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“Hammerheart” – it is for sure one of the most influential albums in the history of the metal music; one, which brought something completely new to it – a concept based on the Scandinavian mythology of the Vikings… Already “Blood Fire Death” had started it, but it was on “Hammerheart”, where Quorthon has fully based his work on the Norse legacy, with every song telling the story about it. And when you listen to “Hammerheart” you can truly feel that with every second of the album – with the atmosphere of the music, with the lyrics… It is a great experience, when you listen to “Hammerheart” and at the same read the texts, so you can feel the whole atmosphere… And when looking at the front artwork, it is like “oh yeah, amazing!” – it is an old painting titled “The Funeral of a Viking” done by an English artist Francis Dicksee; absolutely amazing piece of work, very detailed and perfect, dramatic painting…
Bathory’s music has changed and transformed a lot since the debut LP “Bathory”, but despite all these changes I still love it and consider the Viking albums of Quorthon as some of the most phenomenal stuff ever composed by the metal bands. Why? Well, just listen to it, for fuck sake. The music is so passionate, so emotional that every time I listen to it I feel like the aura of it fills me and is so real… The way Quorthon transformed all the feelings and that medieval, heathen magic into the sounds is just unbelievable and bloody effective and I dare to say that no other band have ever achieved such a thrilling effect. When listening to such LPs as “Hammerheart” or “Twilight of the Gods” you simply feel the atmosphere with all the heart and move back in time to the ancient days, living it fully, and even if you’re not Scandinavian it actually starts to mean something to you. With such amazing anthems as “Shores in Flames”, “Song to Hall up High”, “Home of Once Brave” and “One Rode to Asa Bay” it becomes fully involving, epic, emotional and essential listen.
I guess a lot of respect should go for Quorthon’s vocals on the album. Long gone are the times of black metal, which the band has played in its beginnings, becoming more and more harmonious, epic, easier to listen to and way less harsh and obscure… And together with the change of the music the vocals have developed a lot. Quorthon stopped using his harsh, throaty voice, opting for absolutely phenomenal way of clean singing; one which fits the music perfectly, in my opinion, as it is as epic and as melodic as the music itself, fitting the sounds impressively well. Actually, in my humble opinion, the vocals are the main force of the album! They seem to carry the whole tension and emotions, as well as the melodies, while sometimes the riffing is almost in the second plan, like in “Home of the Brave” – would this song sound so damn excellent and effective if the vocals were different? I think it wouldn’t be even half as good. And the same goes really for the whole album.
Musically “Hammerheart” goes even deeper into what later have been called Viking metal than “Blood Fire Death”… While the previous LP had some truly unique, epic anthems such as “A Fine Day to Die” and “Blood Fire Death” (which are some of my favourite metal tracks of all time!), it still held a number of more aggressive, almost thrashy songs, which if were recorded badly would surely fit the debut LP without a problem. “Hammerheart” has been completely devoid of such aggressive and fast songs, being fully dedicated to slow or mid paced monumental, majestic metal. This way I think it sounds like a more complete and conceptual work, where everything fits together better… And the songs, which I have mentioned earlier, and which are on side B of the vinyl, are a prime and most perfect example of what “Hammerheart” is… “Song to Hall up High” is an acoustic song, with some emotional singing of Quorthon, one which may sound odd and sort of like a monumental Viking ballad, but I love it anyway and I find is as very, very memorable tune… The ending part of it, with the final verse is just beautiful and I can listen to it over and over again, hailing Quorthon for such a great music. And then there’s “Home of Once Brave” – and what a fantastic song that is. It is very powerful, very catchy and majestic, with some absolutely splendid vocal arrangements, while the musical background is quite simple and classic Bathory, but here that simplicity of the structure is unimportant, if you hear some truly bombastic and epic riffs and drumming, plus these absolutely phenomenal vocals. And “One Rode to Asa Bay” is a ten minute long piece of monumental, epic work, which puts bands like Manowar to the shame. I just love it and I always have the old video for this song in my mind when I hear it – great stuff about the christianization of Scandinavia… But mentioning only these three tracks when speaking of “Hammerheart” is not enough, as the whole LP is just excellent and perfectly arranged, composed and performed, with such tunes as “Shores in Flames”, “Baptised in Fire and Ice”, “Valhalla” or “Father to Son”.
I think the most emotional part of “Hammerheart” is when I read the lines: “Northern wind take my song up high, to the Hall of glory in the sky, so its gates shall greet me open wide when my time has come to die …” from the beautiful acoustic “Song to Hall up High”… It is very emotional, as Quorthon has died and it feels like a great anthem and tribute to this amazing musician, who, I am sure, had been greeted by his ancestors with all the glory. For such moments “Hammerheart” is just a timeless classic album – yet another in the great discography of Bathory.
Standout tracks: “Song to Hall up High”, “Home of Once Brave”, “One Rode to Asa Bay”, “Shores In Flames”
Final rate: 90/100
Hammerheart and its successor Twilight of the Gods were unique to me in that they were the only 'growers' I experienced in the whole of Bathory's body of work. Most other albums prompted immediate satisfaction or indifference, but Hammerheart took a span of years to accumulate its value when I was flooded with so much else at that precise point in metal history (1990), where thrash had churned out some of its most impressive and enduring works, and death metal was just digging in its heels. Of course, this was an instantaneous purchase much like anything else on the Noise Records roster, but I listened to it a few times, found that it was not as good as Blood Fire Death, put it on the shelf for a few months, extracted it, enjoyed it a fraction more, rinse and repeat for another two decades.
