BATHORY: UNDER THE SIGN OF THE BLACK MARK (1987)
1) Nocturnal Obeisance; 2) Massacre; 3) Woman Of Dark Desires; 4) Call From The Grave; 5) Equimanthorn; 6) Enter The Eternal Fire; 7) Chariots Of Fire; 8) 13 Candles; 9) Of Doom; 10) Outro.
As «good» as their second album was, it is Under The Sign Of The Black Mark that is usually extolled by fans as the absolutely quintessential and mind-blowing Bathory release from Quorthon's hyper-aggressive youth. Frankly, I do not see much difference except for, once again, slightly improved production (or maybe I am just getting used to it), and... well, let's call it the «gradual getting into character» aspect: third time around, Quorthon feels so confident about impersonating Countess Bathory's loyal henchman that he finds the time for additional flourishes, occasional experiments with tempos, more varied lyrics, and, overall, lets us know that even the Prince of Darkness himself sometimes gets bored with the rigidity of the formula.
Light-speed thrashers do serve as both the lead-in (ʽMassacreʼ) and lead-out (ʽOf Doomʼ, specially addressed to the band's growing fanbase and proclaiming how the fans are really one with the band — no free Christian blood offered, though) tracks; musically, they are all but undistinguishable from ʽChariots Of Fireʼ and ʽEquimanthornʼ — the latter does start out quite promisingly, with a poisonously cool fuzz bassline, but it almost immediately disappears under the usual onslaught of thrash metal guitar. However, ʽWoman Of Dark Desiresʼ (an anthem to Elizabeth Bathory in person) is different, mainly because of the insane jackhammer drumming pattern — they make it sound a little Mötörhead-ish by saving on the beats, and somehow come out with an absolute black metal classic (if you disregard Quorthon's attitude towards «singing»).
But about half of the songs do not pay that much importance to the tempo — the album's central point, ʽEnter The Eternal Fireʼ, is played at least twice as slow as usual, and ʽCall From The Graveʼ also prefers to be ominous and threatening in its gradual onslaught rather than all-out psychopathic. Supposedly, these tunes now have more of a historical than any other kind of importance — back in 1987, few people were willing to go that far in their theatrical recreations of evil and destruction, and certainly, compared to the hair metal vaudeville of the time, these tunes, with their shitty production that only emphasized the bloody guitar distortion, and with Quorthon's defiantly anti-musical wild beast roaring on top, could send a genuine shiver or two down yer spine. These days, it is much harder to understand just what all the fuss was about, considering how many people have done the same thing since then with improved production, musicianship, lyrics, and vocals. But, as is the usual thing with all such pioneering efforts, the trick is in using your sixth sense to locate the «bravery angle» in this stuff — the excitement of daring to be among the first to go all the way that is somewhere in there.
That said, my opinion on the album is that it represents a bit of a stagnation point: subsequent history shows that Quorthon, unlike many of his colleagues, did worry about being stuck in the jaws of one rigid formula, and it is not by sheer coincidence that his stylistics started to change most seriously, beginning from the next album — he must have sensed, too, that Under The Sign Of The Black Mark did not manage to say much that had not already been said on the self-titled debut. As such, it may be the best-sounding record in the early trilogy (although the use of the word «best» should not offer any false hopes), but it does not even have the best riffs. Well, it may have the best attitude. But that is only if your spirit is properly prepared to tremble before the hellfire bolts of the mighty Quorthon. If — like me — you think black metal at its best is ridiculous, corny, B-movie-level fun, then attitude alone is not going to carry you through the experience, safe, sound, and happy: there's got to be some plotline substance to be interested in, and the sheer music throughout Black Mark does not quite cut it.
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