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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.