It's almost as if Hammerheart grows better not only with its own aging, but with mine. These days, as white threads being to poke out through the hedgerow of my facial hair, I've taken on a new level of appreciation for this trudging, Viking monolith, which nearly completed Bathory's transition from thrash and black roots to one of the forefathers of the pagan/folk metal advent that took a firm hold in Europe through the mid to late 90s. You still get a bit of rasped edge to Quorthon's cleaner tones, and the riffs possess a similar, inherent glory to those of Blood Fire Death that feel so legitimately atavist and Norse in nature, but the material here is slower, more atmospheric and drawn out. Tracks like "A Fine Day to Die" and "Blood Fire Death" itself were given plenty of space to breathe as they surged forth in their belligerent majesty, but here we experience pure paeans to the land and sea of the Sagas, tributes to the world not only of, but BEYOND the battlefields, and as such it's rather refreshing.
My favorite component to the music is the interaction of the horn sounds with the undercurrents of distorted guitar and the vocal arrangements. Some of this was carried forward from the fourth album, and yet here the orchestration reaches a new level of prevalence in that it's almost a rule and not the exception. The opening sequence to "Valhalla", leading up to the potent thrashing canter of its verse, is a fine example of how Quorthon has grown into a composer beyond the metallic instrumentation, and further evidenced by the soaring choirs he implements in this and numerous other tracks on the album. The tribal, measured Viking thrash of "Baptised in Fire and Ice" and the lurching, grooving bludgeon of "Father to Son" are other highlights, but I find that, considering the 55 minute length of the album, it's pleasant on the whole to experience, if not without some flaws. I could probably live without the obligatory ambient/choir outro, and the massive 11 minute opener "Shores in Flames" could have been slightly trimmed, but the majority of the compositions are compelling enough that I appreciate Hammerheart more than anything the band would put out later.
I've mentioned before that I've never been all that fond of the 'singing' Quorthon, but I should clarify that this is simply the limitation on the vocal chords the Gods granted the man, and not on his effort to better himself, to evolve through the process. He's no Celine Dion, but he works with what he's got. Through Hammerheart, really, you only get a taste of the cleaner tones (like the intro to "Shores in Flames"), and he largely adheres to the grimier, accented grit that was so prominent on Blood Fire Death, but you can surmise that he's further motivated by melody to match the atmospheres of the changes in the music. Hammerheart lacks the black metal core of its predecessor. What heaviness you witness here comes at either a doomed clip or a confident slower thrashing impetus, so it makes a whole lot of sense that the vocals needed to adapt along with this new vision.
In listening through Hammerheart, I like to imagine Quorthon as a skald, a minstrel-herald to the fire and wind who gives voice to and through the ice-rimmed storms that assail the ship on which he rides, and I'm sure this was the man's own motivation in choosing this style. And even where I don't love the delivery of each line, it's full proof of concept, which goes a LONG way to properly assessing and immersing oneself into the music here. The ideas might not have been all that unique, after all, we had Blood Fire Death a few years prior, and heavy metal bands like Faithful Breath, Thor and Manowar had already touted the Viking party line, but the 1988-90 Bathory era is without a doubt the point at which it was handled with what felt like genuine passion and enthusiasm, and not as a gimmick or excuse to wear helmet and furs, or to impress your groupies at the after party with the size of your 'axe'. To that extent, metal owes Quorthon another debt (in addition to that whole black metal thing), and this album, while not one of Bathory's best, indefinitely applies its titular implement to your beating hugr in a surefire, resonant succession.
A lot has been made about of association between Scandinavian/Viking history and metal music, particularly in the wake of an entire sub-genre claiming the label and a host of bands involved in the Norwegian 2nd wave of black metal taking on lyrical and some musical trappings in line with it. But less attention tends to get paid to the origins of the genre, which are many and at times difficult to define. Quorthon is often pointed to as the godfather of present day Viking metal, but a careful analysis of Bathory’s early 90s work shows a combination of already established practices with a more concentrated emphasis on duration and atmosphere. There is very little to be found that hasn’t been inspired by either the grandest of Manowar’s typical epic compositions such as “Dark Avenger” and “Gates Of Valhalla”, or the longer winded and down tempo offerings of Metallica. Anything that can be attributed to Quorthon specifically in terms of innovation is that, with respect to “Hammerheart”, that he isolated the key elements that were already in the works by 1984 and married them to a much grittier, punk infused vocal style that is quite distant from the lion growls of James Hetfield and the pristine banshee wails of Eric Adams.
Originality is perhaps not the best way to measure the importance of this album, but a good case can be made of its significance when looking at presentation and potency. Quorthon makes the most of his limited vocal range, offering up a unique mixture of clean sung, folksy melodic drones to complement the massive yet slow developing guitar riffs and gravely, haggard sounding shouts that are largely tonally based, but still carrying a strong remnant of the blackened screams of “Blood Fire Death”. Some slight hints of this coming approach to song creation was hinted in the opening and closing songs of said album, but here the early heavy metal influences are worn right on Bathory’s dark shirt sleeves, and with its entry is jettisoned every single thrash metal element that has typified the band’s sound up until now. It is understandable to see many older fans jumping ship on “Hammerheart”, but it is equally plausible to see this new sound as a welcome change from a band that is electing to mix things up a bit and is still keeping the quality level up in spite of the stylistic departure. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that this album is just as much a throwback as it is a step forward.
