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Bathory – Under the Sign of the Black Mark (1987)

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Under the Sign of the Black Mark precedes Bathory’s turn towards “Viking” lyrical/musical themes, and arguably represents Quorthon’s first experiments with the sort of songwriting that would later define the band. It’s also a filthy mess of early black metal played at then-unprecedented velocities that, as far as I can tell, was created in at least two recording sessions. At the very least, it’s an interesting predecessor to Blood Fire Death. It’s definitely still part of Bathory’s long run of genre-defining albums, and for very good reasons.

If there ever was such a thing as a “1.5th wave” of black metal (and I seem to think there was), Under the Sign of the Black Mark is where it all began. In its faster and more intense moments, you could easily confuse some of these tracks for the works they would inspire, in their general minimalism and feral extremity. If it means anything, the average 21st century lo-fi trve kvlt black metal band seems to prefer a treble heavier mix and shriller vocals than Quorthon’s mere rasp, but that stereotype at least makes sense as an exaggeration of the techniques on display here.

Since fast, aggressive, and raw sounding black metal is a dime a dozen these days (and was already relatively common by 1987, even if the newfangled “death metal” was taking hold more rapidly), Under the Sign of the Black Mark earns most of its points in my book through its other half. Accompanying the blasts of violence are a couple of slower, more drawn out songs with better, cleaner production and the aforementioned first glimmers of the ‘epic’ styles of future Bathory albums. This is, as far as I’m concerned, a style that meshes very well with the black metal side of Bathory. Making these sort of extended songs is admittedly just a matter of adding extra content, but even at this phase of their career, the band already had a grasp of how to extend their songs. You could argue that they got better at it on later albums, but even something like “Call From The Grave” establishes a strong musical narrative throughout its duration. The focus and overall ambience building shows itself in all the tracks, even to some extent in the aggressive half, and that (amongst other things) is a sign of songwriting expertise.

Another talking point to take home from Invisible Blog – the most influential and successful of extreme metal bands went beyond mere skin bashing and frantic fretwork, even if their recordings still sounded raw. Bathory’s increased expertise on Under the Sign of the Black Mark brings them to my attention and renders this a potent recording.

Highlights: “Equimanthorn”, “Enter the Eternal Fire”, “13 Candles”

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Bathory – Twilight of the Gods (1991)

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Twilight of the Gods is like Hammerheart, except more so. While that album showcased most of the innovations Quorthon had been working on for the last few years, this one refines them and polishes up the sound a bit more. As such, it is (painfully obviously) not black metal of any sort, but even this approach has made its way into the genre. Every time you listen to the latest ‘epic’ or ‘viking’ themed black metal band to make their way onto Spotify, you’re imbibing Bathory, even if it’s Bathory filtered through a million artists trying to exceed the band’s work. You’re also drinking Springfield, but I digress.

As I said before, much of what applies to Hammerheart also applies to Twilight of the Gods. Quorthon’s choice of improvements, while subtle, help tie the experience together more effectively. First and most immediately notable is that the long songs here are more coherent. I don’t know if I’d put the title track here above “Shores in Flames” overall, but while Hammerheart‘s first track has its hooks and novelty, this one explores more ideas without losing its crucial coherence, and I definitely appreciate that. While most of the instrumentation is broadly similar to the previous album, the vocal end of things has definitely improved. Quorthon’s singing voice is stronger and generally less strained, and he also multitracks his vocal backing more effectively.

If those characteristics lead you to believe that this album is entirely superior to what came before it (at least within its genre of choice), then you would probably end up with the same expectations that I had when I first listened to it. Times have sure changed since then. While Twilight of the Gods is certainly accomplished in what it sets out to do, I usually go into Bathory wanting the black metal aggression of their past. Even Hammerheart retained a hint of that in its rougher moments, but it’s sorely missing here. I also feel that, at least in comparison to the first half, the second half of this album drops the ball. Oddly enough, that might actually be due to the trackination. Some editions of this album merge the first three songs here (“Twilight of the Gods”, “Through Blood By Thunder”, “Blood in Iron”) into one megatrack that would make a fine EP if released separately. The other track lack a sense of unity and cohesion by comparison, even if it’s an artificial decision possibly brought on by manufacturing requirements.

Even if it falters later on, Twilight of the Gods‘ first half soars above even the peaks of Hammerheart. The two are inseparable as far as I’m concerned, and many a band has been launched towards untold glory through the formulas popularized here.

Highlights: The first half. Did you even read this post?

Bathory – Hammerheart (1990)

folderAllegedly, this is what broke the floodgates of Bathory to relatively mainstream audiences (as opposed to tape traders greedy for the sickest metal they could find). It’s almost like Metallica’s infamous self-titled album in that it’s almost entirely unlike prior albums in favor of sounding somewhat closer to “normal” rock and metal. Had Blood on Ice been released in its place, that comparison would be more accurate, but Hammerheart still contains its share of mid-paced, clean-sung material. It also represents Quorthon embracing the more experimental side of his last album, ushering in a new musical direction and me repeating myself frequently to make a point.

