A User's Guide to Bathory
Back in the '80s and '90s, Sweden's Bathory wasn't the fastest or the grimmest or the blackest or the most epic metal band, but it may well have been among the kvltest (kvlt being metal slang for the most obscure and, indeed, blackest of black metal). What's amazing is that it remains so to this day, its reputation as a matrix of extreme-metal subgenres untainted by the years and an all-over-the-map discography — Bathory went through many styles, abruptly changing course from one album to another, then backtracking to something they had explored years earlier, reversing yet again, and so on.
And you can't even blame lineup changes or ego wars within the band for this constant whiplash: Bathory was pretty much one man, the madly ambitious Quorthon (1966-2004).
When, in 1983, Tomas Forsberg decided to become Quorthon and start a band named after 17th-century Hungarian countess-slash-mass murderer Erzsébet Báthory, metal was a boiling cauldron of subterranean creativity. In the late '70s and very early '80s, bands such as Brazil's Sarcofago, England's Venom and Switzerland Hellhammer (which would turn into Celtic Frost) incorporated occult preoccupations, while in the U.S. Megadeth, Slayer and Metallica were writing the thrash textbook. And out of Sweden, a teenager bolted out of the gate with a pair of imperfect yet attention-grabbing albums, 1984's Bathory and 1985's The Return of the Darkness and Evil. Both are short (26 and 36 minutes, respectively) and to the blazingly fast point.
Could there be a more evocative introduction to a metal album — nay, a metal career — than Bathory's instrumental first track, "Storm of Damnation"? A howling wind, a funeral bell clanging in the distance, a booming sound halfway between a cannon and thunder: Immediately a desolate landscape is conjured. Musically, the two albums incorporate elements from NWOBHM and standard thrash, but there are intriguing deviations: a fascination with the underworld, strangulated vocals. Production-wise, the shrieky voice, rusted-sounding guitars and indistinct drums often all meld together: What we're hearing, especially on The Return…, isn't necessarily modern black metal, but the thought that will lead to it. Despite sounding tinny and, let's face it, a bit derivative, Bathory and The Return… have aged surprisingly well — probably because as grim as Quorthon claimed to be, he couldn't help writing catchy tunes and killer riffs.
By the time Quorthon had gotten his youthful thrash out of his system, he'd also stopped appearing live, adding to Bathory's aura of mystery. And since he didn't play all that well with others in general, he recorded most of his music himself, hiring guest drummers and bassists that would then be credited as Vvornth and Kothaar, respectively. A notable exception was Jonas Åkerlund, who'd go on to direct videos for the likes of Roxette and Madonna, and played drums on Bathory's third album, 1987's Under the Sign of the Black Mark.
About Under the Sign…, I can only say: Unholy goat! Modern black metal starts right there. The ghoulish screams on "Massacre," the increasingly crazed atmosphere, the pummelling, proto-blastbeats and Hammer Horror break on "Woman of Dark Desires" — it's all coming together to open up a brand new frontier. Most striking perhaps is the claustrophobic production: While there are still guitar solos, they're submerged behind the thickly buzzing guitars, and Quorthon's strangulated yelps paradoxically feel both distant and in-your-face. The songs also begin to lengthen, their structures become less predictable.
Quorthon could have milked the formula for his next 20 albums, but no. Because creating black metal wasn't enough, he then birthed modern Viking metal on Bathory's fourth album, 1988's Blood Fire Death. After yet another moody instrumental opener, "A Fine Day to Die" starts with…an acoustic pretty melody! And then there's clean singing instead of inhuman screeching, with harmonies even! Even when things heat up, it's not with the crazed proto-BM of yore but something grander, more ambitious. The old Satan worship has made way for a more epic mood, as Quorthon looked for inspiration in his country's pre-Christian lore (and some more unlikely sources as well: The lyrics of "For All Those Who Died" are adapted from the Erica Jong poem of the same name.) Even the solos aren't so much gobs of spit as elegant outward-bound spirals. A masterpiece for our blackened-yet-desperately-romantic hearts.
Thinking in pairs, Quorthon started the new decade with 1990's Hammerheart and 1991's Twilight of the Gods, both continuing the evolution started on Blood Fire Death and both drenched in Norse mythology.
We're now a million miles away from Bathory: longer songs, slower tempos, cleaner vocals, new topical concerns — verses about drinking goat's blood have been replaced by elegiac odes to fallen warriors and half-forgotten gods. A video was even shot for Hammerheart's ten-minute-long "One Rode to Asa Bay." Things were on track, right?
But then Quorthon changed tack again and went back to thrash (albeit a relatively better-produced version) on yet another twofer: 1994's Requiem and 1995's Octagon, which were met with indifference at best, scorn at worst. Okay, so the vocals — never Quorthon's strength, though he did improve over the years — can be, er, uneven, especially on Octagon. The production choices are also downright bizarre at times: Check out the contrast between the huge bass and the tinny drums on Requiem's "Pax Vobiscum." And yet the albums aren't all that bad, particularly Requiem, which boasts strong singalong headbangers like "Crosstitution" and "War Machine."
Since thrash wasn't working out so well, Bathory went back to the Vikings with the grandiose concept album Blood on Ice (1996), on which everything came together just right: sweeping melodies, inventive arrangements (the sound of hammer on anvil in "The Sword"), mammoth grooves ("The Sword" again), galloping anthems ("Gods of Thunder, of Wind and of Rain"), pretty ballads ("The Ravens"). A great introduction to anybody willing to dip their toes into ambitious, cinematic metal.
More Viking goodness can be found on Nordland I (2002) and Nordland II (2003). They are far from consistent and the keyboards start to take up too much sonic space, but these albums have their share of nuggets: check out the brutal-yet-catchy genius of "Broken Swords" on I or II's particularly bombastic "The Land." Of all the Bathory albums, these come closest to the kind of music you'd hear on any given PaganFest tour now.
Typically for an eccentric genius like Quorthon, when he lost control of his vehicle, he really skidded off the road. For instance after the great Blood on Ice, he put out 2001's half-baked Destroyer of Worlds, on which he couldn't make up his mind between thrash and Viking, so he did both. And then there's his mystifying solo output, particularly 1994's Album, which starts off with the jaw-dropping alt-rock anthem "No More Never Again" and its memorable singalong chorus "I'll never eat pussy again." And to think that just 10 years before, Quorthon was boasting "I have made love to the pagan queen"…