What this album may lack in subtlety, it more than makes up for in outright simplicity, stretching the bounds of repetitious sections with an eye for quality that makes these elongated sections appropriate. While appearing frighteningly long in length, both “Shores In Flames” and “One Road To Asa Bay” showcase a free flowing approach to acoustic guitar work and heavy ended, pummeling riff work that borderlines on doom metal territory tempo wise. The latter song is all but a dead ringer for a couple of signature Manowar epics, but Quorthon’s raw vocal work gives it a very interesting flavor, not to mention the nastier guitar tone and the sharper drum production. “Baptized In Fire And Ice” takes a similar approach, but does so with a bit less acoustic work and an even catchier, albeit slow trudging groove. But while the songwriting is definitely being directed around with an eye for what Joey Demaio might do, an equal tendency towards Metallica fanfare sneaks in on “Home Of Once Brave” and “Valhalla”, the latter doing a slight paraphrase of the signature outro of “For Whom The Bell Tolls”, the former outright quoting it and putting some slightly different lead guitar work over top of it.
This is the sort of album that probably had more of an implicit influence on present day musical practices amongst Scandinavian bands insofar as Vikings are concerned. It has an innovative streak to it in the sense that it brought the idea of simply loading up an album with grandiose epics, which has since become a standard practice for the likes of Moonsorrow. But it is largely an archaic nod to the most primitive and basic conception of metal music, in much the same respect as Bathory’s 80s material, but from a very different, and likely more accessible angle. This is an album that will likely appeal more to fans of Manilla Road than to Ensiferum or Suidakra, though historically it does point to a later revival of early metal practices that was picked up and married to more modern practices by said bands. But as an all out good listen, separate from the questions of what boundaries it may or may not have been pushing, this is a solid endeavor that ought to have a wider audience.
With ‘Blood Fire Death’, Bathory marked the beginning of a new era and marked the arrival of a new genre - Viking metal. Although it may sound ridiculous, this genre, one which merges with the finer aspects of black metal, was very strong in its heyday. When it comes to finding a finer Viking metal band on Earth, only acts like Enslaved can compete with the gloriousness that is Bathory, spearheaded by the late-and-great Tomas Forsberg, also known as Quorthon. ‘Blood Fire Death’, as the title of my review for it suggests, isn’t my favourite Bathory album but by heck is it still fantastic. Although only a mere two years had passed since ‘Blood Fire Death’ (1988) was released, there are some notable changes on ‘Hammerheart’ (1990) and it’s in these very changes that marks Bathory’s step-up from greatness to Godliness. Some of the changes were already being placed in motion on the fourth full-length, ‘Blood Fire Death’, but they were now in full swing in the Spring of 1990, a fitting season for Bathory to be reborn again within a new sub-genre.
It’s a tussle between this album, ‘Hammerheart’ and ‘Twilight of the Gods’, an album which only came out a year after the former, as to which is my favourite from the Swedish godfather of Viking metal. Although neither are flawless, they come pretty damn close, in my humble opinion. Judging by the material on ‘Blood Fire Death’, it’s easy to see how Bathory evolved from one moment to the next. As I said, there are traits to this album which can be seen on the aforementioned full-length and vice versa. However, I tend to feel those few differences between the two make all the difference when it comes to finding a definitive winner within Bathory’s discography. The production, for instance, seems a lot stronger on ‘Hammerheart’. The 1988 full-length is a lot gruffer and rawer in its approach, though that isn’t to say that this album doesn’t embrace distortion and feedback from the powerful guitars. The drums are just as stern, too. They provide a back-up power source to the guitars, which are generally central to the album.
The production seems more accessible to me here than it did on the previous album although much of Bathory’s acoustic work and such on ‘Blood Fire Death’ tended to feature during the slower, more fragmented passages in songs, whereas they not spring up all over the place and manage to fit in seamlessly no matter how the production is affecting the atmosphere. ‘Valhalla’ is a good example of this. The song opens with an acoustic guitar alongside an electric guitar which is giving off a lot of distortion and feedback. Despite the fact that the acoustics have strong and prideful synths to compete with, too, they’re never overshadowed and use the full width of their appeal to draw the listener in time and again. I do tend to feel that ‘Twilight of the Gods’ has a better use of acoustics but this album isn’t half bad either when it comes to the song writing and song structure aspects. Each song contains its own moments of glory and longevity within the mind, whereas ‘Blood Fire Death’ certainly had one or two forgettable songs amidst some truly gigantic one’s like the self-titled track, or ‘A Fine Day to Die’, for example.
Whereas that album featured only two or three truly mammoth songs, this album has several more, including the likes of ‘Valhalla’, which is one of many to feature a strong use of layered vocal approaches, including Quorthon’s typically gruff style. The use of cleanly chanted vocals isn’t exactly sparse but they’re certainly use sparingly, although always enough to satisfy the listeners needs and wants whilst maintaining a level of desire within them that leaves them craving for more, as shown on songs like ‘Baptised in Fire and Ice’, a truly wonderful song which mixes the various vocal approaches well, tending to use the cleaner background chants more so than most other songs, though not shying away from the usual gruff approach, one which resonates within me and makes me think of courage, pride and a true belief in the nature of the mythological inspired lyrics. Having said that, ‘Twilight of the Gods’ is certainly better equipped than the two albums before it at using profound imagery through the evocative lyrics, though it cannot be argued that the imagery on this album and the one previous to it are sheepish or underwhelming because that isn’t the case.
