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Bathory's "Twilight of the Gods" is an absolute gem and a landmark in the historical development of black metal. It continues with the unique style of of epic Pagan metal first heard on "Hammerheart" and develops it to full fruition. Although common by now, back in 1991 no one else was playing music remotely like this. The path that groups like Burzum and Emperor would later take - rebelling against traditional song structures and creating adventurous sequences of complimentary musical passages led by guitar melodies instead of vocals, owes much of its inspiration to Bathory's 1988-1991 creative peak. Beginning with "Blood Fire Death" and culminating on "Twilight of the Gods", Bathory introduced the concept of epic grandeur into black metal music, altering its course forever.
This is considered by many as one of Bathory's "lightest" releases, a description that has always mystified me. To my ears this is one of the most sincerely heavy albums ever created - maybe not in terms of tempo, surface level aggression or musical flash - but definitely so in terms of the emotional weight of the music. Some would even argue that it isn't even black metal due to its reliance on slower tempos, acoustic guitars, and clean vocals. However, the common traits of all great black metal - mysticism, Romanticism, and adventurous song structures are all present.
"Twlight of the Gods" begins with an incredible title track, possibly Bathory's finest hour as well as one of the greatest songs in the entire black metal genre. The first half is focused around a "Hammerheart"-paced slow, heavy groove accompanied by backing choral voices. The song gradually builds in intensity like a slowly spreading fire until around the nine minute mark, when it abruptly fades out into an acoustic interlude, gradually building again into one of Quorthon's trademark guitar solos - slow, tasteful, and passionate if not overly technical. The last third of the song is mostly acoustic, the sound of the world gradually coming back to life after the flaming destruction of an apocalyptic conflict, or perhaps just an epitaph.
Although none of the other songs on the album are as good as the opener, it's far from being a one hit wonder. Most of the following songs are around the 6-7 minute mark, driven by the same sort of slow and heavy riffs that characterized "Hammerheart", although this time around, there are gentle acoustic guitar melodies played simultaneously over the heavy riffs. This gives a great dichotomy and distinct identity to the music, and helps tie the longer songs together. Many bands, from Satyricon to Agalloch are doing this now, but it all began here. Some of the best of these can be heard in "Blood And Iron" and "To Enter Your Mountain".
Drumming is straightforward but effective - simple rock grooves that follow the music and do not embellish. It doesn't feel like a drum machine, but it doesn't feel 100% natural either. It's most likely a heavily triggered kit, or some V-drums being played. As a drummer, I would have preferred to hear a more organic drum sound to fit the music, but I'm sure Quorthon did the best he could with the means available.
We also see Quorthon's strongest clean vocal performance, much improved from "Hammerheart". He'll never be known as a great singer, but the unseemly nasal rasp of his performance on "Hammerheart" has been cleaned up and he sounds more confident and mature this time around. Not only the singing, but the lyrics being sung are better than anything before - Quorthon obviously put a lot of time and thought into the lyrics, writing not just the usual fantasy material but a relevant warning of what happens when the world abandons the old ways. It's honestly quite rare to see lyrics of this quality in metal, especially from someone writing in what is not their native language.
Overall, this is an incredibly reflective, passionate and mature album. Many listeners, having heard nothing but juvenile nonsense performed under the banner of Pagan metal, may find the more highbrow and adult nature of "Twilight of the Gods" boring at first, but with age and maturity they will no doubt come into a greater appreciation of its subtle beauty.
It should also be warned that this is an album that you really have to be in the mood to enjoy. Sit down and give your entire attention to it when listening. It's not the kind of thing you want to spin in the background or put a few songs on a playlist; it's so ponderous that it really demands ones' full attention to be appreciated. Although it's one of my favorite black metal albums of all time, second only to "Hvis Lyset Tar Oss", there are some times when I put it on, get a couple minutes in, and just say "no, not now" and throw on something else. But when one is in the proper receptive mood for it, there is almost nothing better.