[Artwork by Jan Kristian Wåhlin / Necrolord]
Let’s kick things off by chewing on the following statement:
« Blood On Ice is Bathory’s best album »
How do you enjoy them apples, Hyborians? Whoa! Put down the pitchforks and torches, you goddamned animals! We’re all friends here.
Okay, it smacks a bit of clickbait at the worst, and at best, it’s a brazen proclamation that tastes of sacrilege and perhaps a bit of lunacy when you consider the impact of the self-titled debut, the raw impeccability of Under the Sign of the Black Mark, and the delicious script flippability of Blood Fire Death and / or certainly Hammerheart. But beyond the fact that Blood On Ice delivers heroic triumph after heroic triumph through to its very end (apart from an awkward but strangely charming intro), the record also has an unmistakable “lost and once forgotten golden idol” factor that adds to the overall charisma and brings a semblance of validity to the argument.
For Thomas “Quorthon” Forsberg, the passion for creating wild music amidst heavy metal’s golden era undoubtedly demonstrated an irrefutable love betwixt the two, and any fan obsessed with Bathory’s trajectory over the years is likely already aware of the myriad obstructions knotting the path from day one—everything from printing issues (gold morphing to bright yellow, and the kase of the disappearing lowerkase ‘c’) to the more irksome truth that Heavenshore Studio in Stockholm—responsible for most of the band’s classic releases, including Blood On Ice—was little more than an actual garage and working repair shop. The recording equipment was mostly from the late 60s / early 70s, and scattered amidst the primitive setup were “more or less usable parts of old Porsche cars” that included hubcaps and fenders piled atop the garage’s loose asphalt floor. The walls of the makeshift studio weren’t even soundproof, so Quorthon constantly worried about the noise of the neighbor’s lawnmower slinking into tapes meant to impart black metal eeeeevil or Viking aesthetics. And to make matters even more complicated, if work was to go into the evening, lamps had to be brought in to make up for the fact that Heavenshore didn’t feature working lights. So, yes, obstacles aplenty in them-there early days that strengthened an unshakable passion that eventually yielded irreplaceable keepsakes far in the future—similar to that darling old couple interviewed on the couch.
Still a bit scorched over that opening statement? It’s reasonable to recognize that “best” doesn’t necessarily coincide with “most influential” or “most important.” But, yes, maybe dialing it back a notch is a wise move.
« Blood On Ice makes an interesting case for being Bathory’s best album »
Hey, just in case you weren’t already aware of the following nugget: despite being released in 1996, Blood On Ice predates 1990’s Hammerheart. The original recording occurred in three sessions that spanned February and October of 1988, and June 1989. However, Quorthon shelved the project for two principal reasons. First: Notwithstanding the fact that CDs were already swooping in as the preferred medium as early as 1986/87, most underground metal bands active in the late 80s still relied largely on vinyl as a primary avenue to buyers. Quorthon’s vision for Blood On Ice was epic—too epic to be held to a single LP, and unless you were Pink Floyd, KISS or Yes, or maybe live albums by Deep Purple or Venom, you likely didn’t opt for the double LP route because it was cost prohibitive and forced fans to spend more money.
Back-burner reason number two: Despite the truth that Blood Fire Death already found the band steering into Viking waters and away from openly Satanic themes (something Quorthon felt strongly about due to the Christianity connection), it was decided that the stylistic leap between the two records was too great, and that Bathory fans weren’t prepared for an “all-and-all-out theme album” centered around swords and sorcery. Quorthon was fully in tune with fans of the time, and he resonated with the notion that steadfast devotees were frugal spenders who might only be able to afford one or two albums a month—perhaps those choice acquisitions ought to be something…steadfast, at least with regard to (in his own words) “an already narrow band like Bathory” that appeared fully committed to evil and raw fury.
« Okay, Blood On Ice is Bathory’s best album because thousands and thousands of fans pestered Quorthon about its release after learning of its existence from an interview, so he eventually went back into the studio to polish the corners and add a bunch of sweet sound effects such as tons of horse galloping and a bubbling witch’s cauldron »
An unfamiliar ear might not hear a huge difference between Blood On Ice and Hammerheart, but it’s most certainly there. Where the latter feels like the true successor to Blood Fire Death in that it retains a sense of extreme metal—both in terms of its ferocious and unconventional songwriting and Quorthon’s continued commitment to a gruff (albeit cleaner, compared to earlier works) vocal style—the former is a genuine veneration of epic heavy metal tied to a narrative that weaves equal measures Savage Sword of Conan and Götterdämmerung into the picture.
Quorthon rebuked notions of early Manowar being an influence, but one obviously needn’t have been an active fan of, say, Into Glory Ride to be influenced by them (or by albums from Manilla Road, Cirith Ungol, or any other 80s’ bands responsible for landing epic metal on the map). So, by all means, let’s assume Quorthon heard epics such as “Revelation (Death’s Angel)” or “Defender” and decided: 1) That he didn’t like them, and 2) That he wanted to try his hand at doing it his way. In truth, Bathory’s approach to the style was quite different compared to the typical epic heavy / power band of the era sporting loin cloths and peppering odes to steel with puerile jingles concerning blown speakers or ridin’ free. For one, Blood On Ice reads more like a saga front-to-back, with occasional passages delivered by voices outside Quorthon’s wobbly but impassioned croon. The beastly voice that forewarns of “Bursting through the icy morning / four times five black shadows a-horse” in the opening title track, for example, or the exceedingly heroic role played by a man called Tim Earl in “One Eyed Old Man.”