I have never listened to an album or an artist until I found Bathory whereby I felt the lyrics were extremely important despite the fact that I cannot relate to them on an emotional level or because I have been through the exact same experience that the singer is singing about but that is the case here and especially on the next album. The lyrics are truly evocative, sparking endless streams of images of mythological creatures, landscapes and riding into battle over blood soaked grounds. The brilliant ‘One Rode to Asa Bay’ is, in particular, a true highlight of this and the album. The samples at the beginning of the track meld so well into the overall story of the song and indeed the album. The structures to each song, in fact, are so well thought out and magically crafted together with supreme talent. Even the artwork seems well thought out and fits in so well with the lyrics to the aforementioned song, one that stands up as one of Bathory’s best. As with most of the songs on the album, it’s full of melodies and a general infectious catchiness which is unheard of in Bathory’s early days. As per usual, this is a fantastic Viking metal album.
How does a band follow four fantastic albums in a row; four albums that helped to give birth to a new and extreme metal subgenre? By putting out a fifth fantastic album that gives birth to a second metal subgenre. Both viking and black metal can trace their roots to Bathory (and others of course). With Blood Fire Death, Bathory continued to push the boundaries of metal into new territories and obviously Quorthon had no intention of stopping there.
What we see with Hammerheart is a shift of gears in the Bathory machine. Expanding on ideas heard on Blood Fire Death, Hammerheart brings us an entirely new sound and style from one of heavy metal’s most important bands. Gone are the songs and imagery of Satan, the thrashing ugly riffs and the raspy, inhuman vocals of Quorthon. With Hammerheart we hear clean, crooning vocals, simplistic song structure, repetitive riffs and entrancing synth. We see a band that has dropped the fire breathing and traded it in for broadswords and a viking image—and it works. Bathory present us with a truly tasteful treat. Laced in Scandinavian mythology, Hammerheart sets sail with ‘Shores in Flames’. The sounds of ocean waves flood out of the speakers accompanied by a calm and simple riff and nicely done clean vocals on Quorthon’s part. It’s a song you can get absolutely lost in and see yourself on a longship on the ocean—it’s a great start to a great album and one of the strongest tracks. Other highlights are the soaring tunes ‘Home of Once Brave’ and ‘One Rode to Asa Bay’. The riffs are simplistic and repetitive, giving the album a somewhat hypnotic quality and that, combined with the well-used synth and Quorthon’s crooning, will have you flying high over a lost world. Quorthon’s vocals are far from what many think of amazing on this record, but they work perfectly with the music presented. If you were to have had someone like say, ICS Vortex or Vintersorg on this record, it would not have been nearly as powerful in my opinion.
There are no clunkers to be found on this record. I think that the weakest tracks to be found here are ‘Baptized in Fire and Ice’ and ‘Valhalla’ and that says something because both of those songs are great. As much as I love the first four Bathory albums, Hammerheart continues to be my favorite and is in heavy rotation in the autumn and winter months of the year. This record is highly recommended to any fan of black, folk or viking metal that has not heard it and is, in my opinion, one of the greatest heavy metal records of all time. You’ll get swept away in it—of this I have no doubt.
This is what Bathory is all about, folks. You can write it in blood and yell it from the hills of Skalunda. Yep, this is the original article for Viking metal. This is metal for the valiant, violent and proud and its legend will be upheld. A debt is owed. A tribute is due. As a matter of fact, every time I hear Hammerheart, it makes me think Bathory should have slapped a Danegeld on bands as diverse as Graveland and Amon Amarth; thy must render under Quorthon.- with interest.
Hammerheart is the very logical progression from the epic black metal work Blood Fire Death; an album I very much admired and didn’t think could be topped until I heard this one. There still is some of Bathory’s older sounds to be heard on here but they are supplemental to the ambitious scope found. With the vocals, Quorthon still takes influence from Venom in a couple of songs. Taking these influences from certain bands and melding it into his own grand style is one of the best things to appreciate on Hammerheart.
Listen to those waves. The song is called Shores in Flames and it is killer. The first verse of lyrics is sung cleanly and beautifully. As I stated above, there are little influences from diverse metal and rock bands found if you look real hard. And I would just about bet you a Runestone penny that Quorthon listened to a couple of lesser known epical pieces called Pirates and Memoirs of an Officer and a Gentleman by Emerson, Lake and Palmer to come up with that slowly sung ’Mother winter leaves our land…’ verse.
The scenery is being set and the atmosphere before a battle is always so serene yet tense. A beach is about to be stormed by Norse hordes of pagan reverence. This is the depiction that will accost you when you blare this song. There is so much vivid detail in those lyrics and sound. I’ve always even thought this album is educational about Viking age lore. If you ask me, I think this kind of music is so much more vivid and entertaining than any film could ever portray. Before Bathory came along, I had to settle for a Kirk Douglas or some Lee Majors movie to get my Viking fix as a kid. When Shores in Flames first came on, I didn’t need those movies. Hammerheart is where it’s at and Viking metal hasn’t been done nearly as well since. I got news for you, it never will either.
Allow me to impress upon you another virtue of this album: its narrative. It’s operatic and furious. In Shores in Flames you will first notice this. Take the sample lyrics of ‘...at sunbirth we attack the city..Down the coastlines with wind we reign…’ He sings it with the gravel and true brio of a chronicler warrior. And you got to love that chorus! There’s a guitar solo at the end of that. It might remind you of his earlier albums. Quorthon’s playing style is perfect with a crude and boorish vibrato. He does nothing complicated but he doesn’t have to. This is raw melody. The song ends with epic atmosphere. That battle horn blows and those shores really are in flames. You can hear it as sure as you are born. Launch those longboats and let these marauders debark because the next song maybe one of the best ever!
