EVEN THE HEAVENS SHALL BURN WHEN WE ARE GATHERED - "Dies Irae"
People here might not know this about me, but my favorite type of music is metal. In particular, I enjoy the more extreme forms like black metal, death metal, and thrash metal. Of course, something that people here do know about me is that I'm hopelessly stuck in the past, so it should come as no surprise that my favorite metal bands are ones that were at their best in the 1980s and the 1990s. Bands like Slayer, Celtic Frost, Morbid Angel, and Mercyful Fate did their best work 30 years ago (or more) but the material is timeless from the standpoint of anyone who cares about extreme metal.
At the top of the heap for me, though, is Bathory. Named after the infamous "blood countess" Elizabeth Bathory, the band was formed in Sweden in 1983. A few members came and went, but the heart and pitch black soul of the band was Tomas "Quorthon" Forsberg. Quorthon was the band's guitarist and vocalist (I hesitate to use the word "singer") as well as the sole lyricist and songwriter. Bathory would wind up revolutionizing metal by pushing the genre's boundaries in multiple ways and is today generally recognized as the first genuine black metal band.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, heavy metal was undergoing a renaissance of sorts thanks to an explosion of new bands from the United Kingdom. Metal had been somewhat stagnant up to that point, not really advancing beyond what Black Sabbath had started doing in 1969/1970. It became commercialized and before long, there was a significant blurring of the lines between mainstream hard rock and what had previously been a marginal, somewhat underground movement for people uninterested in feel-good party music or the burning wreckage of the hippie musical subculture. The burgeoning punk scene picked up some of this slack with its energy and vitality, but there were still some people looking for more.
The new wave of British heavy metal - frequently just called the NWOBHM now - reintroduced the concept of underground metal and brought us artists like Quartz, Tygers of Pan Tang, and most notably Iron Maiden, who combined the speed of punk with the heavy riffs of Black Sabbath and the technical/melodic sensibilities of hard rock. These British bands brought new life to a moribund scene and influenced bands all across the world.
By 1983, metal in Scandinavia generally followed the basic NWOBHM template with more of a hard rock overlay. Bathory was the first band from the region to really do something new. Bands like Oz and Heavy Load (from Finland and Sweden, respectively) were flashy and obviously skilled from a technical standpoint, but they were angling for a sound not too far removed from the arena rock of bands like Def Leppard. Quorthon decided from early on that he wanted to take the speed and intensity of Motörhead (probably the most extreme British metal band of the 1970s) as well as the ominous, foreboding atmosphere of Black Sabbath and deliver it with the menace and snarling aggression of the early hardcore punk bands like GBH.
WELCOME, DARLING, TO MY SACRIFICE - "Sacrifice"
Bathory's first appearance on a commercial release was as part of a compilation/sampler with four other Nordic bands called Scandinavian Metal Attack. While the other groups all played in the more familiar melodic style of metal verging on hard rock, Bathory's two songs bristled with an evil and extremity totally unheard of among Northern European metal bands. The response was tremendous, and Bathory recorded their first album shortly thereafter.
The release of Bathory in 1984 moved the goalposts for what was becoming extreme metal in Europe. The style of the first album is probably closest to the earliest thrash releases from contemporary bands like Sodom from Germany, but it bears similarities to the first two albums by the NWOBHM band Venom. Quorthon maintained that he had never even heard anything by Venom at the time he wrote and recorded the first Bathory album but metalheads have long been skeptical of this claim. Either way, though, both Venom and Bathory drew chiefly from the same influences, so it's possible that Quorthon wasn't exaggerating. Bathory's debut is still heavier than anything Venom had put out by that point, though, so it still represented a step forward for metal.
The next year saw the release of the aptly titled The Return. This follow-up release moved away from the punky sound of the debut and increased the doomy Black Sabbath influences while playing at an even faster pace. The lyrical themes were more overtly Satanic in orientation, cementing the connection between extreme metal and antichristian motifs. The churning, grinding evil of the Return would be massively influential on the prototypical death and black metal bands that would begin to appear over the next couple of years in Scandinavia and beyond.
1987's Under the Sign of the Black Mark was a refinement of the style heard on the Return, although the songs are a bit more midpaced and deal with more generally macabre themes (including a song about the band's namesake called "Woman of Dark Desires"). Most significant, though, was the track "Enter the Eternal Fire," which deviated greatly from Bathory's signature raw, primitive sound. It is much slower than all other contemporary Bathory songs and featured keyboard accents. It's melodic without being poppy and recalls more traditional heavy metal bands like Manowar with its chunky main riff and its pounding rhythm.
CHARIOTS OF FIRE EMERGE - "Chariots of Fire"
Bathory's fourth album, 1988's Blood Fire Death, was a major turning point for Quorthon. He embarked on a more experimental path here, combining elements from all previous releases and adding acoustic passages. The style first demonstrated with "Enter the Eternal Fire" saw a fuller, more sophisticated manifestation here on the Conanesque "A Fine Day to Die" and the album's Viking-oriented title track. However, the album also featured tracks like "the Golden Walls of Heaven" and "Dies Irae" that still retained the more brutal style and themes of the early releases. Blood Fire Death would prove to be a transitional album as it distilled Bathory's original style down to its core while also presaging the style of music that Bathory would later go on to play.
