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Where legends meet the frostbitten sky (part 2) - 95%

hells_unicorn, January 29th, 2012

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.