When I listen to the track Valhalla, I am not in the 21st century anymore. Hell, my mind just might be at the start of the previous millennium. This song is greatness from Gotland. Who needs energy drinks or meth? Valhalla is pure adrenaline in the form of music. I have tell you, if I am ever about to go into a fight with someone bigger than me, I want to have this song playing in my head loud and clear.
Quorthon takes a lot of riffing inspiration from Ross the Boss on this one. Being a fan of his work in Manowar, that was a treat. They’re simpler at heart than what he did with Manowar but I actually like Quorthon’s playing better. The drumming is marvelous on Valhalla. Those sticks sound like they have lead in them. I liken them to John Bonham's hits on The Immigrant Song. It is this drumming on Hammerheart that sets it apart from Bathory’s previous albums. There is no black metal blasting here. The beats are not swift anymore. They go more for the effect of thunder to portray a battleground. The vocals on this song are the best he has ever done. He sings out of tune sure, but that’s the best part about it. It’s the voice of a warrior charging in full battle mode. He has a rasp and aggression that seems very real. When he screams about swinging his sword in the wind, everything is there. That whole catch verse projected an image of a wide-eyed Viking standing at the bow of a vessel in battle speed with his hair flowing against the wind under overcast skies. I’ve seen paintings like that but Valhalla put it all into play.
A lot of listeners will remember Baptised in Fire and Ice as the song that probably stuck out most upon first listen. It is a good one but ironically, it has become my least favorite on the album if I had to rate the songs. That opening riff is incredible and it’s influenced by Ride the Lightning era Metallica so the eighties metal spirit is in tact. My only complaint with it is that overall it’s too repetitive for a thrash-y track that lasts eight minutes. It doesn’t sound like he quite knew where to take it from there. The actual riff is well written but his technical limitations do show through in regard to his speed on here because this needed to be played faster. His picking hand just wasn’t slick enough to make it rip at correct accuracy. If he were able to have put in some sort of progression to go along with it, Baptised in Fire and Ice would have been the best song on here. A good and memorable track if a bit limited in execution.
Father and Son is slower but a very smooth transition. The choral chants of the title in consistent with the grand setting on Hammerheart. The simplicity of the beginning riffs is magnificent. The bass is very faint on the drum beats. Quorthon again sings out of key alot but I loved it as he is just howling with bestial glee of Viking kinship in a long ago age. Song to Hall Up High is gorgeously placed between these battle hymns. The use of acoustic guitar was always an underrated aspect in Bathory’s Viking era.
A lot of people have said the production is not very good on this album. I have to disagree with this. True, it’s not a high fidelity undertaking but the most impressive thing about the recording is that it always sounds rich and deep despite the limited budget. The mixing in of all those ambient sounds of fires, choral backing vocals, crashing waves, nature and movement is always convincing.
For some reason, it seems some Bathory fans are split into two factions but I see absolutely no reason for all to not enjoy this masterpiece. Quorthon can do no wrong when it comes to thundering metal be it black or Viking. For those of you who are still not sold on this album, I ask that you to at least play both of the first two tracks on the record at the maximum volume possible and let it shake the walls and split your eardrums.
How juiced is this album? If Valhalla could have been played for Hardrada’s forces at Stamford Bridge, they would have kicked the shit out of Godwinson’s army and scared off William for the throne of England. The song is anthem and rage at the same time. It represents weaponry and will. Every time I find myself stuck listening to someone’s shitty music of today I feel the urge to yell at the top of my lungs, “Quooorthon!!”
If it appears that I am fellating Forsberg’s knob like a knavish infidel, I wouldn’t be the first or last to seem so because you cannot praise this album enough. This is an adventure of a heavy metal album. I still love all his black/thrash albums prior but this one took me with one furious swoop. I consider this his magnum opus and images of that battle hammer in full swing prevail. And how that hammer is heavy!
It is impossible to deny the influence this Viking-obsessed period of Bathory's history had on certain metal realms, and this album in particular really lays out a blueprint for an instantly recognisable cadre of followers. It is strange how only one or two of Quorthon's albums could really be considered innovative in the traditional sense, yet nearly every recording the man and his nebulous colleagues churned out prior to 1994 has had a profound impact on what came after. Quorthon wears his influences on his sleeve: it's there in the sound, if you want to look for it, even though the man himself stubborngly and irritatingly denied the sway these influences (Venom, Metallica, Manowar, etc) had on his sound until his dying day. "Hammerheart" is one of those albums that people seem to unquestioningly place in a Valhalla among so many hallowed releases, but I would contend that this one belongs in the same exhibit area as Celtic Frost's "Into the pandemonium": a place where experiments go to be admired from a distance for making such a difference, but whose efforts are often outdone by their younger progeny.
As a starry-eyed metal neophyte in 1996, I was introduced to Bathory's "Blood on Ice" album when Quorthon was interviewed on a campus radio station who's metal programme I had only recently begun to enjoy, and instantly fell in love with the huge-sounding choirs, grandiose tale-telling approach and feeling of Viking pride the album invoked. I didn't even notice that the singing was often off-key or that the riffs and drumming were pretty sub-standard in a lot of ways, I was just swept away by the epic quality that I hadn't heard in much music up until that point. So, off I went to the store, looking to purchase this "masterpiece", only to find that it wasn't available, much to my chagrin. They did however carry a copy of "Hammerheart" on their shelves, which I'd read was another Viking-themed album, so though I was skeptical about checking out another Bathory album first after hearing "War" from the debut on the same radio show and finding it quite hard on the ears, I took the plunge and bought the 1990 album instead.
