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Where legends meet the frostbitten sky (part 1) - 95%

hells_unicorn, January 26th, 2012

Call me a late bloomer if you must, but in spite of getting into metal during my early teens in the mid 1990s, I did not discover Bathory until about a year after Quorthon passed on. During this time I began correspondence with a few musicians who were big into the Viking metal scene, and thus I came to the first logical place one would go circa 2005, the Nordland albums. What was immediately striking was a fascination with how similar it sounded to some earlier Manowar songs I’d heard years back, yet the dose of epic majesty, raw production and mostly slower tempo was so concentrated that it struck me as something entirely different at the same time. While it didn’t quite take to me completely given my general aversion to low-fi recordings, it grew into an appreciation for Bathory’s entire back catalog, even and eventually the black metal releases of the mid 80s.

In retrospect, while discovering this band through their last 2 albums was one way to approach them, it wasn’t until after hearing the rest of the discography that I fully comprehend where they stood. Of the two, “Nordland I” leans a bit closer to the heavier, darker aesthetic of “Hammerheart”, but with a slightly modern flavor in the guitar sound still left over from the band’s 90s thrash period and “Destroyer Of Worlds”. The crunch of the guitars is about as frosty and fuzz-drenched as middle era Immortal, but combined together with a grand mixture of backing vocal choirs, acoustic guitar passages and thudding drums to paint a vivid picture of endless skies hanging above a snow kissed landscape of mountains and trees. While older incarnations of Bathory’s Viking style brought forth a very particular storyline of Norse legends and lore, this is an album born of much broader and generalized sense of the north, as if becoming an all-encompassing biography of the entire land.

Not one to shy away from recognizing the changing musical landscape around him, Quorthon brings with this new approach to musical creation a strong helping of folksy elements that acknowledges the innovative works of bands like Suidakra and Ensiferum. “Foreverdark Woods” takes a particularly blatant occasion to employ some period instruments (including a Jew’s Harp) to bring in that retrospective flavor into the mix, while still largely maintaining the early heavy metal tendencies of Bathory’s base Viking sound, including the mostly blues infused guitar solos. “Broken Sword” also employs a beautifully sorrowful flute line alongside the typical acoustic guitar passage during the intro, though it ends up erupting into a violent rage of speed metal, though maintaining a consonant melodic contour, almost as if seeking a compromise between the different musical worlds that were “Blood Fire Death” and “Hammerheart”. “Ring Of Gold” takes a fully serene, all acoustic route, but never fails to stay interesting amid a variety of instruments layered over Quorthon’s working class clean vocal approach.

Interestingly enough, the surprises don’t really end with the 3 radically different songs mentioned previously, but rather the whole album reveals itself as a classic novel with numerous plot twists. “”Great Hall Awaits A Fallen Brother” has a rather basic speed metal riff to it, yet manages to evolve itself into a multifaceted epic that bridges a faster side of Bathory that was avoided on earlier Viking incarnations or compartmentalized into the more thrash metal offerings of “Destroyer Of Worlds”. “Dragon’s Breath” actually plugs away on a rather modern sounding doom riff that sounds more appropriate to mid 90s works than “Hammerheart”, yet the surrounding elements softens it to the point of feeling more like a blizzard than a hail storm. The only songs on here to really have an all out retro feel to them are “Vinterblot”, “Mother Earth, Father Thunder” and the title song, all of which stick closer to a “Blood On Ice” sound where atmosphere trumps aggression.

It might be somewhat presumptuous to give this album an edge over “Hammerheart”, but that is the general impression that I’m left with after spending a good bit of time with both albums. “Nordland I” accomplishes something which the other lacked in overall focus, and actually presents a somewhat more logical evolution from the transitional point of “Blood Fire Death” to what now is treated as the Viking metal sub-genre. Quorthon is one of few artists in this craft that has generally not lost his edge with the passage of time, and fits the role of a metal sage of sorts in this capacity, though he died a bit young to fully take on the image of an elder in the same way that Ronnie James Dio had. Even if left unfinished, the Nordland series is a grandiose testament to one man’s quest to make music on his own terms, and it is worthy of all the praise it garners.