The way they’d tell it Unpure are cursed to misadventure, label follies and terminal patience unto no great reward but for our purposes today we’ll call them a still vigorous blazon to Swedish black metal, heralding their cause as they return intact and still rallying nearly two decades later. With this fifth full-length album, ‘Prophecies Ablaze‘, we cannot escape the cyclone of inspiration that’d been rampant in their heyday wherein the distinctions between extreme metal sub-genre were yet righteously unclarified and workshopped into the status quo as they are today. In their hands the “old ways” are merely heavy metal of the extreme kin, and this allows even the familiar rub of olden mastery to not only feel surprising and urgent in delivery but attached to decades held meaning which still carries on rather than simply “holds up“.
Formed far south of Stockholm (Nynäshamn) circa 1991 between like-minded student aged folks Unpure found their call to action technically within same generation of thee possessed that’d brought us Dissection, Allegiance, Nifelheim, et al. though their demo era work was arguably more related to Treblinka and Morbid for the sake of its ‘Morbid Tales‘ influenced riffs and thrashing presence on their debut demo tape (‘Demo I – XCII‘, 1993) which you’ll likely notice before their neatly woven compositions and appreciation for the riff make for a swinging yet malevolent introduction. That first tape alongside their second (‘Demo 2‘, 1993) presented a dynamic which is still ideal today and deserves to be documented a bit more properly as a fine example of black/death metal grey area in practicum while ideology and aesthetic divided them more clearly otherwise. The macabre mid-paced scenery they’d been conjuring was arguably more resolutely black metal than many of their peers even if we do reach into ’93-’94 but beyond that the rhythmic ingenuity with which they’d approached what were essentially evil heavy metal songs within a ranting, haunting context still impresses today even if it was only a hint of the mastery they’d soon manage after their third tape (‘Demo III‘, 1994). Much as I simply love soaking my entire brain in olde black metal demo recordings this is important precedence for the larger suggestion that “…everything that ever will be, always has been.“
Unpure technically ‘fit in’ on the Napalm Records roster in the mid-90’s but it wasn’t a comfortable existence, their well-loved (in hindsight) self-titled debut (‘Unpure‘, 1995) and sophomore release (‘Coldlands‘, 1996) each failed to look, sound, or represent the band in terms of aesthetics due to interference and misunderstanding yet each has its own special legacy in the Swedish black metal underground. Though I’ve mentioned Unpure several times over the years and still heartily recommend their debut as a truly overlooked classic for its songcraft and atmosphere it wasn’t until 2004 that I’d discovered the band, adding them to a list of Celestial Pain related artists as I’d obsessed over thrash metal rarities for the duration of the 2000’s. Having long trusted Agonia Records‘ curation I’d bought the band’s fourth album ‘World Collapse‘ (2004) nearby release and followed up with most but not all of their discography. That induction only lead to frustration as the first (of course best) album was not only great but an expensive and long out of print record which was ridiculous underrated. There were far fewer people championing under-served black metal craft back then, and rats yet follow their own familiar pisstrail nonetheless, yet today we are armed with both hindsight and connectivity enough to see this band for the primeval force they’d always been within this long-awaited reprisal.
In so many ways I’ve long suggested that Unpure‘s cult status (not their sound) is akin to that of Tulus‘, though they are different in temperament and consistency each group was born during a certain age of ideology that was strong enough, steeling enough that it sustains today while their particular regional Scandinavian personalities are yet observable in their work. — In this sense “true” black metal spiritus is in everything they touch, whenever it is possible to pick it back up. How does this read to the generally disinterested public shame spiral that is the internet? Well, perhaps the best folks have done to describe Unpure is ‘old school’ black metal, the worst I’ve seen is “first wave” and for the sake of finnicky revisionist historic sputtering “black/thrash/speed metal” is the official label given which I believe is equally frustrating for the folks in Nifelheim as a true misrepresentation. The flock cannot help but become complacent when relying on the guidance of dogs, eh.
This segues right into the first main point I’d like to make in approach of ‘Prophecies Ablaze‘: They still “get it”. There is nothing worse than a band that got it (heavy metal, that is) back in the day, during the still formative and/or classic years of extreme metal only to return at intermittent stages of reflection in life and be entirely out of touch with all of the standards for art, production, songcraft, etc. which have not actually waned or stagnated, but honed in their aim. Listening to a musician trying to fight their way out of the weeds when they’ve lost themselves is painful enough but even worse when they’ve feigned their return. In the case of Unpure it doesn’t feel like they’d ever found themselves too far gone to appreciate a great metal song, a great black metal song and just how related those two things -should- be. Jump right into ‘World Collapse‘ before taking on ‘Prophecies Ablaze‘ and, sure, you’ll find Hräsvelg‘s touch is missing in some respects but there is no less Unpure in what Kolgrim has put together in the long step from album to album. The result is still a world of occult-imbued pain, nightmare riffs and chaos but their return is yet recognizable despite the nearly two decade gap and a mostly new line-up.