About the future, and some of the past
Few have seen what I see, fewer still will ever know
I gave an eye to see better
And still your thirst for knowledge grows
But you, my child, who treads the road of pain
Who have felt such anger, such that bears no name
Thee shall I nurse as if you were my own son
And this very night your training will already have begun
For I have seen you come for a thousand years or so
And the gods have told me to teach you all that I possess and know
And though my eye no longer sees my hand held out in front of me
I still gaze crystal clear at all that mortal man cannot see
And I see you riding up on a stallion as white as snow
With the speed of the winds and endurance untold
And you wield a sword of steel forged in fire and ice
And the cry of a warrior you sound, and victory is in your eyes
Hear me my son, for you are the chosen one…
ROOAAAAR! That’s an absolute stomper of a tune, too, “One Eyed Old Man” is; it explodes from the gate like a maniac army and tromps out the customary choral background and an intensely fried lead before even hitting the 2-minute mark. And what better way to follow that hushed but terrifically valiant spoken midpoint than with Quorthon belting out a tremendously inspired “YEAAAHHH!!!” not once but twice as the song rumbles to an explosive end.
In truth, the way the heart of the record emphasizes a mid-to-decelerated gait, when combined with that distinctive Heavenshore rawness, makes the whole of Blood On Ice seem much more indebted to an album like Epicus Doomicus Metallicus than anything born from the USPM scene. Much of the core that’s comprised of “The Stallion,” “The Woodwoman” and “The Lake” folds solemn acoustic guitar amidst long, doomy stretches, and even though Quorthon was obviously a hundred klicks away from Johan Längquist at the time, the vocal strides achieved between “Equimanthorn” and a song like “Man of Iron” was indeed impressive.
« Right, so Blood On Ice is likely your favorite Bathory album if you’re a big fan of epic doom »
There has always been an almost illogical level of conviction attached to the music of Bathory and Quorthon’s delivery (the thrash years excluded), and outmoded recording equipment and ramshackle studio irrationality notwithstanding, the level of emotion and character attached to the works eclipsed any sort of deficiencies that managed to hang in the corners. Listening to a song like “The Sword” today—the way that perfectly timed hammer strikes the anvil in line with that absurdly triumphant riff—one has little choice but to concede the following truth: Bathory nailed the prototype for golden-hearted metal to the door of Valhǫll decades ago, and any effort by epic metal bands today, while valiant and conquering in their own right, still owes a bended knee to Blood On Ice.
Did you listen to “The Sword” in decent headphones? Heavenshore foibles may not always inspire folks to reach for hi-fi equipment, but doing so really brings out that beautifully bulldozing bass-line at the heart of the tune. Plus, it’s the proper way to prepare for what must be considered Bathory’s most heroic song to date lurking in the 9-spot of the record. “Gods of Thunder of Wind and of Rain” is a legendary song, pure and simple—the sort of surprisingly straight-forward yet exhilarating anthem that will never lose its brilliant luster, no matter how much time manages to pass. Placing it in the stern following a handful of dark, brooding numbers augments the unbound energy the song conjures, and if you somehow find yourself unmoved as Quorthon howls those lyrics to the heavens, you may very well be devoid of a heart in your chest. “Gods of Thunder” also houses one of the album’s most rippin’est leads at its midpoint, which only serves to amplify its overall victory.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly 17 years since Thomas Forsberg left this earth. And while it’s fun to imagine what a man capable of making a record as great as Blood On Ice and as flat-out biZaRre as Album might have up his sleeve if he were still alive today, it’s even more amazing to think about the truth that Quorthon helped forge the definitive roots to some of our most popular metal off-shoots, and he did so armed with antiquated equipment and a studio that could also do an oil change for an ’87 911. What makes a great black metal album? Having roots buried in Under the Sign of the Black Mark. The best way to judge a Viking metal record? How close does it sound compared to Hammerheart without blatantly ripping it off.
For its part, while Blood On Ice might have taken a while longer before forging its cast for how great epic heavy metal should be done, perhaps the fact that it was nearly abandoned in a dungeon only adds to its overall charisma in the modern age. Is it actually Bathory’s best album, though? I suppose that depends entirely on which Bathory mood you happen to be in at any particular moment in time. For today, and as long as this current Blood On Ice binge continues, it most certainly makes one hell of a case for consideration.
“Now I am ready
To let this old sword sing again.”
Note: If you count yourself a Bathory freak and are not already aware of the following tidbit, a book is currently in the works detailing the full history of the band, and it promises to be quite thorough. It’s being put together by Chris “Professor” Black (High Spirits, Aktor, Dawnbringer, Pharaoh, etc.) and Kola Krauze, and the following picture should give you good indication of just how far it plans to dive: