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“Thursday 7th June, 2012 will mark eight seemingly long years since one of the world's most talented and ambitious musicians left this cruel world”. Of course, that's what any devoted fan of Bathory mainman Quorthon (AKA Tomas Ace Forsberg) and his work will probably tell you. Is it any surprise that the last known album under his belt is one based on a Viking concept then? Certainly not. For anyone who has heard the supremely spectacular black metal force of 'Under the Sign of the Black Mark', the triumphant aggression and victorious sounds of 'Blood Fire Death' or the sorrowful yet still significant 'Hammerheart' albums however, these eight years will not have passed without grief and mourning. It may seem a slight exaggeration to say so, but Quorthon has been loved (and perhaps worshipped) by the metal world ever since the raw madness and evil destruction of Bathory's debut album hit international shores back in 1984.
This introduction merely signifies the build-up to Bathory's last (but not least) release, 'Nordland II'. The second part to the apparent four-album concept that Quorthon had prepared to unleash upon the world certainly seems an interesting one. Those who have heard 'Nordland I' will by now have either listened to 'Nordland II' or disowned it completely, and that may only be determined by whether you believe Quorthon still had it in him over twenty years after his first musical outputs or the fact that his vocals and musicianship is, well, just horrible. Plenty will have eventually given up on Bathory for the latter of these two reasons, but one thing stands clearly head and shoulders above the rest: The concept never gets boring.
Whereas 'Nordland I' covered mostly Norse mythology, perhaps being what most of Quorthon's lyrical content has ever been based around, 'Nordland II' returns simply to the excessive use of Viking folklore and victorious events. No, it does not involve Quorthon repeating his raspy scream on the extremely aggressive track 'War' (WAAAAARRRR YEEEAAHHHHH WAARRRRRGHHH!!!). What it does contain a lot of is extremely good songwriting, but you will naturally expect this from listening to other Bathory albums of the same concept.
The album itself is slightly longer in total than its predecessor, but that doesn't mean to say it isn't as exciting or indeed as accessible. Whilst the album's introduction, 'Fanfare' is perhaps a little too atmospheric for its own good, there is plenty to be admired here. You will know that Quorthon loved to work with choirs, as on albums even as early as 'Blood Fire Death' and 'Hammerheart', and on 'Nordland II', he doesn't waste any time taking advantage of this. However, the album isn't exactly helped when Quorthon tries to sing in synchronization with these choirs, and especially when he tries to hit too high a note. This is because the obvious weakness that has been recurring in his vocals ever since he first sang harmoniously on 'Hammerheart' is also shown on this album. My point here is that, not only is Quorthon's voice the one true downside of this album, it also brings down the quality of songs such as 'Blooded Shores' and 'Vinland', making the album seem incomplete. If it was the choir work that only sang, and Quorthon stuck perhaps to sorting out everything else (bar his own singing), then 'Nordland II' would be infinitely better than it actually is.
One other negative aspect of the album is, however hard you may try to ignore it, the production itself. The performance of every guitar note, drum roll or instance of atmospheric sounds is astounding on here, but once again, the performance lets the album down almost too much to be regarded as anything else but a decent effort. It can't be ignored that the very well executed guitar solos and the thundering drums are marred by a half-hearted production quality, and even though Quorthon had the best intentions of making this album as unique as it could be, he really should have paid more attention to the sound. However, you could also argue that the production was made this way to reflect a Viking-like atmosphere, which is understandably relevant thanks to the lyrical themes themselves.
“So 'Nordland II' doesn't sound like a very good album at all, does it?”. I expected some of you may be asking this having read the first half of this review, but don't worry, because what keeps this album from falling flat on its face is the absolutely brilliant songwriting and very significant song structures. As said before, each and every song flows with such beauty and power that it really is hard to forget the music itself. On 'Blooded Shores' and 'The Land' Quorthon uses choirs to represent such victorious yet harmonious sounds, that one could almost forget the muddy production and focus on the excellent songwriting itself. Of course, Quorthon is no stranger to thundering guitar work and equally as powerful drum work, as on the epic songs of 'Hammerheart' and 'Twilight of the Gods'. On the eye-opening epic 'The Land' and sprawling overture 'The Wheel of Sun', guitars weave their way through every minute like its their last, and not a note is out of place. The drums, whilst not particularly sophisticated, also contribute to the power and grandiosity contained within each solitary anthem on 'Nordland II'. This is no different to Bathory's past releases, but it certainly has been enhanced.
