In terms of both creative achievement and scope of influence, Bathory is rivaled by only the most revered names in metal. Despite spending its entire career in relative (and to an extent self-imposed) obscurity, Bathory’s work has shaped the sound of metal to a degree exceeded only by mainstream metal luminaries such as Slayer, Iron Maiden and Metallica.
Bathory formed as a trio, led by singer / guitarist / creative mastermind Quorthon, in Stockholm, Sweden in 1983. Much like contemporary acts such as Sodom and Hellhammer, Bathory’s early work was rooted in the proto-thrash blasphemy pioneered by Venom a few years prior. And though it was Venom that coined the term, with the releases The Return… and Under the Sign of the Black Mark, Bathory, more than any other band, created the blueprint for what we now recognize as black metal.
With its 1988 album, the primarily thrash-based Blood Fire Death, Bathory had all but abandoned the Satanic trappings of black metal, but amidst the high-velocity mayhem were scattered hints of a more epic sound. That sound emerged fully realized on 1990’s landmark album Hammerheart, with which Bathory singlehandedly birthed the Viking metal genre.
Bathory took the Viking sound in a more introspective direction with 1991’s Twilight of The Gods and then went dormant for a time. Re-emerging again in the mid-nineties, Quorthon would dabble again in thrash with albums like Requiem and Octagon, and then revisit the epic Viking sound with Blood on Ice and the two-part Nordland saga.
Sadly, Quorthon passed away at the age of 39 in 2004. He either sits at Satan’s left hand or quaffs mead in Valhalla, but through his recorded work–and through the work of the countless bands he has influenced (Darkthrone, Enslaved, Emperor, Immortal and Behemoth to name but a few)–his spirit is still with us.
In light of this rich musical legacy, we at Last Rites find Bathory more than worthy of the Devil’s Dozen treatment. Without further ado, we present to you thirteen of Bathory’s best songs.
Even nearly 30 years later, you can still feel the energy that started a movement radiating from “Hades.” Bathory took the darkness of earlier metal bands and turned up the dials: faster than Venom, more earnest than Slayer, rawer than anything. “Hades” was practically the first time anyone heard Quorthon’s croaking vocals or fluttering fingers. The spiralling legato licks throughout the song make “Hades” completely frenetic, yet the lyrics beg you to shout along. The production buzzes and hisses in a lo-fi mess that conveys emotion more clearly than today’s surgically clean albums. Black metal starts here, period. [Keith Ross]
BAPTISED IN FIRE AND ICE[Hammerheart, 1990]
The strength of Hammerheart’s sole rager “Baptised in Fire and Ice” is twofold: the song’s heroic yet punishing repetition, and Quorthon’s ragged and increasingly desperate vocal delivery throughout the song’s verses. Everything else – the serpentine groove riff after the first verse, the wailing solo around five minutes in, the hard-fought digging in of those galloping drums in the chorus – is strictly a bonus. The remainder of the album solidified the Viking metal style that had blossomed so brilliantly on Blood Fire Death, but “Baptized in Fire and Ice” lays it all out on the line for H.E.A.V.Y. M.E.T.A.L. [Dan Obstkrieg]
SACRIFICE[Scandanavian Metal Attack, 1984]
Take all that early darkened thrash such as Sodom, Destruction and Venom, combine it into a magic potion, inject it into the brain of a disturbed-yet-brilliantly-creative Scandinavian teenage mind, and what does it spawn? It spawns “Sacrifice,” the first song to be recorded by the first black metal band. “Sacrifice” is the song you think of when staring into the goat eyes of the infamous self-titled album. “Sacrifice” is the song so many other bands are obsessed with covering. “Sacrifice” is the fucking beginning of it all. If there is not “Sacrifice,” there is nothing. “Sacrifice” was always here, and will always be. Without it, we are creatures of naught. This, my friends, is thee fucking song. [Konrad Kantor]
BLOOD FIRE DEATH[Blood Fire Death, 1988]
If there ever were songs that set the parameters for an entire genre, “Blood Fire Death” would be one of them. Indeed, Primordial, post-Carpathian Wolves Graveland, Moonsorrow and the whole fucking lot owe their existence to this epic composition that would form the template of blackened pagan metal with its glorious open chords, weeping leads, triumphant war drums and layered keyboards that spread like thick mist over a Nordic panorama on a nightless midsummer night. “Blood Fire Death” was also one of the first songs which made full use of the power of arrangement and dynamics in extreme metal, solidifying them as devices that would eventually be exploited throughout the genre map. Most importantly, “Blood Fire Death” hasn’t lost any of its hair-raising impact as the title song and closing number of a record that stands almost peerless even after 25 years of its release. Hell döden! Hell Bathory! [Juho Mikkonen]
ENTER THE ETERNAL FIRE[Under the Sign of the Black Mark, 1987]
Although the lyrical themes weren’t in place yet, “Enter the Eternal Fire” is basically Viking metal before there was Viking metal. Quorthon’s galloping introductory riff is equal parts triumph and melancholy, and the song proves yet again that solitary bells tolling equals seriously heavy business. No other song on Under the Sign of the Black Mark better exemplifies the dank, echoing cavern of the cover art, where beast-headed men shepherd souls to Earth’s molten core. The song’s outro sees subtle keyboards introduce a brief, simple solo, and then an unexpectedly rabid double-tracked vocal flips the main riff into a heavier-than-lead descending line. The fire beckons, unquenchable. [Danhammer Obstkrieg]
BLOOD AND IRON[Twilight of the Gods, 1991]
