I’ll just come right out and say it to set the tone of this post: Quorthon is arguably the single most influential person in extreme metal. I could name at least two genres and countless bands that would not be the same – let alone even exist – had he not decided to get drunk and record Bathory’s self-titled debut in 1984. Taking thrash, speed metal, classic heavy metal, and even NWOBHM and pasting it with imagery so vivid as that of Mercyful Fate and Venom circa the early-1980’s and lyrical themes from years even before that, then mashing it all up in a mix of static, fuzz, and reverb he had essentially invented black metal. Sure, Celtic Frost, Hellhammer, and the oft-venerated Venom were around or had been recording in the same era (Celtic Frost’s Morbid Tales was recorded around the time Bathory was released and Hellhammer had been playing some very thrashy first-wave black metal since 1983, eventually to disband and become Celtic Frost), but the spirit of what black metal was to become was most definitely in the sound that Bathory developed. The genre is essentially a mangled spin-off of thrash – especially in its early days – but Bathory helped to bring it to places that would really change the game for this fledgling sound, and long after Quorthon had moved onto bigger and better things his creation flourished, for better or worse.
Rather than get into an argument over the details of the emergence of the black metal genre and exactly who were the first to play the style, I’d rather pick it up where Bathory had left off circa 1984, and take things from there. The crude LP that emerged from Heavenshore Studio (aka a garage somewhere in Stockholm) was unintentionally under-produced and raw, setting an unanticipated status quo for not only the Bathory releases that followed but also the majority of bands that emerged as the scene gained traction in the early 1990’s. There is something alluring to the rawness of the riffing of “Necromansy” and the atmosphere of “Raise the Dead”, though, and through the production values, twisted vocals, or overtly satanic imagery (taking a page from Venom’s book), something caught hold. Taking more cues from thrash than many people realize yet less than his predecessors or even some of his contemporaries, Quorthon managed to have a middle-ground that made his sound more than a simple poor man’s copycat of Venom recorded on cheap equipment by a musician too young to really have a firm grasp on what it took to excel.
Listening to some riffs from The Return…. will remind you distinctly of the second-wave in Norway that really propelled to scene to fame/infamy. I wouldn’t find large parts of “Total Destruction” out of place on an early second-wave album, but similarly “Born for Burning” is more of a throwback to the genre’s entrenched roots in primitive thrash. Bathory’s style was darker, though, than anything that could be called thrash – it was cruder, sloppier, and just generally more evil-sounding than the genre limits of thrash could confine. It was black metal, and by the time 1987 and Under the Sign of the Black Mark it was around to stay. By this point Mayhem was beginning to release material in Norway, and various other acts were popping up across the globe. Under the Sign of the Black Mark was a pinnacle, though, arguably the best album to ever emerge from the first wave of black metal, and also the very last black metal album that Quorthon would ever release.
From the raw beginnings, Bathory bridged the gap between his black metal foray and his eventual plunge into so-called “Viking metal” with his opus Blood Fire Death. It was a bizarre and, at the time, unheard of mix of black metal musicianship in a massive, voluminous plume of Old Norse mythology and atmosphere. For those who have not heard the glory of “A Fine Day To Die”, I feel uniquely sorry, because the level of mood and the deliberate clash of thrashy riffing and plodding atmospheric buildup is a treat. There was something underneath it all, something obvious but still a bit puzzling. Blood Fire Death was such a departure from anything that Quorthon had done before, yet retained many familiar traits, that it was obvious that Bathory’s music direction was shifting. Looking back, the album was perhaps the finest mix of two distinct styles that has ever been recorded in the metal world, and was a product of changing attitudes coupled with an inability to fully realize those attitudes. Instead of going immediately on the path of Hammerheart and Twilight of the Gods, it was almost like Quorthon had to stay half in the door and half out, hanging onto the past in the album’s core instrumentation and vocals while struggling to break free in the album’s new imagery and mood.