Another similarly advantageous highlight of 'Nordland II' is the lyrical content itself. You will be asking yourselves “Well of course the lyrical content's a highlight!” for sure, but what is special about the lyrical content here is that it contains a certain sense of being higher in power than anyone else. Here's a few examples:
This land is mine to the end of time
none it shall claim or conquer
the mountains high : the endless sky
the forests and the sea (The Land)
Shields I have crushed with my sword
women have I pleased endless nights
on foreign coast my brother did fall
he now dines in hall up high (Sea Wolf)
As you can see, Quorthon does not let up on the importance of being a Viking warrior at all. 'The Land' is but one important example of the significance of the 'Land' itself, this time being 'Nordland'. 'Sea Wolf' shows the importance of being a Viking warrior, and also the pleasures of 'pleasuring' women. It is yet another traditional aspect of the genre that Quorthon has managed to enhance to an almost unforgettable level, and yet fans of the band may still cast this off as “just another Bathory album”.
So is this Bathory's best album? Perhaps not. But whereas it could have been improved in a lot of areas, it could also have been much worse than it actually is. Some may say the rating given for this album is too high, but it is entirely justified on the album itself, and not merely the significance of his entire career as a musician. Perhaps right now, Quorthon has already released the other half of the 'Nordland' album series in Valhalla. If he has, this other half may well have been a distinct improvement on 'Nordland I' and 'Nordland II'. For those who prefer the Bathory of the early days, you may or may not like this album at all. For those who wish to hear the last pieces of music he made before Quorthon's untimely death, you may listen to 'Nordland II' with caution, but also pride. Pride that he didn't make a completely horrible album. Because on this evidence, Quorthon exited the world in a truly memorable way, and one that would not make others forget about him.
As previously noted, Bathory is a band that came to my attention posthumously, in spite of being an avid consumer of its contemporaries for more than 10 years prior. The road that led me there began with the last 2 testaments of their greatness, the “Nordland” series, an unfinished series of albums that while not in and of themselves stylistically influential, nonetheless represent the culmination of a still relatively young style that traces its roots back to this same band 15 years prior. It takes into account not only the first official releases that kicked it off in “Hammerheart” and “Twilight Of The Gods”, but also some elements of the transitional effort of “Blood Fire Death” that was still mostly lodged in the band earlier, extreme thrash days.
It is important to note that while these two albums are classified by the Viking metal genre, they are a bit different from many of the bands that go by this label today. Quorthon’s lead vocal approach, while gritty and rough, does not mirror the toneless barks and mutterings that were a staple of the 2nd wave of black metal that he also influenced, a style which is still readily employed by Ensiferum despite coming to a level of mainstream prominence. The background choirs that are also a staple of this style are heavily reverb laden and give the album a slight 80s flavor, as is the case with the drum and keyboard production. The only thing about this album that really fits with the 2000s paradigm is the guitar character, which has a cold combination of crunch and fuzz that is actually fairly similar to the latter day Immortal releases that fairly closely coincided with this.
In comparison to its predecessor, “Nordland II” could be likened to a mirror reflection with a slightly darker tint. The overall pacing and scheme of things is the same, but the folk and acoustic elements have been downplayed slightly in favor of a more bombastic, film score approach of a grand dragon boat off to the distant horizon. Such slow yet striking anthems of seafaring quests in “Blooded Shore” and “The Land” marry together the dense atmospheric layering of vocals and droning guitar and keyboard melodies with a steady groove to create a veritable tapestry of glorious imagery. “Death And Resurrection Of A Northern Star” brings in the faster, thrashing element with an agitated vengeance while still maintaining that Manowar-based pomp that characterized “Hammerheart”, and also shows Quorthon gritting up his voice a bit more.
