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Friday, July 26, 2013

Bathory: Hammerheart

BATHORY: HAMMERHEART (1990)

1) Shores In Flames; 2) Valhalla; 3) Baptised In Fire And Ice; 4) Father To Son; 5) Song To Hall Up High; 6) Home Of Once Brave; 7) One Rode To Asa Bay; 8) Outro.

Bathory's one true masterpiece. Yes, it may be a bit hard for those who are not innate fans of the formulaic «epic fantasy» genre to acknowledge this — that a pompous, thoroughly un-ironic, crudely recorded metal album about the forceful conversion of one's Viking ancestors to Chris­tianity could ever deserve being called a masterpiece. It has not been easy for me, either. But I did get over it, eventually, and now am confidently re-stating this: Bathory's Hammerheart is a masterpiece, and probably the one «Viking Metal» album to get if you only plan to get one. Un­less you have vikingophobia or something.

So what is the key to Quorthon's secret here? The key is quite simple — in fact, simple is the key. Where the general trend among power metal and progressive metal bands was to make the music more complex, by adding more and more notes to the riffs, more and more sections to the songs, more and more influences to the styles, etc., Quorthon, having temporarily jettisoned the «evil speed metal» warhorse, has retained the overall idea of keeping his melodic base as simple and repetitive as possible. Had the guy been utterly talentless, this would probably have been the end of him. But as it is, the slowing down reveals his genuine knack for «basic» heavy melodies with a strong emotional undercurrent. Be it the old pagan gods that inspired him for this one, or some other unknown factor, these here riffs work, and work admirably.

Naturally, the album is not «authentic». No matter how bloodthirsty / pure at heart / worthy of adoration / awesome in every way Quorthon's Northern ancestors might have been, they did not entertain each other with heavy distorted riffs and heavy artillery-style drumming. Nor was the process of converting to Christianity always as dramatic and tragic as Quorthon paints it to be in ʽOne Rode To Asa Bayʼ (even if violence was indeed involved in many a particular occasion). But, like most Viking metal, going all the way back to Led Zeppelin's ʽNo Quarterʼ, this is not a case of «history in music» — this is musical mythology, standing with one toe in facts and the rest in inflamed imagination, and the value of Hammerheart is not in educating the listener, but in spreading the inflammation.

ʽShores In Flamesʼ and ʽOne Rode To Asa Bayʼ are the two major epic pieces that open and close the album — the former presenting the «Viking» world at its apogee (a tale of raiding and rava­ging, of course) and the latter at its nadir, with Christianity taking its revenge and burying the old pagan pride and warpower six feet under. ʽShores In Flamesʼ has all the required scenery: sound effects (steady rowing at the beginning, burning embers at the end); eerie build-up (acoustic intro with faraway vocals, gradually unfurling into fire and fury); anthemic sing-along battle march de­livered in tandem with the riff, early Black Sabbath-style; and some of the most bloodthirsty, banshee-wailing soloing ever delivered by mortal man. Special honorable mention goes to the percussion onslaught of «Vvornth» — nothing particularly complex, but the guy was clearly pic­turing himself in the guise of a mighty fur-clad warrior, with each beat falling like a heavy blow from a mighty warhammer. Evocative!

My personal favorite number, however, is ʽBaptised In Fire And Iceʼ — this one wastes no time with no sissy intros, but plunges headfirst into one of the most beastly-brutal riffs in Bathory his­tory... wait, there are at least three different riffs here: the verses are driven by a simplistic, one-chord pattern that might as well have a punkish origin, then the bridge is turned over to one of those «deep sea metal» riffs invented by Toni Iommi, and then the "baptised in fire and ice!" cho­rus is accompanied by something in between the two extremes (and sounding fairly grungy, or alt-rockish, whichever you prefer). Against this background, Quorthon's «singing», now mostly free of growling and throaty screeching, is perfectly credible — the guy may have no range or subtlety, but neither would we expect it of an idealized duty-bound Nordic warrior, whose spirit this guy is channelling so successfully. In fact, it is a good thing that Quorthon does not have a very powerful voice: it adds a bit of realism to the proceedings — otherwise, the whole thing would have taken on a cartoonish, Manowar-style aura, and that would be the end of Hammer­heart as we know it.

