Groundbreakers: Bathory – Hammerheart
Few bands in the extreme metal pantheon can claim credit for revolutionizing or birthing a single branch of the heavy metal tree; even fewer can claim to have done it twice. Today we venerate one of those bands by examining one of the most critical works for the development of extreme metal. All hail Sweden’s Bathory.
Bathory’s early works are timeless classics considered by some to be “the blueprint for Scandinavian black metal.” However, we aren’t here to look at those albums. Nor are we here to examine Blood Fire Death. As influential as that album is, the pagan seed planted by front man Quorthon would not actually germinate into the mighty Yggdrasil of viking metal until today’s entry, Hammerheart. To understand this album, we must look both to the past and to the future.
Prior to Hammerheart‘s release in 1990, there was no viking metal subgenre. Black metal was only just beginning to find its footing. Though blasphemy was already beginning to be encoded into the DNA of extreme metal, no one had truly embraced the pagan roots of Norse culture to marry it so completely with heavy metal. True, bands like Led Zeppelin, Manowar, and Grave Digger had touched on Norse and pagan themes, but these attempts lacked the conviction of a true son of the North and were merely done for artistic flair. Then Quorthon stumbled upon a formula, a way to both embrace the grand heritage of opposition to religion and to capture the bombastic spirit of glory of Norse myth. The two first viking metal songs on Blood Fire Death were just the experiment. Hammerheart was the true declaration of purpose, an album that would pillage and destroy and leave only scorched earth in its wake as it pursued ascension to Valhalla.
Many others would follow in Bathory’s wake. Just a few short years later, Enslaved would take up the mantle of pagan retribution, traveling about like Odin, spinning epic tales of glory and majesty. Other brothers in arms would answer the call as well. Amon Amarth, Kampfar, and Slechtvalk would all lift their swords for the frozen north, but each would do so in their way, and few would do so with the vigor and earnestness of Bathory.
In truth, it’s Quorthon’s passion that makes Hammerheart so special. From the vocal arrangements to the battle-ready riffs to the majestic song structures themselves, every facet of this album speaks to Quorthon’s earnestness and desire to extol the virtues of his native land’s mythological legacy. To this end, Quorthon assumed complete creative control of Bathory around the time of this release, remaining the band’s sole true member (though others would collaborate on albums) until his death in 2004.
Quorthon’s zeal is perhaps most evident in the vocals on this album. Let’s be honest about something; Quorthon’s shouting here is rough, often times extending well beyond his natural range and placing an obvious strain on his vocal chords. However, his barks and shouts are so passionate that you can’t help but feel your heart leap with each battle cry. As rough as they are, the main vocals are perfect for what he was trying to achieve, and any more polish would likely sound false. This passion is only enhanced by the background vocals, also performed by Quorthon himself. For every battle-weary croak urging you to action, there’s a melodic backing track that flits about like glorious valkyries, urging you to conquest and victory. I challenge you to listen to Quorthon yell “Bap-tised. In!” and not respond with “Fire and ice!”
Speaking of “Baptised in Fire and Ice”, Quorthon’s passionate, idiosyncratic vocals find their counterpoint in his carefully crafted riffs. Every note, every riff, every phrasing choice on this album is perfect for going to battle, each a true offering to the one-eyed god. It’s as though Quorthon, like the viking warriors before him crafting swords from the steel found in peat moss, plucked the fibers of these riffs from the bountiful flesh of Midgard itself. From the berzerker picking of the intro to “Baptised in Fire and Ice” to the menacing riff of “Father to Son” that circles you like a ravenous kraken claiming victims of a shipwreck, there isn’t a single lackluster guitar moment on the album. Each riff is another sword with which to strike down your foes.
Not to be outdone, the rhythm section on this album forms an impenetrable shield line that bolsters the efforts of the deadly riffs. Kothaar’s bass adds the hefty muscle a warrior needs to endure charge after charge from enemy lines, but it’s Vvornth’s drum work that truly shines. The rhythms are simple and bold, often conjuring images of thunder and lightning pummeling the frozen shores. The simple, pneumatic pulse of the drums in “Shores in Flames” are especially emblematic of the rhtyhmic might of this album, dealing hammer blow after hammer blow like Asator’s lightning-charged Mjolnir striking down the venomous world serpent.
These elements alone would be nothing without the expert songwriting skill possessed by Quorthon. Though most of the songs on the album are on the long-side, none overstay their welcome. Instead, each draws out every element to perfect, precise effect, knowing exactly when to alternate between melodic vocal line, hammering drum battery, or burning lead track shimmering with Surtur’s flame. Each is an epic tale of heroism in its own right, and removing any song from the album (except perhaps the windswept “Outro”) would cause this Bifrost bridge to immortality to lose a bit of its luster.
In essence, Quorthon took ownership of a long line of tradition and heroic myth and weaved it into his own legendary tale, one that would forever loom tall like an Aesir amongst the mortal workings of later storytellers. Quorthon established his legacy with Hammerheart, and though he has passed on to Odin’s Hall, his mighty deeds remain an inspiration to all warriors who fight for the north. Hail!
Groundbreakers is the Toilet ov Hell’s Hall ov Fame where we induct some of the most important and influential metal albums of all time. Catch up on previous entries into this hallowed bowl.
Neurosis – Souls at Zero
Death – Symbolic
Fear Factory – Demanufacture
Voivod – Killing Technology
Today is the Day – Temple of the Morning Star
Avenged Sevenfold – City of Evil
The Moody Blues – Days of Future Passed
Acid Bath – When the Kite String Pops
Ministry – The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste
Vulcano – Bloody Vengeance
Sleep – Holy Mountain
Kreator – Pleasure to Kill
Kayo Dot – Choirs of the eye
Thin Lizzy – Thunder and Lightning
Type O Negative – Bloody Kisses