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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.