At first, I was quite swept away by the proud feeling and majestic hymns to Odin that the album contains. "Shores in Flames" really is a great opener, which begins with the sound of waves carrying aloft a great dragon-ship and a reflective clean guitar passage that slowly becomes busier and more involved as Quorthon begins to sing. Yes, I'm sure many Bathory fans thought that something was going terribly wrong here, and when the heavy guitars come in and the music sounds more like Manowar than anything else, I've no doubt that many a frown creased formerly eager brows. Still, having no preconceptions (or not many, at least) about Bathory left me wide open to this experience, and I absolutely loved the sound of the guitars on this record and still think they exude a wonderful vibrancy today. Quorthon's singing has been much-discussed, and in truth he was always quite amateurish about it, masking some of his ineptitudes with backing choral effects and harmonies. On "Hammerheart", there isn't much alteration done to the voice, unlike what can be heard on the later viking albums, so, bar a few notable sections and some backing chants here and there, what you get is the raw, untempered Quorthon at his straining best. Say what you want about the man's imperfections as a singer, he can occasionally latch on to a very captivating melody and, so long as he sticks within his range, can make it most memorable and stirring. It is this sense of melody, the narrative lyrical approach and pretty cool riff that keep this song afloat, and it reaches a nice climax when Quorthon screams "Fire!" and launches into one of his trademark howling guitar solos.
Here though, a stark difference, not only between this and previous work, but also between Viking-era Bathory and just about all of the bands that have followed Quorthon's lead in varying degrees, makes itself known ... the solos, not to mention many of the riffs on this album, are very traditional rock and metal, something which Quorthon seemed to have been moving away from on "Under the SIgn" and "Blood, Fire, Death". Though many of the early Bathory solos are just wild pentatonic shred-fests, the speed and violence of the material always removed the need for much premeditated melody or "lyrical" playing. It is at this point that we must suspend our disbelief or simply ignore the stuff that's poured from Quorthon's mouth and pen, because the man clearly loves Manowar and their influence is all over this and the subsequently released nordic albums ... the influence is, in fact, as plain as the Venom inspiration that Quorthon denies played a part in the making of his early material. Now, I don't have a problem with rock soloing or rock riffs .. hell, I love rock music that rocks as much as I love metal that ... kills posers? Christians? However, if a band is going to slow down, temper their aggression, take on new influences and new sounds, they must do it convincingly, and, unlike in the old days, when you're playing this kind of music, aping your idols isn't necessarily the best way to go about it.
"Valhalla" belongs in the middle-tier of songs from "Hammerheart" in terms of its level of interest, and believe me, it's a marked drop in quality from the first track. It moves along at a nice marching pace, but like most of what's on here, it's far too long for its own good and is only really held aloft by an admittedly powerful chorus. The verses are made up of Quorthon shouting about sacrifice, warriors and all that, and although the shouting doesn't sound too terrible here (and works pretty well in one of the other songs) it's simply boring to listen to and lacks conviction. Why couldn't he scream his heart out, like he did on the previous album's more mid-paced numbers? Oh, and this song features a riff lifted cheekily from Metallica's "The Call of Ktulu" .. nice one, Quorthon.
If you can make it through "Baptised in Fire and Ice" and "From Father to Son" you've a pretty strong disposition. The former sounds exactly like Voivod's "Tribal Convictions" at first, but then Quorthon starts shouting again and this time it sounds really bad. Even the chorus can't save this one, as Quorthon bellows "Baptized!" .. to be followed by some weird monotonous chanting that I guess completes the song title. More howling, rock soloing that never seems to end and .. god damn, just hit the skip button, this song is terrible. "From Father to Son" starts out with a couple of minutes of peaceful Viking village sounds: hammers clinking, people moving about, dogs barking, a woman's scream and running feet that greet the wailing of a new-born infant. It's quite nicely done actually and I've always appreciated Quorthon's attention to detail when it comes to sound effects, something he's always played with rather tastefully. Still, I'm afraid to report that this ends up being pretty anti-climactic as the song proper is a plodding affair with an annoying, slow descending riff played on both guitar and keyboard that keeps coming back in a most unwelcomed manner, and the cool verse riff is totally marred by Quorthon's attempts to sing the exact same notes along with it.
But wait ... if you've made it this far, the best is about to come. In "Song to Hall up High" Quorthon demonstrates for the first time his real affinity for tasteful vocal harmonies and classically-inspired acoustics. The song is a praise of Odin from the point of view of a seemingly old warrior, and while Quorthon warbles a little he sounds passionate here and the melody is really haunting, especially when he's joined by a full complement of Quorthon clones to sing the second half of the song in a several-voice harmony. For the last line, the "singers" all come together and sing the same notes, while the sound of gulls crying high in the sky and the gentle percussion of a cymbal can be heard. This most captivating piece leads seamlessly into "Home of Once Brave", and without a shadow of doubt, here is the highlight of the album. Stripped down to the most simplistic, drony riff imaginable, with drumming that merely keeps time and very slightly accents the ends of verses, the piece becomes a sheer wall of atmosphere, and the vocals have a hell of a lot of room to breathe and command the attention. Here, Quorthon's monotonous delivery is startlingly effective, even though he's practically singing one goddamn note through all the verses! Whereas Snake from Voivod would have made himself sound like a malfunctioning robot, Quorthon has just the right amount of bark and grit to his tone that, here at least, the passion sounds very honest and true, pouring out from the barer of the pounding hammerheart. I believe this song alone is what became the template for much of what bands like Graveland would purvey in the future, as it seems to take the least from traditional metal and is the only song on the album that really does carry a strong ethos of norse pagan pride successfully. The droning riff and the way it's played, with one chord strummed repeatedly with the duration of an eighth and only very infrequently shifting up a couple of tones, definitely sounds like stereotypical pagan metal before such a thing ever existed. On the other hand, the chorus is pure Manowar, in the sense that, as with many of that band's more mid-paced epics, you will hear it once and then be forced to sing along. Quorthon seems to be good at that. He's also good at imitation .. have I mentioned that before? Well, "Home of Once Brave" ends with something that sounds a hell of a lot like the end of "Fight Fire with Fire". Ah well, never mind.