Because, indeed, the most amazing thing about the album is that it does not feel «cheesy», not to me, at least. Its subject matter is anything but new, and rather banal in theory; its English lyrics, though surprisingly literate and well-articulated for a Norwegian guy with a fantasy fetish, are still nothing to write home about; its instrumentation is minimalistic, and its music repetitive (ʽOne Rode To Asa Bayʼ is like an endless droning saga, going on and on and on until you are finally forced to believe in its utmost importance through sheer length alone). But, having lost the crazy speed and the aggressive Satanism of his early years, Quorthon still preserves the essence of Bathory — an uncanny ability to substitute the boring «institutional» pathos of power metal for a snappy, snarling, attacking style of delivery, so that even at his most pompous, he is still directly kicking the listener's ass instead of roaring away pointlessly somewhere high up in the sky. The balance between mediocre production, sparse, but loud arrangements, good riffs, and genuine inspiration is pretty much unique here — so much so that, despite the superficial simpli­city of the formula, even Quorthon himself was never again able to capture it quite so well.

It goes without saying that for some of Bathory's veteran fans the stylistic change was a bit too much — those who were won over by the original trilogy could not pardon Quorthon for relea­sing a record so completely devoid of crazyass Satanic thrashing. And for others, Blood Fire Death, with its compromise mix of the old and the new, remains the definitive Bathory album for ages to come. But personally, I hold the opinion that it is only on Hammerheart that the guy achieved his purpose on Earth, and came as close to fully realising his true potential as possible, even if, technically, the album is less diverse than its predecessor — then again, was there ever a time in music history when a heavy metal band could be seriously criticized for lack of diversity? Thumbs up, Viking brothers and sisters. But don't you go burning any Christian churches — for the record, please note that Hammerheart provokes anything of that sort no more than ʽThe Night They Drove Old Dixie Downʼ provokes anti-Yankee partisan action.


Check "Hammerheart" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Hammerheart" (MP3) on Amazon

3 comments:

  1. Oh yes, this is far superior to the goofery coming from Manowar. I don't know if I would call it a masterpiece, but I think it totally enjoyable. It is easy for me too - killer riffs, no grunting and some good solo's always quickly make me happy. My only gripe is the monotonous back beat drumming. And I would have liked me a fast song too - after all The Immigrant Song was the first Viking Metal.
    Btw - if it is intentional I wouldn't know, but Baptised dóés have an ironic element with those pseudo macho backing vocals.

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  2. The idea of "Viking metal" as a concept has intrigued me since hearing "Immigrant Song", but I'd never taken the time to check it out -- after the '80s I've only gotten into a select few metal groups. On a whim, I decided to check this one out -- lo and behold, it was pretty good. I still am not a fan of Quorthon's vocals, but then again I've gotten used to Mikael Akerfeldt's death growl after some time. Very good riffs and solos, and the man knows how to recreate the cold, brutal atmosphere of a Norse conquest. Like MNb said, I would have liked a couple of faster songs thrown in to break up the grind, but that's a minor gripe. Overall a pretty solid album, and now I'm interested in tuning in to some more of the band's material.

    P.S. Kudos George on reviewing more relatively-modern heavy metal groups -- I'd be interested in seeing your opinions on Opeth or Mastodon, perhaps (or, God help you, Mayhem).

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  3. A great review of one of Bathory's best albums (although I do personally prefer Blood Fire Death for it's unrelenting "evil speed"). Given that you are reviewing black metal artists like Bathory and Agalloch, do you plan on reviewing the other major black metal bands or solo artists, most notably Burzum, Darkthrone, and Enslaved? I think you would find Enslaved and it's later progressive-flavored albums especially interesting.

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