Review Summary: Bathory's best album? Far from it. A worthy exit to the life and career of Quorthon? Most definitely. Despite its obvious fall backs, 'Nordland II' still impresses the listener with its true power and grandiosity.
“Thursday 7th June, 2012 will mark eight seemingly long years since one of the world's most talented and ambitious musicians left this cruel world”. Of course, that's what any devoted fan of Bathory mainman Quorthon (AKA Tomas Ace Forsberg) and his work will probably tell you. Is it any surprise that the last known album under his belt is one based on a Viking concept then? Certainly not. For anyone who has heard the supremely spectacular Black Metal force of 'Under the Sing of the Black Mark', the triumphant aggression and victorious sounds of 'Blood Fire Death' or the sorrowful yet still significant 'Hammerheart' albums however, these eight years will not have passed without grief and mourning. It may seem a slight exaggeration to say so, but Quorthon has been loved (and perhaps worshipped) by the metal world ever since the raw madness and evil destruction of Bathory's debut album hit international shores back in 1984.
This introduction merely signifies the build-up to Bathory's last (but not least) release, 'Nordland II'. The second part to the apparent four-album concept that Quorthon had prepared to unleash upon the world certainly seems an interesting one. Those who have heard 'Nordland I' will by now have either listened to 'Nordland II' or disowned it completely, and that may only be determined by whether you believe Quorthon still had it in him over twenty years after his first musical outputs or the fact that his vocals and musicianship is, well, just horrible. Plenty will have eventually given up on Bathory for the latter of these two reasons, but one thing stands clearly head and shoulders above the rest: The concept never gets boring.
Whereas 'Nordland I' covered mostly Norse mythology, which admittedly is what most of Quorthon's lyrical content has ever been based around, 'Nordland II' returns simply to the excessive use of Viking folklore and victorious events. No, it does not involve Quorthon repeating his raspy scream on the extremely aggressive track 'War' (WAAAAARRRR YEEEAAHHHHH WAARRRRRGHHH!!!). What it does contain a lot of is extremely good songwriting, but you will naturally expect this from listening to other Bathory albums of the same concept.
The album itself is slightly longer in total than its predecessor, but that doesn't mean to say it isn't as exciting or indeed as accessible. Whilst the album's introduction, 'Fanfare' is perhaps a little too atmospheric for its own good, there is plenty to be admired here. You will know that Quorthon loved to work with choirs, as on albums even as as early as 'Blood Fire Death' and 'Hammerheart', and on 'Nordland II', he doesn't waste any time taking advantage of this. However, the album isn't exactly helped when Quorthon tries to sing in synchronization with these choirs, and especially when he tries to hit too high a note. This is because the obvious weakness that has been recurring in his vocals ever since he first sang harmoniously on 'Hammerheart', is also shown on this album. My point here is that, not only is Quorthon's voice the one true downside of this album, it also brings down the quality of songs such as 'Blooded Shores' and 'Vinland', making the album seem incomplete. If it was the choir work that only sang, and Quorthon stuck perhaps to sorting out everything else (bar his own singing), then 'Nordland II' would be infinitely better than it actually is.
One other negative aspect of the album is, however hard you may try to ignore it, the production itself. The performance of every guitar note, drum roll or instance of atmospheric sounds is astounding on here, but once again, the performance lets the album down too much to be regarded as anything else but a decent effort. It can't be ignored that the very well executed guitar solos and the thundering drums are marred by a half-hearted production quality, and even though Quorthon had the best intentions of making this album as unique as it could be, he really should have paid more attention to the sound. However, you could also argue that the production was made this way to reflect a Viking-like atmosphere, which is understandably relevant thanks to the lyrical themes themselves.
“So 'Nordland II' doesn't sound like a very good album at all, does it?”. I expected some of you may be asking me this having read the first half of this review, but don't worry, because what keeps this album from falling flat on its face is the absolutely brilliant songwriting and very significant song structures. As said before, each and every song flows with such beauty and power that it really is hard to forget the music itself. On 'Blooded Shores' and 'The Land' Quorthon uses choirs to represent such victorious yet harmonious sounds, that one could almost forget the muddy production and focus on the excellent songwriting itself. Of course, Quorthon is no stranger to thundering guitar work and equally as powerful drum work, as on the epic songs of 'Hammerheart' and 'Twilight of the Gods'. On the eye-opening epic 'The Land' and sprawling overture 'The Wheel of Sun', guitars weave their way through every minute like its their last, and not a note is out of place. The drums, whilst not particularly sophisticated, also contribute to the power and grandiosity contained within each solitary anthem on 'Nordland II'. This is no different to Bathory's past releases, but it certainly has been enhanced.
Another similarly advantageous highlight of 'Nordland II' is the lyrical content itself. You will be asking yourselves “Well of course the lyrical content's a highlight!” for sure, but what is special about the lyrical content here is that it contains a certain sense of being higher in power than anyone else. Here's a few examples:
This land is mine to the end of time
none it shall claim or conquer
the mountains high : the endless sky
the forests and the sea (The Land)
Shields I have crushed with my sword
women have I pleased endless nights
on foreign coast my brother did fall
he now dines in hall up high (Sea Wolf)
As you can see, Quorthon does not let up on the importance of being a Viking warrior at all. 'The Land' is but one important example of the significance of the 'Land' itself, this time being 'Nordland'. 'Sea Wolf' shows the importance of being a Viking warrior, and also the pleasures of 'pleasuring' women. It is yet another traditional aspect of the genre that Quorthon has managed to enhance to an almost unforgettable level, and yet fans of the band may still cast this off as “just another Bathory album”.
So is this Bathory's best album? Certainly not. But whereas it could have been improved in a lot of areas, it could also have been much worse than it actually is. Some may say the rating I gave this album is too high, but it is entirely justified on the album itself, and not merely the significance of his entire career as a musician. Perhaps right now, Quorthon has already released the other half of the 'Nordland' album series in Valhalla. If he has, this other half may well have been a distinct improvement on 'Nordland I' and 'Nordland II'. For those who prefer the Bathory of the early days, you may or may not like this album at all. For those who wish to hear the last pieces of music he made before Quorthon's untimely death, you may listen to 'Nordland II' with caution, but also pride. Pride that he didn't make a completely horrible album. Because on this evidence, Quorthon exited the world in a truly memorable way, and one that would not make others forget about him.