Unpure probably wanted to put together a fifth record back in 2005, waited until 2011 wherein I’m guessing it became clear Hräsvelg had lost interest in black metal, and from there they seem to have officially “reformed” and gotten to work around 2016. My official guess is that the wheels never stopped turning but life had to go on in the interim. Today Kolgrim‘s (ex-Svartsyn) return comes with strong association with key members of Watain who bring a keen understanding of Unpure‘s sound for a lineup which is now inclusive of guitarist P.F. alongside Degial guitarist H.E. and (more recently) drummer E.S., wherein you’ll note that each of these musicians played on ‘The Agony & Ecstasy of Watain‘ in some respect more recently. What does that mean for the listener? Probably one of the fastest-paced (and even a bit melodic) records from Unpure since 1996 and at the very least they’re all skilled professionals enough to not rewrite the essence of the project. Opener “Megalithic Gateways” quickly initiates us into this new but not unreasonable reality, a bestial main riff which quickly reveals its two main variations in malevolent careening glory soon finding its mid-80’s point of speeding militia on the way to the second main verse. Throw in a trade-off salvo of screaming leads and we’re in a more harried accost than expected right off the bat, which from my point of view brings a bit of early German by way of Australian thrashing black metal aggression in its more percussive shards.
“Northern Sea Madness” is the one hint of ‘Prophecies Ablaze‘ we’ve already heard per its inclusion on the 2021 compilation release of the same name and surely a reason to go in excited for the sake of its ‘South of Heaven‘ styled arrangement which should not be lost upon the Desaster and Gospel of the Horns fandom as we press on through Side A with the ever-twisting rhythm of “Small Crooked Bones”. Granted, my associations lean towards speed/heavy metal influenced black metal but in truth this is a very loose comparison beyond the classic riff structures used here in between escalating blasts. We’ve not yet touched upon Unpure‘s early signature sort of Celtic Frost influenced pacing but there is something to be said for this record scrabbling away at ~twenty thrashing riffs in the space of about twelve minutes while still managing some manner of memorable groove. “The Witch of Upsala” is the first real breakout piece for my taste and a signature piece for everything that was unholy about this band on past releases, a menacing dynamic between melodic soldiery and trench grinding riff.
Without reducing ‘Prophecies Ablaze‘ down to purely calculated thought, there is some careful mastery at play here as we observe Side B manifesting with almost mathematically equal rise-and-fall dynamic as the first half with identical lengths and progression implied. “Beyond the Nightmares” is of course an appropriate opener for the flipside, albeit a simpler core guitar progression drives the ship but a tunnel to their own netherworld nonetheless wherein the final minute and a half of the song ensures the journey there is not forgotten. The line between what we’d reconnoiter as swinging speed metal abandon and early black metal personae is tested with “His Wrath and the Red Soil”, likely perpetuating the black/speed metal observation a bit, but this isn’t as important as the heavy metal soul that bleeds from this song which is actually more Maiden-esque ’til the brilliant strike of the riff around ~2:41 minutes in seals the piece as vital in my mind. I think it’d be fair to say that Side B doesn’t quite carry on with gusto in the direct moments beyond “The Witch of Upsala”, at least not the in the same way, but we do get two of the best songs on the album delivered afire with the title track and “Endtime Dictator”.
A punch of personae which leads with steel and leaves a dent wherever it wills. — Unpure have always been consistent but they’ve never hit us with such ordered, composed pieces which so steadily present themselves in sequence. Most records from the band thread together shorter, almost punkish pieces that get right to the point with their own ~five minute black metal mode but this one strikes a balance between roughly four minute cryptic and chaotic thrashing pieces which find their mountainous peaks in Celtic Frost sized colossi (“The Witch of Upsala”) and the more Quorthonian stride of “Endtime Dictator”, making for a precision release which escapes the feeling of containment by virtue of its cleverly aggressive movements. It becomes hard not to use qualifiers like “classic” and perhaps even “old school” in reference to this approach but ideally from the perspective of admiring the context that Unpure were around at a time where those were natural, not forced “retro” characterization as a product. Perhaps we are missing some of the unusual extra details which Hräsvelg contributed to their tabula but this does not sour the experience in a detrimental way, only allows for some positive change and more menacing energy for my own taste. This makes for a readable, familiar in spirit release which is yet stylized to the point that it never feels blandly predictable or rote. Because of this I’d found myself obsessing over the riffs and sound of this record as an early 2000’s discoverer of the band, admiring their greater consistency in output while also appreciating that this record was something a bit different. It lingered in mind most mightily for the first twenty or so listens and for now, that is substantial enough to rattle on in praise here. A high recommendation.
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