The finale of the “suite” that begins Bathory’s majestic Twilight of the Gods, “Blood and Iron” is also one of the only songs in Quorthon’s career that might be described as being… hooky. Anchored by an acoustic melody that appears throughout, the song shifts between pummeling Viking metal and a dynamic expansion of the main theme, maintaining and even increasing in intensity while working towards a very satisfying finale. Melodic, layered, and deftly composed, it was a testament to exactly how far Quorthon had evolved as a songwriter. It may also have caused a few double takes at how Quorthon could suddenly sing. [Zach Duvall]
SHORES IN FLAMES[Hammerheart, 1990]
Opening with the sound of lapping waves, mellow arpeggios and hypnotic vocal harmonies, “Shores in Flames” initially evokes a sense peaceful contemplation. This being metal, however, one should not expect such peace to last. Even though you know it is coming, it is always exhilarating when – WHAM! – the track’s bombastic main riff strikes like the hammer of Thor. In the history of metal few riffs have hit harder or echoed longer. Much as the thunderous chords of “Black Sabbath” heralded a new genre, so too does the relentless pounding of “Shores in Flames.” Viking metal has arrived. “FIRE!” [Jeremy Morse]
FOR ALL THOSE WHO DIED[Blood Fire Death, 1988]
Transition is not always a euphemism for identity crisis. While Blood Fire Death was already for the most part a full-fledged Viking metal opus that would inspire bands after bands until the end of metal, the album still contained songs and parts of songs that seemed to be caught in the between of Quorthon’s two genre-defining creative eras. Surprisingly, it was one of these very compositions that became one of the most eulogized Bathory anthems. And it’s no fucking wonder, because “For All Those Who Died” must be the best Viking-themed blackened speed metal song ever written, showing the architect of black metal’s design at his prime while exploring motifs outside the parochial confines that would later shackle a whole genre. The song itself follows an almost Motörhead-like lack of decorative detail with its simple chord progressions and non-shifting tempos, culminating in some of the most reckless lead guitars ever slapped onto Quorthon’s riffs and making at least some of us wish that this would’ve become the blueprint for the state-of-the-art Viking metal. [Juho Mikkonen]
TWILIGHT OF THE GODS[Twilight of the Gods, 1991]
Although many of us favor the rougher, less-polished era of Bathory’s worship of Nordic lore, Twilight of the Gods is truly a display of Quorthon in his finest hour. It’s downright bewildering to see how the mind that constructed the first and also one of the all-time darkest black metal albums of all time was somehow able to craft something that is beaming with glorious rays of light just three years later. The first, and title-track of this album picks up right where “One Rode to Asa Bay” left off. But where the latter of the two tracks is merely a powerful tribute to a long-forgotten era, the former is the actual sound of those from that era rising to proclaim the plain and simple truth: They are, and will always be alive in us! All we have to do is listen… [Konrad Kantor]
FATHER TO SON[Hammerheart, 1990]
Part of what I love so much about “Father to Son” is trying to figure why the hell Quorthon felt it necessary to set the scene with a live-action intro of what it might’ve sounded like to be a fly on the wall over at Joe Hammerheart’s House o’ Anvil Strikes during the moments just before his son was born screaming into the world. SOMEONE PLEASE SHUT THAT GODDAMNED DOG UP.
The other thing I love about this tune is the fact that it’s the nastiest ripper offered on Hammerheart. Not as outright heavy as “Baptised in Fire and Ice,” perhaps, but it has an undeniably hefty swagger that’s surprisingly sassy/bordering-on-snotty once it fully kicks into gear around 1:30. Very satisfying for a guy who counts “Burning Leather” as his all-time favorite Bathory tune. [Michael Wuensch]
EQUIMANTHORN[ Under the Sign of the Black Mark, 1987]
From the opening synth to the chromatic intro riff to the full-speed blasts to the improvised solo, Bathory means business. But it’s in the lyrics that “Equimanthorn” stands out. While other black metal bands were contenting themselves with simple blasphemies and sexual bravado, Quorthon penned a complex prayer to an unknown ancient god and then spat, snarled, and screamed it out. The fact that the howled refrain of “Equimanthorn!” just begs you to scream along is the cherry on the sundae. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know who Equimanthorn is; if this is the kind of music that summons him, he must be a badass. [Keith Ross]
A FINE DAY TO DIE[Blood Fire Death, 1988]
With its acoustic intro, epic length and loping beat, “A Fine Day to Die” is in many ways a precursor to the Viking metal sound of Hammerheart. But between the face-smashing brutality of the first electric riff, the merciless pummeling of the main riff and Quorthon’s caustic, roaring vocals, it is clear that Bathory is not quite ready to relinquish its black/thrash savagery. While this track finds Bathory in transition, it is by no means awkward. “A Fine Day to Die” is eight-and-a-half minutes of blood-spattered glory that gives us, in essence, the best of both worlds. [Jeremy Morse]
ONE RODE TO ASA BAY[Hammerheart, 1990]
From the mouth harp and horse gallops in the introduction through to every last sorrowful note, “One Rode to Asa Bay” is nothing short of a journey into a long forgotten world. Based on the original Christianization of Scandinavia, the song’s deliberate, marching drive matches the fortitude and dedication of those who would choose to uphold the ancient ways. Through the main verses, the ripping guitar solo, and every section beyond, the song pounds like drums of war, halting only briefly when Quorthon states that the struggles of his forbearers had only just begun. An achievement for Quorthon both musically and lyrically, it would go on to become one of Bathory’s most beloved and respected songs. [Zach Duvall]