Hammerheart  shares a soul with the minimalistic variants of Norwegian black metal that would pop up in the early 1990s, even if the aesthetic is far closer to traditional/power metal. The songs here rely on repetition, particularly in their choruses, and there aren’t a lot of small variations like some of this work’s spiritual successors use. Even if there were, this sort of album relies heavily on its anthemic qualities to get anywhere in the listener’s mind. As is befitting of such, Hammerheart has a far “larger” production than its predecessors, in that it’s bassier and has more presence, although it’s hardly high fidelity. Blood Fire Death occasionally channeled the same compositional frameworks, but its thinner sound felt more suited to the aggressive, thrashy tracks.

Along with the dramatic change in songwriting, Hammerheart  seems a more confident album than its predecessors, as if Quorthon has stopped wearing another’s costume (although he did do black metal genre-defineingly well) and forged a new identity for himself. Since Quorthon’s singing is far from technically perfect, one could argue that some of the moments intended most as epic come across as overly melodramatic. On the other hand, being able to transfer the overall energy from previous works reflects pretty well on the band. Incidentally, represents the first released Bathory album to actually delve into Viking themed lyrics, which seems appropriate given the overall more uplifting approach. It doesn’t go as far into the mythology and culture of the Norse as much as Blood on Ice did, but it does set a mood and function as a benchmark of Quorthon’s development as a songwriter.

If there’s one thing about this sort of stylistic change worth noting, it’s that Quorthon must have found it himself quite enchanting, as most of Bathory’s later released work follows its general approach. I tend to slightly prefer Twilight of the Gods for being slightly more refined, but some will be drawn to the greater aggression and energy this one has. In the end, Hammerheart’s main historical function appears not to be its lyrical themes or musical approach remniscent of power-metal, but the fact it opened up the ears of many black metal writers to extend their writing in the way bands like Manilla Road or Manowar did. That in itself is a trend worth writing about.

Highlights: “Shores in Flames”, “Valhalla”, “One Rode To Asa Bay”

Bathory – Blood Fire Death (1988)

folderWhen it comes to my metal listening career, Bathory was a band I got into fairly early on, but primarily due to their “mid-career Viking era” that started with this album. Technically, there isn’t much on this album that is specifically Viking related, but from a musical stance, this album is the first to incorporate elements that would later see use on such things as Hammerheart and Twilight of the Gods. It is best described as a ‘sandwich’, in that two lengthy mid-paced tracks bookend a series of fast, “primitive” black-thrash tracks reminiscent of main frontman Quorthon’s earlier career.

Not being hugely familiar with the earliest works of Bathory, I can at least say that the thrashy tracks on Blood Fire Death are more intricate (more complex structures, mostly) and tightly played than earlier works. Part of this was apparently the fact that Quorthon had a proper backing band for the first time in quite a while, so there’s a bit less of a “DIY multitracking” vibe to everything. Regardless, it’s not a huge stylistic change. Things remain fast, with hints of melody driving the music forwards. Furthermore, song structures are often based around modulation, with choruses often relying on different chords than main riffs or bridges. This isn’t very complex music, and it doesn’t really need to be (although it can be nice to have sometimes).

The bookends are where the evolution occurs, somewhat. Bathory doesn’t use a great deal of new musical ideas, but the pace is slower, more are used per song, and there are a few new techniques that show up, like Quorthon’s half-clean singing on the title track. Overall, these tracks are more melodic than the shorter ones, and arguably more memorable as well. The middle, in contrast, feels like it’s more about its “intense” aesthetic – even when the riffs are hooky (which they often are), it doesn’t seem like that was a priority in Bathory’s songwriting process. Much is made of these tracks when discussing the works of Bathory, and musically, there are blindingly obvious parallels to the content on Hammerheart and Twilight of the Gods (although the two tracks here don’t go as far into the ‘epic’ songwriting style). The lyrics aren’t specifically about Viking culture, though; we get general images of warfare, honor, and so forth.

In other words, Blood Fire Death is definitely a transition album, and since the drastically new types of content only occupy about 30-40% of the album,  it’s not a particularly quick transition. On the other hand, the new types of songs are well executed, and the old types of songs are an improvement on previous albums from a musical stance (even if they’re no longer “necro as hell” or whatever the kiddies called it back in the 1980s). In short, this along with the rest of the “Viking” albums Bathory put out serves as an example of how to explore different styles and musical ideologies, or at least as Quorthon succeeding in this regard. Alternatively, it could be interpreted as a bit of a return to previous influences – the album after this was supposedly heavily inspired by the works of Manowar. Overinterpreting Blood Fire Death is probably a bad idea, though. After all, it’s still rather aggressive at heart.

Highlights: “A Fine Day To Die”, “For All Those Who Died”, “Dies Irae”