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Bathory’s early albums are revered as landmarks of the dark side of metal, paving the way for the Scandinavian black metal explosion and, later, mellowing out and adding some folk touches to pioneer so-called ‘Viking metal.’ The first three albums all followed a very similar style before Quorthon’s artistic vision expanded to epic frontiers, preferring the claustrophobic atmosphere of a dank and echoing tomb. Although this isn’t black metal in the modern sense of the term, owing far more to the grittier side of British heavy metal such as Motörhead and particularly the Satanic band Venom (though the late Quorthon denied having heard them previously), the dingy production, snarling voice and thunderous drums create a distinctly blackened and hopeless atmosphere that encourages intrigue and morbid fascination to overshadow the relatively primitive musicianship.
The original title for this release was to be the exuberant ‘Pentagrammaton,’ until several people with either dyslexia or a short attention span mis-read it as ‘Pentagon.’ Bathory’s name is taken from the Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory, also a popular subject in the lyrics of Cradle of Filth, who drank the blood of around seven hundred virgins over the course of a few years in order to remain eternally youthful. The man behind the band is the late Quorthon, whose real name is the subject of some debate even on his tombstone, and for these early releases a drummer and bass player form part of the band, in the form of Stefan Larsson and Rickard Bergman here, in the years before Quorthon took full control of the performances himself.
He isn’t the greatest guitarist in the world by any means, occasionally seemingly recycling Motörhead riffs and playing simplistic guitar solos, and his snarling vocals aren’t the most riveting, but his skill lies in the enthusiasm and genuine unsettling atmosphere of evil that’s created. Bathory’s self-titled debut set the competitively low standard that many modern bands struggle to attain by downgrading their accidentally-hi-tech equipment or trying to forget how to play. None of the songs on ‘Bathory’ are complex beyond a mere speed change, and none get anywhere near the four minute mark, relying on speed and violent aggression, with a little focus on catchiness, where Quorthon’s later compositions favoured a more thoughtful pace and eloquent tone. If Bathory’s discography does indeed show a process of maturity, at least until the mid-nineties when things went into a bit of a mid-life crisis, 1984’s ‘Bathory’ is without a doubt the most juvenile, but far more convincing than any of the more recent shouty, angsty bands that dominate the kids’ rock charts.
The introductory track, like all Bathory intros to come, is far too long-winded, but perhaps necessary for ‘method listeners,’ if such a thing exists (I’m pretty sure it does, as I’ve been one on occasion) to allow their trivial and quite happy life to slip away and be replaced with a more solemn and depressing demeanour, to prepare them for the twenty five or so minutes that follows. The sound of a slowed-down Big Ben is mixed with muffled wind sound effects and what may or may not be voices , or just more wind. It’s all quite unsettling and understated, setting a more authentically creepy mood than some of the other kitsch horror film inspired songs I’ve written about recently. The first real song scratches its way into existence as the sound effects fade out, and the style soon becomes standard fare: a roaring guitar accompanied by blasting drums, both sounding distant and muffled at the far end of the crypt, while Quorthon snarls and rasps in-between playing riffs. The style is very reminiscent of Venom’s archetypal song ‘Black Metal,’ released a few years earlier, but given a significant kick and replacing the stupid rock-n-roll lyrics with a descriptive scene-setting of Hades. There’s not enough in this song to really make it stand out with the exception that it comes first, but it defines Bathory’s early sound.
‘The Reaper’ returns to perhaps my favourite subject matter in the whole of heavy metal, that of the inimitable Grim Reaper. The lyrics, written in the first person, don’t do a disservice to Death, and one of the most incredibly cool moments of the album comes when Quorthon yells ‘I’m coming to take you!’ and breaks into a guitar solo. Nice! The vocals are more legible this time than in the last song, and oddly the vocals and guitars both sound a lot like Dave Mustaine of American thrash band Megadeth, even though their first album wouldn’t be released for another year. Eerie. ‘Necromansy’ manages to be the most satisfying song thus far, taking a slightly slower pace that allows for more emphasis on heavy riffs and an admittedly catchy drum beat. Quorthon’s vocals sound oddly further back in the mix here, which actually sound pretty good, though this does mean that the band has to rely on a crashing of cymbals to add emphasis in the chorus, which comes out sounding rather less than excellent in the tinny production. The guitar solo sounds more fitting on this one, playing alongside the other instruments rather than doing its own thing, and the song benefits from being a little longer than average in this regard.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for ‘Sacrifice,’ which feels drawn out and repetitive in the middle of the album, sounding a lot like the first song and even more reminiscent of Venom’s ‘Black Metal’ than that was. ‘In Conspiracy With Satan,’ despite the great title, also suffers from being a little uninteresting after time, and the vocal growls are almost impossible to discern this time. As I said earlier, the album doesn’t try to impress with its technical ability, but this middle section disappoints me by being too predictable and samey, lacking the driving enthusiasm of the faster songs and the enjoyable pace of the ever-so-slightly-slower ones. The remainder of the album is a lot more rewarding and even a little varied, with the immortal ‘Armageddon’ epitomising Bathory’s aggression and seeming to beckon an apocalypse with the impressive sonic scape at the end, filled with distant wailing guitars. The bass even gets a miniature solo spot, which is always nice to hear especially as it’s relegated to covering Quorthon’s back the rest of the time, and although the main guitar riff could easily be found on a Motörhead album, it works perfectly. The only issue is that the relentless pounding of the drums has significantly lost its impact at this point in the album, meaning that this song would work better standing alone or separated from similar-sounding pieces on a compilation, which is how I first came across it spliced between slower Bathory pieces on the excellent posthumous collection ‘In Memory of Quorthon.’
My favourite song on the album is the comparatively epic ‘Raise the Dead,’ returning to the tolls of Big Ben (though not an exact sample as that would make it at least fifteen o’clock due to the number of chimes), and fading into a quiet heartbeat. This is a far cry from Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon,’ where the heartbeat builds anticipation of a pleasant, dreamy guitar intro coming along any second now, and more along the lines of hearing footsteps approach your room in an empty house. When the song starts, it’s clear that things have mellowed out slightly, even more than ‘Necromansy,’ and it’s clear that the emphasis is going to be on enjoyment more than violence as Quorthon yells ‘dust to dust’ before the verse begins. Everything about this song is early Bathory at its best, slowing down a little to create an even better atmosphere and to allow the vocals to be understood and the guitar solo really enjoyed. After a gong crash ends the song abruptly, the downbeat finale ‘War’ brings things right back to speed, abandoning the progression of the previous song in favour of Quorthon’s fast comfort zone, and why not? The guitar makes some cool mistakes that I’m glad weren’t rectified in the studio, and the song is pretty simple, just yelling about war. The track-list boasts an ‘Outro’ at track ten which is in many ways the adverse of the introduction, doing the same thing but only lasting for twenty seconds.
Bathory’s debut is far from the most impressive example of Quorthon’s artistry, but it made a significant impact on its 1984 release. At only twenty-seven minutes it should seem far too short, but somehow doesn’t, and even if this was only the first side of an LP I think a significant break would be called for before playing the reverse. This raw, dirty and wicked style, which is arguably called black metal, would be continued over the next two albums and perfected in ‘Under the Sign of the Black Mark,’ balancing the aggression and sheer catchiness present in this album into Bathory staples such as ‘Woman of Dark Desires.’ Nevertheless, it was the fourth album, ‘Blood Fire Death,’ where Quorthon really started getting interesting, perhaps looking back over his works and noticing the higher quality of slower songs such as ‘Raise the Dead’ in order to craft yet another significant sub-genre...