‘Under The Sign Of The Black Mark’ Turns 25 (Part 1: Daniel Ekeroth)

In metal we cherish our history. It’s a shared bond that unites all of us across decades and continents and keeps our community strong. Pop music might be disposable but classic metal albums are timeless. Tradition still matters.

There are few albums as timeless in the metal canon as Bathory’s Under The Sign Of The Black Mark, which turns 25 today. Some of today’s most influential black metal bands – particularly Watain – were enormously influenced by this album and its otherworldly take on the early black metal sound. Invisible Oranges has collaborated with our friends at Bazillion Points to offer posts by two people who know Bathory the best: Swedish Death Metal author Daniel Ekeroth and legendary Slayer zine publisher Jon “Metalion” Kristiansen, who quite literally wrote the book on black metal and was among the first to review this album. We’re honored to share their thoughts on this album and encourage you to remember Quorthon, who died at 38 and should still be with us today. Enter the Eternal Fire.

Justin M. Norton

BATHORY AND THE ESSENCE OF TRUE BLACK METAL

By Daniel Ekeroth

Now that black metal is such an institution in the extreme metal universe, defined by genre rules and regulations, it’s hard to remember the freeform juvenile stage of black metal. Generally, the Norwegian scene of the early ’90s is considered the starting point, and Venom is cited as the grandfathers of it all. Bands like Sarcofago, Hellhammer, Possessed, Mayhem, Darkthrone and Burzum are tossed around as black metal innovators. Sure, these are all great bands who certainly deserve a spot in the black metal hall of fame, but they all pale compared to a one-man force from my native Sweden: the mighty Bathory.

In the early ’80s, unlike the satanic party rock of Venom and the occult heavy metal of Mercyful Fate, the music of Bathory really set the controls for something brand new. Extreme in every aspect, Bathory created a total concept of darkness that reached perfection with 1987’s Under the Sign of the Black Mark. This album became the blueprint for virtually all subsequent black metal. Under the Sign turns 25 today, May 11, 2011, and to celebrate the occasion, let’s enter the dark world of main man Quorthon.

Atmospheric Shrouds

You can’t read a review of a modern black metal record without catching a reference to the album’s atmosphere. This cornerstone aspect of black metal is easily traced straight to Bathory, who went far beyond other pioneers of the genre—Venom was basically a primitive Motörhead, and groups like Sodom and Destruction are great but definitely lack in dark atmospheres. With weirdly distorted guitars, excessive use of treble, echoes and reverb, and even keyboards and acoustic guitars, Bathory summoned an eerie feeling into the mania of extreme metal. Within this hellish sound, a magical world materialized that was accentuated by the lyrical themes of Satanism, death, and destruction.

In many cases Bathory’s unique soundscapes were the result of poor recording resources and lack of skill. The echoes and reverb were used to disguise limitations in the production, and some outright mistakes. But, hey, this is often how great art is made. Jackson Pollock’s “action paintings” evolved almost at random when he was more or less out of his mind. The Kinks’ guitarist Dave Davies more or less invented guitar distortion after destroying his amp in a rage and being forced to use it afterwards.

Tormented Screams

Though Quorthon initially sounded like a ferocious version of Cronos, he gradually developed the tormented screams that are one of the cornerstones of modern black metal today. On Bathory’s second album he had already changed his voice a lot, grunting like a possessed demon. He reached perfection on Under the Sign of the Black Mark and Blood Fire Death. His tormented howls are unique in the way they are completely audible, while simultaneously containing oceans of soul, hatred and pain. Quite simply, there has never been a better black metal vocalist.

Infernal Speed

Although thrash metal mavericks like Metallica, Exodus and Slayer have been analyzed to pieces, Quorthon has never really gotten recognition for speeding up metal. While Venom had their occasional fast moments, Bathory really put the pedal to the metal. Songs like “War” and “Armageddon” shifted up a gear, courtesy of drummer Jonas Åkerlund, nowadays a celebrated director of videos of artists like Lady Gaga and Madonna. When …The Return was unleashed in 1985, it was draped in insanely fast blast beats. Under the Sign of the Black Mark had even faster songs, like crushing opener “Massacre” and the majestic “Equimanthorn.” As the conquest for the “fastest band in the world” title roared in the mid-80’s, Bathory was often my main contender. The hyper-speed of a ’90s band like Marduk can definitely be traced back to the infernal hammering of Bathory, not Venom, Mercyful Fate or Hellhammer.

Diabolical Composition

Bathory’s first two albums are pretty basic mixes of dirty heavy metal and crust punk, but Under the Sign of the Black Mark brought all-around black metal perfection with all-out fast songs like “Massacre” and “Chariots of Fire”, heavy songs like “Call from the Grave” and “Enter the Eternal Fire”, and songs with tempo changes like “Woman of Dark Desires” and “Equimanthorn”. Not just every style of song was perfected, but the composition of the album was also structured to create an album larger than its individual parts. As I see it, Bathory was the first black metal band to fully realize how far you can take the concept of storytelling through music. As the album challenged the listener’s expectations, that mysterious formula was repeated countless times by subsequent black metal bands that wanted the same power.

The Mystery of Bathory

All things considered, Bathory’s most notable aspect still is the aura of complete mystery. Nobody seemed to know anything about them in the mid-’80s, not even in Sweden. The albums featured no band photos and no names except for the pseudonym Quorthon. Interviews were scarce and they never played live. All you had were albums loaded with fiendish music. Bathory seemed to exist in another dimension, and that made the impact all the greater. Little did we know that a lot of the mystery was due to the fact that most of the time there was no real band, eventually no other members than Quorthon left. Live gigs were impossible, since there were no band members. Jonas Åkerlund claims he remembers a couple of early-’80s gigs, but the details seem foggy. No other black metal bands have ever remained confined to such a dark and hidden reality. In its obscurity, Bathory still stands out as unique in the history of black metal.

R.I.P. Quorthon, R.I.P. Bathory… You will never be forgotten!

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HEAR “UNDER THE SIGN OF THE BLACK MARK”

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Bathory – “War”

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Bathory – “Massacre”

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Bathory – “Call From the Grave”