11 April 2016

Six months ago, one of my co-workers (Matthew from Clearpath) enlightened me to the existence of Viking metal. Since then I’d watched the occasional viking metal youtube video for the lols, but was not further tempted. However, a few weeks ago I went to an Abbath concert and the Bathory logo had almost as much real estate on patches and T-shirts as Immortal, so I caved and listened to their entire discography. These are my thoughts on Bathory.

Bathory1’s discography can be split into four categories: the extreme metal 80s, proto-Viking metal early 90s, generic thrash metal in the mid 90s, and Quorthon’s (the lead singer) one man viking concept albums of the early 00s. Of these periods, the extreme metal and the generic thrash metal albums are totally skipable. The thrash metal albums were dated when they came out; Pantera had already done it better. The lyrics from one song in this period merely list political or religious ideologies ending with the y-sound.

I don’t like their extreme metal phase because of the lo-fi recording and the drumming that is played too fast to land the hits on target. I’m mildly anxious about calling their first 4 albums skipable, because the technical things I don’t like are probably part of the attraction for fans of 80’s death metal.

The proto-Viking metal albums are what the band are most known for, and they are worth a listen. The epic lyrics, the folk-style singing, and the acoustic guitars all make for a (mostly) pleasant listening experience. However, the albums are flawed. Quorthon was not a strong singer and often ventures out of his range. The ballads are a little boring, and the songs are often too verbose to let the melodies breath. The song Hammerheart from Twilight of the Gods is a particularly egregious example. It’s a ‘‘cover’’ of Holst’s Jupiter with mismatched lyrics sung out of key. I don’t think I’ll be going back to these albums.

In the early 00s, Quorthon produced three albums alone under the Bathory name. The first, Destroyer of Worlds, is an interesting mix of contemporary influences. Some songs have guitar licks reminiscent of Frusciante, another song sounds a lot like stoner metal. There’s a male rage-type thrash metal song that would have fit right in on Reinventing the Steel, and Quorthon’s rough vocals lend it an authenticity that make it a lot more tolerable than Pantera. Although I like this album, there are a few obvious flaws, the largest being that Quorthon needed to step away from the sound effect machine2. I wasn’t expecting a hockey arena organ in metal.

Quorthon’s next two albums, Nordland I and II, revisit viking metal and are better this time around: the lyrics mesh with the rhythm, the melodies have space to shine, and the ballads don’t get boring. Quorthon even makes synthetic horns pleasant, which I thought was impossible. My favourite Bathory song, Vinterbolt, is off Nordland I:

Vinterland Link

In my opinion, Bathory, along with Gentle Giant and Van der Graaf Generator, are examples of bands who didn’t quite have the technical chops or creativity to perfect their pioneering ideas. Viking metal was a novel style in the early 90s, but unfortunately a twenty year back catalog clouded my first listen of Hammerheart.

Of the four styles in the Bathory discography, the Quorthon solo-albums at the end of his career hold up the best against the test of time. He was experimenting with the latest sounds at the time across multiple genres, and seemed to be trying to fix issues from record to record. Quorthon planned another two albums to his Nordland series but died young before they were completed, and that is a shame. He was just getting good.

  1. Countess Bathory is to Metal and Gothic Fantasy RPGs as Ada Lovelace is to computing: they are interesting women who are not commonly known to the general public, but their story has been retold ad nauseum. Bathory’s song about Countess Bathory is one of the better exemplars, but surely the genres can find other lady serial killers to idolize. 

  2. Panzer Division Marduk used the same World War 2 bombing sound two years earlier; Quorthon should have known better. 

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