So by the time Hammerheart and Twilight of the Gods were recorded, black metal was a thing of the past, and at this point in time – 1990 and 1991 – the Norwegian scene was picking up steam and black metal was exiting its first wave and moving on to other places that Quorthon did not really desire to go to. It is interesting to note that 1996’s Blood on Ice was recorded around this time period in 1989, but was never completed until years later, perhaps signifying the fact that the band was still in a transition phase at that time. Regardless, Hammerheart and Twilight of the Gods saw the introduction of two things: what was to really become Viking metal and Quorthon’s clean vocals. Rather than make some clever quips about just how amateurish the vocals were, I’ll just say they were skillfully immature yet somehow captivating in a way I still haven’t quite had the chance to figure out. “One Rode to Asa Bay” is now a Bathory classic showcasing multiple massive movements and shredding guitar solos, while “Hammerheart” (oddly enough on Twilight of the Gods) was a bit of an emotional trek that paved the way for the wayward epic ballads that scattered Bathory’s later work, complete with a stolen backtrack swiped straight from Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Regardless, the closing track to Twilight of the Gods was a soul-wrenching piece of Viking pride, sure to make Odin crack a slight grin in Valhalla. I mean, if the final guitar lick doesn’t sound like the epitome of epic metal I don’t know what to tell you. A fitting conclusion it was, indeed, because the next steps Bathory were to take would not exactly be the course many had thought it would have been.
Rather than break into a bunch of diminutive details of 1994 and 1995, I’ll just say that Quorthon went a bit retrograde and jumped back into 1980’s trash, with terrifying results. Requiem and especially Octagon were Bathory’s Cold Lake – the albums that exist but are not really spoken of, but when they are things are quite dismal and the subject typically changes rather quickly as nobody really wants to acknowledge them. Sure, songs like “Psychopath” had some riffs that were half-decent, but the whole picture added up to a shoddy attempt to fulfill some sort of void that the black metal days didn’t quite flush out of Quorthon’s system. The band had always been hugely, primarily influenced by thrash, but that isn’t much of an excuse to plunge two records into pure devotion to a style that had faded years before. It was a short-lived foray, however, and soon enough the style was to shift yet again, for the third time in the band’s history.
What emerged from the mid-1990’s was a style of Viking metal that wasn’t quite like Hammerheart and Twilight of the Gods, instead feeling much more mature – even a product of more distinct vision and a better hand doing the songwriting. No doubt that experience was mounting by this point in his career, and Quorthon knew exactly what he was doing, so that may contribute to why the band’s final albums sound less wandering than their earlier contemporaries. Blood on Ice surfaced in 1996 after seven years of dormancy, and along with Destroyer of Worlds things were placed gingerly back on track. The former was clearly the stronger album, while the latter suffered from crippling inconsistency that make it tied with Requiem for the most forgotten and least-played Bathory albums of all time. Blood on Ice offered old ideas in a new shell, having a flavor that was reminiscent of Hammerheart but which sonically was closer to the Nordland albums, making it probably the best way to fill the gap between 1991 and 1996 that had, at this point, become a gaping wound. The clean vocals were tighter, more on-key, and generally more enjoyable (although I’ll be damned if the singing on Hammerheart and Twilight of the Gods wasn’t half of the allure to those records), and the songwriting was still epic but not on quite the same scale. Track lengths had been reverted to about five minutes rather than upwards of ten, and the riffs were tamer, losing many of the wild guitar solos and soaring majesty of the early Viking metal albums. It was a step back in the right direction, though, and was the precursor to what would be Quorthon’s grandest, and last, plan.
Nordland I and Nordland II were the first two parts of an intended four-part series and furthered the sound of Blood on Ice while bringing back in pieces of the past, with some massively epic lead work in “Nordland” and wailing guitars in “Foreverdark Woods”. It was almost the best of both worlds, marred only by repetition and maybe a bit of over-ambition to create a masterpiece rather than let a masterpiece create itself. Regardless, there were fine moments to be had, with crushing riffing in “Flash of the Silverhammer” contrasting serene acoustics on the haunting “Ring of Gold”. It was, in essence, intended to be the culmination of what had been created over the previous 20 years, but it was all cut short. Tomas Börje Forsberg died of heart failure on June 3, 2004, bringing an end to Bathory more than two decades after its inception.
The scope of what Bathory has done is enough to call the band the most influential extreme metal act of all time, a title which many would likely dispute but which I see as clear and prominent. I have a hard time coming up with a band who have created more seminal albums than Bathory – the band has released classic-status albums in two genres, and contributed to the success and popularity of black metal and Viking metal (if you were so inclined to say it is a true genre, which I won’t really debate here). One would be extremely hard-pressed to go to a metal concert and not find someone there proudly displaying the artwork from one of Bathory’s first six albums on a t-shirt – often times you will end up seeing all six. The real measure, though, is the sheer respect that comes with the name Bathory. Not many speak badly of what Quorthon had created, and most of those who do really don’t understand just what he has done for extreme metal. When a band has been around for twenty years, released a few very poor albums, changed styles seemingly at will, yet is treated as if none of this is really a big deal, you know they did something right.
The vast gates to hall up high
Shall stand open wide and welcome you with all its within
And Oden shall hail us bearers of a pounding hammerheart