The really pivotal goods that this album delivers, however, is actually saved until the latter half of the album in two riveting 10 minute plus epics. As is the case with most in this style, the longer these songs go (to a point of course), the better they tend to be, and “The Messenger” proves to be one of the better examples of how great ideas deserve repetition and a very gradual development. For anyone wonders where Ensiferum got longwinded classics like “Heathen Throne”, look no further than this towering example of droning melodies and pummeling grooves. But the absolute high point is “The Wheel Of Sun”, a spellbinding epic of changing seasons that begins from a modest clean guitar intro and grows into a colossal celebration of Norse landscapes. Through its entire 12 minute duration, this song perfectly recaptures the massive atmosphere accomplished on “Twilight Of The Gods” album, right down to the slightly blues/rock infused principle riff that channels “Blood And Iron” to a fault.
This is a fine end, albeit an unfortunately incomplete one, to the Bathory legacy, showcasing a man’s work coming full circle from where it left off at the close of the 80s, where metal music came into prominence and ushered in more than a decade of world changing music. If there were an elite group of artists whose portraits should appear next to the metal name in any encyclopedia or lexicon, Quorthon’s would share space alongside the likes of Ronnie James Dio and Tony Iommi. While much of his music tends to be polarizing because of the radically different influences that shaped it over the years, the “Nordland” albums stand as his most accessible works, and followers of metal of all stripes should definitely give these a spin.
Released about 5 months after Nordland I, Bathory would not leave us waiting long for what was originally intended to be the second of four total chapters in the Nordland saga. Unfortunately, as we all now know, that would not turn out to be the case. Quorthon's tragic passing in the following year (2004) would retroactively establish Nordland II as the grand finale of one of the most important and influential legacies in all of metal. No pressure, right? Well, perhaps its not remotely fair to judge the record on such grounds, and I won't, but there is no escaping the fact that it often feels like a bunch of leftovers from the previous effort, or rather that he front loaded the content to the series and intended the garner interest on momentum alone with diminishing returns.
Not that Nordland II is necessarily a negative experience. In fact, I feel that tracks such as "Sea Wolf" and "Blooded Shore" create quite a cloud of nostalgia for the Hammerheart album, and I admire the grit he exhibits in his vocal performance here and elsewhere on this sequel. Slow, pendulous heavy metal hammer riffs drowned in choirs, synthesized organs and steady drums that create a dramatic subtext to the sailing, drawn out voices in the late bridge of "Sea Wolf". Chunky momentum and crashing chords dialed straight back to the late 80s glories. I also feel that some of the longer tracks like the 10 minute "The Messenger" (with that incredible, simple melody) and the 12 minute "The Wheel of Sun" with its leaden grooves and gleaming spikes of zephyr-like guitars, are far better at balancing their content and shifting necessary gears of composition thank some of the whales from the previous album.
There are also no crappy thrash tracks like there were on Destroyer of Worlds. The closest the record comes is "Flash of the Silverhammer" a mid-paced chugger which reminds me of the older, primal doom/thrash crunch of their countrymen Memory Garden, making decent use of the vocals to carry what otherwise might be a dullard. Like Nordland I, there's an 8 minute tune which makes good use of a propulsive, brutal into ("Death and Resurrection of a Northern Son"), but I don't exactly love this song, and along with other middling fare like "The Land" or the desolate "Vinland" I just feel like it treads on previous ground. With Hammerheart, Blood Fire Death, Twilight of the Gods, Blood on Ice and Nordland I already out in circulation, I got the impression of rinsing and repeating here, which I'm sure might have stretched out its welcome if the ensuing chapters were to manifest without significant deviations.
In the end, as usual, evaluation comes down to the songs. Some of their older albums had them in spades, but Nordland II doesn't really have much to recommend it unless you're obsessed with its stylistic and spiritual forebears and demand more of the same. I'll grant that there are a few epic climaxes here, and an atmosphere which sparks up fond memories for the influential storms Quorthon rode in on, but it's not an album I would choose over others in the canon. Let's face it: the guy more or less created two massive, enduring substrata of the extreme metal realm, and both within a brief span of years. About 13 years after that period, nothing innovative or really interesting had manifest from Bathory. But he had nothing more to prove, and so he resigned himself to small tweaks on the existing formula. I like the simplicity of the lyrics here, their dependable imagery and adherence to the atmosphere or the songwriting.
But where Blood Fire Death summoned up an eternal wrath from my soul, called my imagination to war forever, this album is more or less a pleasant fjord surfing experience with a few gut wrenching moments of anger. A functional successor to Nordland I, and not a regrettable experience, but not a source for much fascination.
