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Amongst the influential offerings of black metal’s obscure and somewhat contested 2nd wave, where the lines between extreme thrash and proto-black metal are about as hazy as can be, there is a single album that arguably sums up the style that has since been stylized and varied from most of the lands touched by the 4 winds. Sure, Venom’s first and second offerings may have laid the lyrical groundwork for most of the scene, and Hellhammer/Celtic Frost brought a good deal into the musical and vocal equation, but the full fledged, signature atmosphere and character of black metal was fully ushered in by Quorthon and company with the release of their 3rd full length work of dark wizardry, “Under The Sign Of The Black Mark”.
While the debut was still largely an exercise in early speed/thrash with a strong helping of aggressive punk rock with a low-fi production, and “The Return…” was defined by a thin drum sound and an overtly muddy guitar sound that was closer to an early death/thrash sound than a blackened one, this album has all of the principle characteristics that have since been standardized by early 90s Mayhem, Gorgoroth and Immortal. The crunchy, fuzz driven guitar sound meshed with a crisp yet distant accompanying instruments creates an atmosphere well in line with the grim and frostbitten meets witches in the forest character of “Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism”, and the garbled goblin character of Quorthon’s vocal assault has since been imitated almost to a fault by Pest and Abbath.
But the real defining point of this album that sets it apart from Bathory’s previous albums is a heightened sense of theatrics and atmospheric density. Naturally this is not something comparable to the wildly deep ponderings of early Emperor, but the beginnings of that same esoteric blend of rich keyboard sounds and blurring guitar lines rears its head on a couple of songs. The more auspicious example is “Woman Of Dark Desires”, which consists of a battering ram of dark power chords and bombastic drum sounds, but makes a little time for a gloomy church organ section that drones in a similar fashion to a handful of songs on “In The Nightside Eclipse”.
The other song that shows some leanings towards a consonant yet still pitch black sound also happens to be Bathory’s first flirtation with a more epic sound in “Enter The Eternal Fire”, featuring a droning church bell sound and some synthesized voicing to accompany a more mid-tempo offering. The riff work and implicit melodic content definitely points towards the further developments towards the proto-Viking sound of “Blood, Fire, Death”, but the atmosphere is still perfectly within the same model as what would become Gorgoroth’s early sound. Perhaps the best analogy to more recent bands dealing with the hybrid of Viking and black metal themes would be the first couple of Suidakra albums, though naturally Quorthon’s fuzz driven guitar sound is much more comparable to the 90s Norwegian sound.
Nevertheless, this is an album that is only moderately layered with ambient elements and is still mostly a good old fashioned act in unfettered aggression. Shorter bursts of blazing speed such as “Massacre” and “Chariots Of Fire” definitely capture the violent character of primitive barbarians painting valley’s with each other’s blood or attributing mythical explanations to their violent world. The riffs blur, the drums cook, the solos are shredded and choppy, and the total delivery is as cold and destructive as a punishing arctic storm. But the true shining moment of pure extreme thrashing belligerence is “Of Doom”, which is riff happy and fast enough to put both Slayer and Sodom on notice.
A lot has been said about this album, and the majority opinion is one of lavish praise, and frankly there are few albums out there that are equally worthy of it. Considering the lack of advanced studio toys that were readily available to other, less threatening version of metal, this is an accomplishment that is even more significant that the genre defining efforts of earlier figures. It’s an album that was equally as ahead of its time as “Deathcrush”, though far superior in quality and more indicative of the dark, occult oriented sound that Mayhem themselves would adopt during the formative years of the early 90s. In other words, this is an album where innovation lays not merely in shock value, but in how well said shocking themes are perfectly packaged into a timeless piece of work that functions equally as art and entertainment. Essential to any and all who can stomach music on the side of the metal spectrum where melodies are not carried in the vocal lines.