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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.