With a discography as extensive as Quorthon’s, it is easy for certain releases to overshadow others, especially when the quality of his material is as incredible as it is. Now, while it is undeniable that Blood Fire Death, Hammerheart and Twilight of the Gods are all absolute masterpieces, I feel that Nordland II, the final chapter of Quorthon’s legacy, deserves far more recognition than it receives because it is honestly just about flawless. Following much the same direction as part I of the Nordland saga, this hour long epic crowns one of metal’s most important and influential figure’s legendary career, featuring some of Bathory’s finest material ever written.
Like its predecessor, Nordland II is a thunderous return back to the epic viking metal sound of mid-era Bathory, but only better. The song-writing is simply masterful, displaying a true sense of wisdom and maturity through nine magnificent compositions, which is complimented by Quorthon’s genius lyrical musings, that transport you right into the middle of a bloody battle raging on across a barren, permafrost laden plain, all taking place underneath an ominous, swirling vortex of black and grey, with the occasional fork of lightning piercing through the clouds and illuminating the sky. The music itself is to a similar effect, with the combination of Quorthon’s riffing, lead and keyboard work all predominantly accompanied by a steady, mid-paced beat conjuring a mental image of charging into battle along side your fellow warriors, with shield in hand and sword at the ready. It is the way the riffs and melodies just feel like they are marching into battle themselves as well as possessing this warlike conviction, which makes this album so damn spectacular and just so majestic. Channeling Bathory’s more thrash orientated material, “Death and Resurrection of a Northern Son” however, shows that Quorthon has not completely ditched the furious pace of his early and mid-90’s records, opening up with a fast, pummelling barrage of double-bass and thick, gritty tremolo picking which continues on right throughout the verse. This ferocious assault though, is short-lived, as we are soon greeted with soaring leads and epic keyboard choirs which make for a climatic build-up into the second verse, which is slightly disappointing as the verses are pretty average both instrumentally and vocally compared to the rest of the song, and is actually the album’s weakest moment.
The following track “The Messenger” however, is absolutely flawless, and one of the stand-outs on the album. Once again, an elevating keyboard and guitar melody kick off the song, accompanied by the sound of the wind howling through the air, which soon explodes into a herd of storming power chords rolling across a field along side a troop of thundering horses galloping into the distance. At 10 minutes in length, this phenomenal track is one of the longest songs on the album, together with “The Wheel of Sun” which clocks in at just over 12 minutes. Plodding along at a much slower tempo, this epic album closer flows much smoother, with Quorthon churning out walls of slower, sustained chord progressions, as well as two conquering guitar solos full of soaring string slides, pulls and bends as well as blazing shredding runs, which also make appearances in “Blooded Shore,” “Sea Wolf” and “The Land,” and are all just loaded with a tonne of pure, emotional energy. Quorthon’s vocals are also just packed with loads of raw energy, utilizing a combination of aggressive, yet brilliantly executed singing, the occasional full-fledged scream and almost archaic sounding chanting, which are all usually accompanied by beautiful back-up choirs. Overall, Quorthon’s vocal performance from a technical standpoint is the best of his career despite a few shaky passages, with his voice sounding better than it ever has and just booming with confidence and maximum energy.
Driving the songs forward towards the horizon with a valiant force, the drums further compliment Quorthon’s mighty guitar and vocal performances, and while they are relatively simplistic consisting of fairly basic beats and patterns with minimal fills, they are still immensely powerful and work with the music exceptionally. Production wise, they’re not perfect, but I don’t feel this is to the album’s disadvantage in any way, and actually adds to its overall charm. The heavily distorted, fuzzy tone of the guitar and gritty bass tone initially didn’t sit to well with me though, but, after a few listens I had no problem with them, as every last instrumental nuance just blends together perfectly. From the epic keyboard droning opening the album in “Fanfare,” to the pan flute synth melody that kicks off “Sea Wolf” or the soft, atmospheric build up in “Death and Resurrection of a Northern Son,” as well Quorthon’s extraordinary vocals, everything just comes together as one charging, triumphant mass of pure brilliance and majesty.
While it doesn’t quite match up to the almost unparalleled magnificence of Blood Fire Death, Hammerheart or Twilight of the Gods, this phenomenal record is certainly still worthy of any metal fan’s attention, and is a grand testament to one of the most legendary musicians to ever grace this planet.