The last song tries very hard to be an epic, grand, emotionally-rending tale of christian usurpation of pagan lands and hearts. Unfortunately some weird decisions make this song a lot less fulfilling than it ought to be. What's with the goofy accent, Quorthon? Seriously, it's as though he suddenly decided that it would be more Viking-like to sing in broken English and with a strong Nordic lilt that's not even his to begin with. It turns what would be a serious tale into what amounts to a comic-book farce, showing perhaps the true inspiration behind this Viking period of Quorthon's music. Also, those "wooooooo-aaaaah!" noises he keeps making are a lot more obnoxious than they were in the first song, not to mention those damn keyboards, which were thankfully mostly absent from the largely superior "Twilight of the Gods". The vocal melody keeps repeating over, and over, and over again and only the sound effects provide a slight respite. I suppose I do like the lyrics, despite the inexplicably poor English (too much mead, huh?)
So in the end, we have yet another legendary album that's legendary for reasons other than superior musical quality. It's not a detriment to metal, or even Bathory, but as I've illustrated in the previous paragraphs, inconsistency and poor execution mar at least half of the album's worth. Hey, it seems as though Quorthon decided to borrow more from Manowar than the Songbook for Mid-Paced, Epic heavy Metal (TM) after all.
Up until (and including) “Under The Sign Of The Black Mark”, the music of Bathory was extremely aggressive, raw and occult, a literal “Call From The Grave”. The release of “Blood, Fire, Death”, however, signified the initiation of some changes in the way Quorthon approached his artistic creations: the songs had become longer in duration, some lyrics did focus on the narration of battles and epic themes, while a choir could now be heard singing along with Quorthon in a number of refrains.
With “Hammerheart”, it seems that the innovations first introduced in “Blood, Fire, Death” acquire a more central role and establish themselves as the main components of Bathory’s music. Most songs last more than six minutes and the riffs, although solid and heavy as always, aren't - generally speaking - as fast as before. It seems that Quorthon is now more interested in creating and communicating a certain epic and atmospheric feeling, and doesn't attempt to reach supersonic speeds with his guitar. Certain Black Sabbath influences become now more apparent than ever. Moreover, in his attempt to achieve this eerie and war - like atmosphere, Quorthon doesn't hesitate to add acoustic part to his songs, where he also tries to sing more melodically (unfortunately, he doesn't always succeed in this endeavor). Furthermore, a choir of either male (probably viking sailors) or female voices (probably valkyries) accompanies Quorthon in bridges, refrains or introductions, contributing to the revelation of a mystical, almost mythological, environment. In conclusion, the final result may be more melodic than before, but tantalizing and tempting as always.
When it comes to the lyrical content of “Hammerheart”, Quorthon pays homage to his fearless ancestors, the viking rulers of Nordland and raiders of the northern seas. Up till now, Quorthon had been a faithful disciple of hell, a violent desecrator of everything that considered itself holy and sacred. In “Hammerheart”, he modifies his role, and his ambition now is to become a storyteller of the wonders of the viking era, a Snorri Sturluson of his own age. Standing somewhere between myth and fact, legend and reality, the lyrics of “Hammerheart” embark on an inspired journey to the viking world and give us a detailed account of a viking warrior’s life: from the time of his birth (Father To Son, Baptized In Fire And Ice), through the occasions when he ravages and plunders foreign coasts (Shores In Flames), to the time when feels his death is imminent and envisions the gates of Valhalla beckon him to enter (Song To Hall Up High, Valhalla).
The first three albums of Bathory became an extremely significant factor in the creation of European black metal, as their influence on bands like Immortal, Marduk or Emperor is more than just obvious. "Hammerheart", on the other hand, fueled the fire of Enslaved, Einhejer and Borknagar (just to name a few), so that we can nowadays speak for the development of another metal genre, namely viking metal. Many claim that it was actually "Blood, Fire, Death" that highlighted the beginning of this particyular genre. I disagree: "Blood, Fire, Death", did provide the basics, but it was "Hammerheart" that put viking metal into the right dimensions. In this sense, "Hammerheart" could be considered one of the most important albums of Scandinavian metal.
Dedicated to the memory of Quorthon, 1966 - 2004.
"The vast gates to hall up high
Shall stand open wide and welcome you with all its within
And Oden shall hail YOU, Bearer of a pounding Hammerheart..."
There is one great issue with this album: You cannot listen to it: Give the album two minutes and you chant along with the battlehymns on this album. Give it another three minutes and that's you fully dressed in the re-enactment kit, a horn of mead in your hand, and a sword in the other; whilst you've just dug out that LEGO Dragonship your parents gave you for your 4th birthday, and you try to balance your 250 lbs (including beer gut) on its tip.
The album clocks in at about 57 minutes for 7 songs - the tremendous length of each of the hymns allowing for plenty of warchanting and pillaging your entire bedroom closet.
