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This album is an oddity. It’s odd when held up to the rest of Bathory’s discography, it’s odd in its own right- I don’t think any band (including Bathory themselves, obviously) has ever effectively replicated this album’s particular sound, and it’s odd that this album gets fellated by pretty much the entire metal populace, because, for the most part, it’s just not that good! And trust me; I’ve tried to like it- moreso than any other album, probably. I gave it multiple listens in multiple different settings, I read reviews of how great it was and tried to see the elements the reviewer said made them so great, I did all I could- but eventually I realized enjoying music shouldn’t have to be this much work. It should just come to me naturally.
It’s not like I have anything against Bathory, either, in fact I'm a pretty large fan of the band. Hell, my two favorite Bathory releases (Under the Sign of the Black Mark and Hammerheart) are chronologically surrounding this album! Yet, as anybody into Bathory knows, those three albums are very different- Under the Sign of the Black Mark is primitive, thrashy madness and Hammerheart is a grand, sweeping epic. Blood Fire Death is something of the transitional album- not just between the two aforementioned albums, but also for Bathory’s career as a whole- Blood Fire Death was where Quorthon started to move away from the visceral, proto-black/thrash sound he had and moved into his more melodic, Viking metal style- this album was testing the waters, so to say. And as such it blends the two styles to a certain extent. Sounds like a dream come true, right? A grandiose, catchy album that doesn’t lose the raw, primitive feel- I can only assume most metalheads would go apeshit for such a combination. However, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Instead of being the best of both worlds, Blood Fire Death ends up being the worst of both worlds, mostly due to Quorthon just not being particularly good at his instruments. Now, before, that was never a problem, he used his lack of technical ability to his advantage and he could make up for it due to his vision and songwriting abilities- but on this particular album it doesn’t seem to work, because in order to create a more melodic, yet still aggressive sound you need to have more dynamic melodies, and many of the riffs here are just very restrained, forced to remain within the box due to their simplicity- they sound like mere prototypes for awesome, mindblowing riffs, with just a little more evolution and work they could be so much more…and it’s frustrating, because I can see the effect they’re trying to have on me, but it just doesn’t click.
But this isn’t really a Viking metal album, right? I mean, despite how much influence this had on folk/Viking metal, this is really just a thrash album at its core. So we should judge it as such, right? Well, this doesn’t succeed as that either. There’s a lot of aggression on here, I can see that, one thing Quorthon was always good at was conveying emotion and vision in his songs, but it’s a horrendously uncontrolled mess of aggression. The drumming plays a big part in this- say what you will about Quorthon’s genius, he never was all that great at drumming and it affects the music most here. A lot of the times the drums seem to go off beat with the music, and the drum patterns in general are really bland and basic, which drags the power of the music down- music like this needs solid, nuanced drumming that drives the music forward, and the drums don’t provide that.
If that were all that was to the album, I would simply chalk it up as a mediocre, amateurish album that does nothing for me. However, there’s a couple of times Quorthon does sorta try to step out of the box and do something slightly different- but those parts always hurt the music more than they help. The first “different thing” is the bits of acoustic guitars scattered throughout the album, most notably at the very beginning of the album, in “Odens Ride Over Nordland” and at the start of “A Fine Day to Die”. I’ve seen people praise these for being “atmospheric” and “beautiful”- I’m sorry, what? The acoustic bits have some of the most uninteresting, repetitive chord progressions I’ve ever heard and only really further drive the point about this album’s lack of dynamicity into the ground, as opposed to creating any sort of vivid atmosphere. They’re just one more addition to the long list of examples why metal musicians should never try to make acoustic music. The second “different thing” is that infamous beginning to “Pace ‘till Death”. It’s a bouncy little melody that resembles the popular children’s song “Ring Around the Rosy”, that has no connection to the primitive thrashiness of the rest of the song. It’s really irritating and unnecessary, but guess what? People are eating that shit up too! A previous review actually stated that it was “cool and funny”! Come on now, that’s really stretching for praise. Calling a terrible bouncy opening to a song “funny”? I think the word you were looking for was “fucking stupid”. (Yes, I know that’s two words.) The final thing that makes this album somewhat different is the integration of clean vocals into the music. They’re very gruff, barky and are rather simple melodically- Quorthon’s range doesn’t exactly span five octaves. They’re actually rather similar to his harsh vocals, but lacking any kind of power or prowess because, as said before, you NEED to be better-versed in musicianship and technicality to make this sound work. Come to think of it, though, even his harsh vocals don’t even have the power they had on earlier releases either- they often sound rather weak and strained, especially when compared to the balls-out fury of Under the Sign of the Black Mark- on that album he sounded downright demonic.
Alright, Now that I’ve vented a little bit, I can say that there WERE parts of the album I really liked. Two songs, to be more specific- "A Fine Day to Die", and the title track. There’s something these two songs have in common- they take a more slow-building, midpaced approach, and holy wow does it ever work. The riffs don’t sound like a slobbery mess, they sound controlled, defined, and grand. The drums don’t hold the music back; they provide a simple pace for the music to flow effortlessly around. The vocals don’t sound weak and frail, they sound like a warrior, crying out for the comrades he lost just after a great battle. Everything that plagued all the other songs has been righted with these ones, and it’s kind of sad in a way, because if the rest of the album sounded like this, I’d hail it as the masterpiece everybody else says it is… but alas.
Blood Fire Death is an album that may have single-handedly pioneered the Viking metal genre and inspired countless great bands worldwide…but I just can’t get that much enjoyment out of it. I like the idea of the album better than the actual album, and I’m sure the aesthetic and hype of the band has suckered many a soul into loving this before they actually paid attention to what’s going on, and at that point it’s too late. Masterpiece? No, more like the awkward misstep between two masterpieces. To be fair, I did enjoy the title track and "A Fine Day to Die", but tracks like "Holocaust" and "Pace ‘till Death" are just irritating messes. Normally I’d say to avoid this, but everybody loves the shit out of this album, so go ahead and check it out. What the do hell I know? Maybe you’ll see the good that I don’t in this album. Just remember I told you so.