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"Viking metal" is among the most hotly-debated terms in the metal world, and with good reason. It lacks clear definition, and what is unambiguously an example to one person can be irrelevant to the genre in the eyes of another. Certainly Amon Amarth, with their near-radio ready choruses and top-tier production values cannot be the same genre as the frenetic, iconoclastic Enslaved. Yet Amon Amarth is the quintessential Viking metal band, and Frost is heralded as a landmark release in the genre. So what, then, is Viking metal? In my opinion, there is only one answer: Hammerheart.
I'll confess up-front that I am biased in writing this - the album is my all-time favorite, metal or otherwise. I do truly believe, however, that there is something special about Hammerheart that has never been successfully imitated or topped. Its broad scope is - rightfully - lauded by many as a bold move that shouldn't have paid off, but ultimately did. Going from the lo-fi chaos of black metal to anything remotely resembling this album is no mean feat, and pulling it off with only one album in between the two styles would seem an impossibility. Yet Quorthon accomplished this with nothing but a drum machine and a producer to help him out.
A common criticism of the album (and the band in general) is that Quorthon's interest in Viking myth and Nordic paganism is just that - an interest. Purists decry the band's 'Viking trilogy' as disingenuous and irrelevant to the burgeoning Odinist movement that has taken hold in many extreme metal subcultures. And the purists have a point: Bathory was, like it or not, very image-conscious. In the '80s, when the Satanic scare was at its peak, Bathory wore black leather and sang odes to Asmodeus. Once the temporary thrill of Satanism died out in the '80s, Quorthon reinvented himself and his project in the image of the Vikings.
Yet I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing. Much can be said about the authenticity of true pagan bands, but in a scene tainted by white supremacy and neo-fascism (here's looking at you, Varg), it can be a relief to hear something utterly Scandinavian that doesn't feel racially biased. Hammerheart rightfully celebrates historical Nordic tradition rather than decrying the multiculturalism of today.
The fact of the matter is metal has always had a component of fantasy. Some prefer Manowar while others opt for Dragonforce, but it's pretty hard to be a metalhead and not listen to bands who simply tell stories. But Quorthon's storytelling abilities seem to far exceed many of his contemporaries, and indeed many of his successors. Despite the perceived illegitimacy of his pagan proclivity, Quorthon sounds sincere for the entirety of the album.
He isn't the best singer (he's not very good, honestly) but what he lacks in prowess he makes up for in effort. To his credit, he's approximately in tune all the way through, and his occasional cracks and hiccups make the vocals sound more like the gruff Viking warrior that he tries to evoke. And occasionally, something goes very right: his vocals in Song to Hall Up High are haunting, particularly in the final chorus, and when the choral "shores in flames" chant of the eponymous song gives way to a passionately screamed "Fire!", it's hard not to quake in your boots.
More evocative than even his best vocals are the guitars. With a drum machine and an ostensibly synthesized bass backing up his amateurish vocals, Quorthon has a lot to make up for on the six-string - a feat he more than accomplishes. The opening passage of "Shores In Flames" is without a doubt the most emotionally moving lead line I have ever heard. Its open, resonant chords and the rawness of the lightly overdriven guitar make for an introduction that has never been matched, in metal or anywhere else. Soon enough, it gives way to palm-muted heavy metal riffing that matches the thunder of the drums and the tension of the lyrics.
The main riff of the song is a very real contender for the most memorable riff in all metal music, and Quorthon is a master of restraint and release - he plays the riff for just long enough, just enough times that it defines the long opener without becoming boring or expected. "Valhalla" makes use of a similar song structure, but with guitar parts more suited to the driving pace of the track. Classical-inflected acoustics set apart "Song to Hall Up High" from the rest of the album, but the wistful tonality and pensive chord progression keep the listener firmly rooted in the Viking theme. Album closer "One Rode to Asa Bay" is one final 10-minute epic, complete with a haunting yet aggressive riff that mirrors Quorthon's lament to the Christian imperializaion of a once-proud Viking land.
Lyrically, this is Bathory's all-time high. Quorthon wrote some exceptional lyrics throughout each of his project's disparate periods, but Hammerheart is his only album with a lyric sheet that reads like poetry. Evoking the skalds of his homeland's distant past, he sings of heroic victory and of equally heroic defeat. His paeans to Thor and Odin read far more sincerely than they were written, untarnished by Quorthon's less-than-stellar grasp of English.
It is with a limited degree of objectivity that I can recognize some of Hammerheart's issues - for every vocal line that Quorthon nails, there are surely three that find him stretching his already limited range and dropping out of key, and a few riffs throughout the record sound pilfered from the annals of underground metal. Yet despite its faults, the record did something few others have done - it defined a genre. Hammerheart is not folk metal, nor black metal, nor even power metal. It's simply a powerful Nordic narrative told in the only way Quorthon knew how.
Though Amon Amarth and Kampfar may carry the Viking metal torch today, they and their ilk could not have existed without the unlikely masterpiece that is Hammerheart. Its scope is broader than can possibly be expected from an album whose entire run doesn't even hit an hour - the amount of content that Quorthon fit into an album of average length is remarkable.
For the sake of realism, I will assert merely that this is Bathory's best by far, and the singular triumph of Viking metal. But reducing it to that feels like a concession. I don't just think this is the best Viking metal album. I think this is the best heavy metal album of all time.