Are The Bathory Thrash Albums ACTUALLY Bad, Though?

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On the back of 6 full-lengths that helped define and redefine the musical language, aesthetics and spirit of extreme metal, Bathory would release a pair of records that are either completely ignored in the discussion of their discography or outright derided. Quorthon always incorporated thrash and speed metal into his records—even at its most atmospheric, Bathory was a project whose early influences were always audible—but the “thrash era” of Bathory is widely considered the nadir of his discography.

Most casual fans ignore the records (fuck, Octagon isn’t even on Spotify), and many diehards will ward you off the era completely. But then I remember when people told me how bad ’90s Coroner is, believing them and then finding out that Grin and Coroner fucking whipped. Requiem is almost 30 years old; how much of that derision is oldheads being oldheads and how much is actually warranted?

Requiem released in 1994, placing it after not only the peak years of the early thrash metal pioneers but also after its peak of commercial success. The Black Album and Countdown To Extinction were already in the rear-view mirror by the time Requiem was being recorded. It sees Quorthon deliberately trying to evoke older sounds in a genre that was still relatively young, barely a decade old since being properly established.

But the landscape following that decade was already completely different. The most relevant of the old guard had crossed over and adapted to the mid-’90s, with more bands placing emphasis on low-end, chugging grooves, with the borders of the genre encroaching further into hardcore, alternative rock and larval forms of metalcore and groove metal. Requiem releasing in 1994 therefore sees itself in both an uncertain environment and a weak year for the traditional sound of the genre. 1994 was a year that saw a lot releases from pioneers adapting to a new landscape in the form of Annihilator’s King Of The Kill, Testament’s Low, Overkill’s W.F.O. and Slayer’s Divine Intervention.

With some exceptions—most prominently perhaps the industrial-thrash fusion of Nailbomb’s Point Blank—it was an uncertain year for the genre, and it wasn’t clear where things would head. Eclipsed in extremity by black and death metal, eclipsed in commercial appeal by alternative rock and metal, and a few years before the genre would see itself re-emerge in the late ’90s onwards. In terms of optics, it’s probably the worst time imaginable to put out a thrash revival record: after its commercial peak and before its cultural revival.

Even on a cursory listen, Requiem is notable because it’s just so primitive, stupid and aggressive: mindless black-thrash that leaned more towards thrash than black. Maybe it helps being in the nexus point of all the disparate styles it takes from. Being a fan of hardcore, thrash, proto-death/black metal and d-beat makes it easier to acknowledge how cohesive it is, as admittedly jarring the transition is from the more open, composed sound of Twilight Of The Gods.

When so much thrash was slowing down, getting groovy and mid-tempo, Requiem was blistering and unrelenting in its pace. The ungodly thick bass booming through the mix at all times sounds like a train threatening to come off the tracks. Songs like “Crosstitution” are so brain-dead and single-minded that it has this weird air of improvisation around it, like the sort of track you’d fuck around making when you’re a teenager, only here developed and laid bare by one of the most established artists in extreme music.

Requiem has a reputation for being one-note, repetitive and single-minded, and while all that is true I think that’s also explicitly what the record is aiming for: a complete ground-zero assault on good taste and musical progress, attempting to bring the genre back beyond even its roots, back to a primordial, caveman-rock-beating stupidity that really is the impetus for all metal. As a result, much of Requiem is monotonous as fuck, but also never really dips in quality. Its single-minded nature is both its defining quality and biggest hindrance.

A decade later we’d see so much retro-thrash worship that would be either completely insincere, wink-to-audience ironic bullshit or embarrassing 1980s LARP cosplay that was every bit as inauthentic as the former. Requiem, for all its faults, never feels like that.

Octagon is different though. People dislike Requiem, consider it a misstep in a great discography. Octagon though? People fucking HATE Octagon.

And on first listen it’s not entirely hard to get why. The opener, cumbersomely named “Immaculate Pinetreeroad #930”, hits you with triplet bursts of guitar and drums that sound like they’re recorded simultaneously in different rooms. It sets the tone for the record: one that’s undeniably intense, and whose music barely feels contained by its recording, like it’s going to turn to static at any moment. Even for the average Bathory fan at the time, I can imagine it just being too much. I’m too desensitized from Bandcamp goregrind bedroom projects for the sound to be off-putting, but it is fucking jarring even going from Requiem to Octagon.

The record continues in that vein, and as you adjust to its sound and settle into its outward intensity and aesthetic hostility, Octagon becomes a lot less abrasive and a lot more dull, unfortunately. It’s appropriate that the record ends with, of all things, a KISS cover, because under their rough exterior tracks like “Grey” and “Century” feel ultimately at times like hard rock songs corroded by distorted recordings and intense performances. This gives Octagon such an uncanny, juxtaposed sound, an album where bizarre, pseudo-deathrash exists alongside tracks that sound like early NWoBHM songs recorded in an outhouse. It’s an album defined by moments like “War Supply” introducing itself with this bizarre, thumping sheet-metal percussion that barely gets elaborated on throughout the rest of the track. The record is at its best when it’s off-putting, tasteless and bizarre, and suffers considerably when it attempts to filter conventional rock sounds through its acidic recording process.

It really feels like Quorthon course-correcting to a more abrasive sound after a discography that, so far, consistently became more compositionally ambitious and more long-form, while also becoming broader in its scope and themes. Octagon feels as much like a reaction to genre developments as it does a reaction to Quorthon’s own development, as well as the expectation of what a Bathory record should sound like.

Bathory would explore thrash more explicitly a final time on 2001’s Destroyer Of Worlds: an often forgotten record sandwiched between the return-to-form sound of Blood On Ice and the ultimately unfinished Nordland series, all of which remain more renowned than the record they surround. But personally, Destroyer Of Worlds isn’t in the same ballpark; despite being associated with Requiem and Octagon it’s much more ambitious and conceptual in its approach, and in general feels a bit too level-headed and dynamic in comparison to the often brain-dead tracks of the other two records. Contentious opinion maybe, but Destroyer Of Worlds is actually pretty good, even if “Sudden Death” is a pretty fucking silly track.

Going through the thrash era is fascinating because of what it represents in both the broader musical landscape and in the development of Quorthon as a musician. Quorthon was 38 when he died. You see how people like Fenriz, Ihsahn, Garm developed over even longer lengths of time, how their musical and aesthetic sensibilities changed over the decades. We’ll never get Nordland III, and we’ll never see that development from Quorthon. Listening to Octagon and Requiem honestly made me feel like I had a better grasp of Bathory’s artistic spirit than I had before. These bizarre, off-putting, unloved records that act as both a eulogy to thrash’s then-present and a testament to the singular vision of Bathory as a project. You wish your favorite bands worst records were this interesting.

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