yet they maintain their image and they persist in positioning the fantasy of Blashyrkh as the core of their art. That commitment takes integrity. It’s risky. Releasing quality music helps justify it, or perhaps relieves a further avenue of embarrassment.

The fantasy of Blashyrkh is the core of Immortal’s second type of appeal. Fantasy was always a part of black metal in various forms before being shoved aside for everyday misanthropy, Satanism both real and fake, and music made by people who should’ve been on Lithium, with said music’s designed to make the rest of us need Lithium.

Immortal make fantasy front and center. Blashyrkh is what TVTropes would call Dark Fantasy and a Crapsack World. It’s Middle-Earth if Sauron had won, or possibly it’s Dungeons and Dragons’ Ravenloft setting. The impressionist, stream of consciousness Engrish lyrics on Pure Holocaust add to that. You can’t handle a well articulated description of unlife in the Ravendark because it would freeze your mind, Lovecraft style, because it involves words you can’t pronounce and concepts you can’t conceive.

The best fantasy takes you someplace else, but is about more than the story. Blashyrkh is based on the band’s experiences of living in Norway, and is thus a regurgitation of those emotions and the vessel by which they communicate black metal’s grimness, evil, and hopelessness. Maybe it’s not good fantasy – the concept’s as thin as wind driven snow – but it retains that core element of communicating something other than a story.

Wear some headphones, play Pure Holocaust loud, and you experience the blizzard. You’re there in Blashyrkh. When the songs end, you come back to the sunlight. No churches are burned, no friends are stabbed, and no one suicides.

Pure Holocaust isn’t Immortal’s best record – I’d narrowly give that honor to At The Heart of Winter – but it’s arguably second best. And it’s the closest, musically and sonically, to making Blashyrkh, a world where everything is black metal, real. That’s what makes Pure Holocaust great. That, and dem riffs.

— Richard Street-Jammer