BATHORY: BLOOD FIRE DEATH (1988)
1) Odens Ride Over Nordland; 2) A Fine Day To Die; 3) The Golden Walls Of Heaven; 4) Pace 'Til Death; 5) Holocaust; 6) For All Those Who Died; 7) Dies Irae; 8) Blood Fire Death.
According to false rumors, the original title was to be Wine, Women, And Loud Happy Songs, but this was ultimately deemed way too scary for Bathory's target audience, so they settled on the far more cozy and conventional Blood Fire Death instead. After all, it was just another quiet, uneventful, peaceful, friendly, sunny day in the Bathory neighborhood when Quorthon and his trusty companions with easily pronounceable names, Vvornth on drums and Kothaar on bass, set out to record what some would later call «the first true example of Viking metal».
Actually, this is a prime example of a «transition» album: predating the full turnaround of Hammerheart, Bathory's fourth record introduces multiple new elements — epic intros, slower tempos, acoustic guitars, occasionally «clean» vocals — but still largely rests upon the same old vicious, «sincerely evil» thrashing style. The ideological change from «Black Metal» to «Viking Metal» does begin here, though. Maturation takes on specific forms in specific people, and for Quorthon, it meant moving away from Satanic posturing (which, no matter how sincerely he tried to get into it, still retained the status of posturing... fortunately for him and for us all) and, predictably enough, embracing his mythical Scandinavian heritage.
So, instead of yet another concept album about the next coming of the Antichrist, we are now invited to look back into the past rather than the future, with a concept album about... on second thought, the most «Viking» thing about the album is the title of the opening ambient instrumental: ʽOden's Ride Over Nordlandʼ (I do presume Quorthon, whose spelling skills are not clear enough to me, means Odin, and not a Japanese winter dish consisting of several ingredients such as boiled eggs, daikon radish, konnyaku, and processed fish cakes stewed in a light, soy-flavoured dashi broth) is little more than some medieval choral harmonies mixed with very distant thunder and not so very distant vigorous horse neighing. But it does set up a better atmosphere than any other previous Bathory intro.
Then, ʽA Fine Day To Dieʼ starts out with a dark acoustic pattern — already an acknowledged instrument for «artsy» metal bands, but feeling almost like a sellout signal for Quorthon, who had never before stooped to anything softer than a viciously distorted, blacker-'n'-night guitar tone. But unlike many other metal epics, this one makes a genuine point with its acoustic intro: setting a deceptive "orgy of silence, conspiracy of peace" tone for the coming onslaught. The acoustic guitars and church harmonies will be returning later, but the bulk of the song is given over to carefully thought out and terrifiedly played «martial» black metal riffs (with a strong Metallica influence, I suspect, but it is not likely that Quorthon's proud Scandinavian nature would ever let him admit being influenced by a bunch of Californian sissies).
Barring the intro, the record is bookmarked by two epic length songs: ʽA Fine Day To Dieʼ has enough potential for eight and a half minutes, while the title track, which essentially picks up where the other one left off, clocks in at 10:29. Actually, it is not quite true that they have enough potential: each one is dominated by one riff only, and there is not enough dynamic rising and falling, particularly with Bathory's limited instrumentarium, to rise above the «mesmerism for headbangers» level. But it is also true that each of the riffs is great to headbang to, and Quorthon is also improving as a lead player — his solos are now becoming highly melodic without having to depend on any Van Halenesque displays of technicality.
On the other hand, Blood Fire Death is not at all free from «old-school» speedy thrash blasts: ʽGolden Walls Of Heavenʼ and pretty much everything else in between the two epics are taken at same old breakneck tempos (although some of the songs, like ʽDies Iraeʼ, consist of alternating fast and slow sections), and, considering how much the production has improved here — in fact, Blood Fire Death marks Bathory's assured transition from lo-fi to hi-fi — these songs are probably your best bet if you want to hear classic Bathory speed/thrash metal in decent sound quality. Whether these tracks are good examples of thrash songwriting is another matter — as far as my ears are concerned, they are all interchangeable, with the exception of the slightly slower and even dumber-sounding ʽFor All Those Who Diedʼ (this track also has the unfortunate distinction of trying to make a «hook» of Quorthon's accappella laryngeal screaming in the chorus — not a good idea if one is aiming at a genuinely shivery atmosphere).
Moreover, even the lyrics for those «thrashers», many of which are written in the old «Satanist» manner, show that the crossover might actually have begun not prior to, but during the sessions for the album — with the two «battlefield epics», presaging the sonic scapes of Hammerheart, framing the traditionally-oriented material simply because Quorthon was just testing the waters, and still had a bunch of old unused stuff lying around. As it is, Blood Fire Death is either a good choice for a Bathory beginner — getting to know Quorthon as «Satan's sidekick» and «Epic warrior» at the same time — or an obligatory choice for a Bathory completist, but for those people (like myself), who can really only appreciate a band like Bathory when it is at its very, very best and «quintessential», Blood Fire Death may seem like a historically important, but artistically clumsy compromise. So, no thumbs up here, but a significant promise that will be honestly capitalized upon in the next installment.
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