It picks of rather quiet, with the waves beating against the shore, with a quiet part the follow it before "Shores in Flames" kicks off and you find yourself toasting to your Germanic ancestors. The fury continues in an epic style through "Valhalla", "Baptised in Fire and Ice" and "Father to Son", until you reach the accoustic "Song to Hall up High", which honors Valfather Odin and is a truly emotional song. "Home of Once Brave" is again a battle hymn highlighted by guitars that make you seem in battle. Finally you reach "One Rode to Asa Bay", which has to be the best song on the album. It starts off with a man galloping through the woods, before you have the main song kicking off, carrying on until you reach the Solo at about 5:30, and then the short accoustic part at about 7:30 until the end - all the time able to sympathise with the suffering of the people under the allegedly not peaceful christianisation of Scandinavia.
To talk of the music itself - the studio is obviously a garage, and the sound quality is not always the best, but quite acceptable. The guitars are heavy and distorted, but their riffling allows enough scope for plenty of epic feeling, which is highlighted by Quorthon's vocals that are sometimes plainly clain, yet sometimes with a raspy touch quite reminding of a vikingr. The songwriting is amazing, and the sporadically used keyboards only add to the truly epic atmosphere, etc etc - so by the time you have finished the album you are put before the haunting choice whether to play it again or to play it again.
Now of course, don't expect this album to be in your possession for too long - you are much more likely to find it abducted by your mates leaving a note that they have borrowed it, on a rather frequent basis.
Although all of Bathory's viking-inspired albums are absolutely great, if you are only going to buy one of them, buy Hammerheart: I've owned it for some years now and there hardly passes a day without listening to it; a true masterpiece that will be such until the end of time; so if you are a fan of the genre (although I know plenty of people who favor other genres who LOVE this album!),it is THE album for you to have.
(review originally written for Amazon.co.uk)
This is not black metal and what is “viking metal” but an ambiguous commercial term that defines sucky folksy rock-based music with later metal techniques and viking themes? I mean, it´s not a separate genre or subgenre, so what is Hammerheart? Let me describe the music: in essence this is slow to mid-tempo heavy metal played with the techniques and distortion that Bathory used in earlier albums, the production is raw and the guitar tone sounds abrasive. Rhythmically they no longer bash the shit out of everything but slow down to hold a simple beat to mantain your attention while cymbals are used for dramatic purpose. Percussion goes from tribal rhythms to a constant walking pace or a slower but violent Bathory style stomp beat.The voice is sometimes raspy sometimes cleaner sung that show theme variations and the mood of the song; together vocals, percussion and choruses make this music sound a bit like opera at times in its explosive moments. The songs Valhalla and Home of the once brave, are similar to Enter the Eternal Fire of the Under the sign album in its narrative composition, but the difference is that here the pace and rhythms are simpler and linear to give way to the dramatic elements that make this music both “viking” and epic but are perhaps too dependant of the vocal parts. The best song here is One rode to Asa Bay, it is a musical mourning of sorrow for the loss of a better age, a deep concern for this dying age devoid of culture and traditional wisdom, it is all lost nothing can be saved now. The ideas behind the music are both tribute to Nordic Culture and Quorthon´s conclusion that the world as it is now is fucked up for good, it is resentment, anger and hopelessness; the viking themes are metaphors to express those ideas, which is why I don´t think this is “viking metal”.
For those who haven´t listened to this cd, you can appreciate this music in two ways: 1- like well done heavy metal/rock that visits the first generations from its progenitors to the bulk of heavy metal makers with a refined sense of narrative tempos and “feeling”. 2 – like a narrative semi-soundtrack of rock melodramatic storytelling, like a theatrical musical play. However perhaps because it´s too much heavymetal in structure the “theatrical” elements simply do not blend with the music but float like superficial decorations; although the intent of the music might have been profound, you understand the emotions like given instructions but not “feel” them.
My final comment is that despite the sincerity of the music where other “viking metal” bands are pure gimmick is that if you listen to Bathory´s discography in one single day with Bathory – Bathory you get excited, with The Return you get shocked, with Under the sign you get satisfied, with Blood Fire Death one gets fucking blown away and with Hammerheart well... let´s just say that it´s hard to say goodbye to satanic Bathory. I´d say this is a good album because it shows the epic side of heavy metal with vivid artistry, intelligence, class and emotional integrity.
This is the record Manowar probably wishes they could make. Viking lyrics, epic song structures and a feeling of intensity mark this record as one of the more debated, but still amazing Bathory releases. (Probably the last to really mean anything as well.) The vocals are a little odd, but with riff-monsters like these in your bag you could sing like a dying rat and still sound good. Quothorn proved that he was THE composer in viking metal and few even came close to touching the epic nature of this material. Well produced, well played, decently vocalized and epic as movie...
Many classic songs appear on this record. "Shores in Flames" opens the CD with a bombastic overture, "Babtised in Fire and Ice" (the best riff ever at the 3:41 breakdown) sounds massive and the guitar-monster "Father and Son" all kick like a mule and flow like a river. The entire CD follows suit as well with no song falling off the edge as a "filler" song. Perfect in composition...and good in performance...I was left wanting little to satisfy my inner viking after hearing this record.
Quothorn recorded many strange and dissapointing records after this one but I could care little. Records such as this and "Under the Sign of the Black Mark" marked him as being one of the most talented and diverse of all the black metal musicians.
In Quothorns memory...this CD may even stand higher than many of the "black metal" records as a signal of who the man really was in terms of what he wanted to express.
BUY OR DIE!!!