The 1990s were a time of creative upheaval in the metal world. Bands that had earned dedicated followings in the 1980s would by and large struggle to stay relevant. Speed metal and thrash in particular floundered with bands like Metallica and Megadeth moving more toward a mainstream rock sound. Other bands started playing in the groove metal style popularized by Pantera, which was disastrous for most of them since groove metal by and large fucking sucks.
In Europe, the style of black metal that Bathory essentially created was catching on slowly in underground bands. At this point, though, Quorthon moved almost completely away from black metal and fully embraced the midpaced style he had been leaning toward. He released Hammerheart and Twilight of the Gods in 1990 and 1991. These albums were epic in scope, content, and sound as Quorthon took a heavy metal foundation and again shifted the paradigm by adding heavy folk music elements to it. He also abandoned traditional metal song structures and instead wrote in a way that could only be described as symphonic. The title track of the latter album is 30 minutes long and is divided into multiple movements with recurring motifs tying them together; another song is a folk metal reinterpretation of a Gustav Holst piece. The lyrics of both albums relate to themes drawn from Scandivian history as well as Nordic paganism. These two albums are without question the most ambitious releases in Bathory's catalogue.
NOW THE TIDE HAS CHANGED... - "The Wind of Mayhem"
After Twilight of the Gods, though, the artistic difficulties that had laid low so many other great extreme metal bands finally hit Bathory. I might have given the impression that Bathory's earliest releases were rudimentary and not sophisticated, but there is a difference between music that is outwardly simplistic and music that is retrograde. Bathory's music was never the latter until 1994's Requiem. I don't know if Quorthon just ran out of steam or what, but the album was essentially a pastiche of the thrash metal that bands like Slayer and Kreator had produced 10 years earlier without any originality or complexity. It didn't help that the production was awful and the sound of the drum machine somehow managed to be thin and overbearing at the same time. 1995's Octagon was even worse, featuring even more basic songwriting and truly execrable scatological lyrics (a sample from the song "33 Something" from Octagon: "drink my cum, take my rum, blooded hole, twisted soul, eat my shit, suck my dick."). Fortunately, 1996's Blood on Ice was better and featured a return to the folk/Viking style; it was comprised of songs written and recorded in the 1980s before Hammerheart had been released.
The 2000s were a bit better for Bathory than the 90s had been. 2001 saw the release of the overly long but musically underwhelming Destroyer of Worlds, which was a sort of meeting point between the folk metal style and the simple thrash style of the awful albums from the mid-90s. The final two Bathory albums, Nordland I and Nordland II, were released in 2002 and 2003, and were done in the folk metal style with more traditional rock/metal song structuring. The Nordland albums were very well received and they represented a return to form for Bathory.
LEAVE THE WORLD OF MORTALS TO WALK IN THE MIST - "Enter the Eternal Fire"
Quorthon and Bathory seemed poised to again be a major force in the metal landscape of the 21st century when tragedy struck. On June 7, 2004, Quorthon was found dead in his apartment. In a scene where suicide, drug overdose, and even murder are not uncommon causes of death, it is a sad irony that the man who more or less created black metal died somewhat prosaically from heart failure. Since Quorthon had by that time been the sole creative figure in Bathory for nearly two decades, the band was considered dissolved with his death.
It is very difficult to overstate the importance of Bathory on modern extreme metal music. Bathory created the template for black metal as well as folk metal, and more specifically the Nordic variety called Viking metal. Many modern extreme metal bands routinely cover songs by Bathory and there are multiple Bathory tribute albums. A Brazilian band called Power From Hell has recorded several albums and EPs made specifically to emulate the sound of the first two Bathory releases while another Swedish band named Ereb Altor has specifically based their sound on the music that came out during Bathory's Viking era. The seminal Norwegian black metal band Immortal recorded their first album after listening to nothing but Bathory for several days prior.
Bathory has a very strong claim to being my favorite metal band. The stretch of releases from the Return to Twilight of the Gods is one of the strongest runs in metal history. The major stylistic shift between the early black metal albums and the later Viking metal albums would have seriously polarized a lesser band's fanbase but basically all serious Bathory fans enjoy both of these eras. It's a testament to the staying power of these albums that Bathory's place in the history of metal was not at all diminished by a handful of really bad albums whereas a similar ratio of good to bad albums has seriously damaged the prestige of other bands (metal or otherwise). While Quorthon's untimely passing at the age of 37 of course precludes the release of any additional Bathory material, the strength of the material that is available will continue to influence metal bands for decades to come.
When the wind cries out my name
And time has come for me to die
Then wrap me in my cape
And lay my sword down at my side...
- "Shores in Flames"
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