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Bathory’s ‘Twilight of the Gods’ Turns 25

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Bathory has the rare distinction of laying the groundwork for not one, but two thriving metal subgenres. The true core of Bathory, Tomas “Quorthon” Forsberg, may have been one of metal’s great over-achievers, whether that was his intention or not: debut album Bathory helped set the stage for black metal in 1984, and then 1990’s Hammerheart did the same for Viking metal.

While the album that would come next, Twilight of the Gods, might not have been one of Bathory’s genre-founding efforts, it’s a more confident sail into Viking metal than the testing-the-waters Hammerheart. On this record, which turns 25 today, Forsberg hit his stride and embraced this new sound more completely. He’d also rounded that new sound out with classical influences and a more traditional heavy metal quality.

Forsberg never pretended he was trying to reinvent the metal wheel. His influences were bands like Motörhead and Black Sabbath, and he was just interpreting those sounds with his own ideas and themes. Also inspired by bands like G.B.H., Forsberg fronted an Oi! band before forming Bathory, so he approached playing classic heavy metal at a punk speed. His high-pitched, raspy vocals, heavily distorted guitars and lo-fi recording quality made Bathory the forefathers of Scandinavian black metal.

But while Forsberg seemed to be set on his own mission to make his own sound, he made no grand claims to black metal and no promises to stay its course. After the second and third albums, 1985’s The Return… and 1987’s Under the Sign of the Black Mark, respectively, traces of more straightforward heavy metal started appearing on Bathory’s fourth album, 1988’s Blood Fire Death. Only there were also classical music twists and Norse mythology-focused lyrics to some of the songs–people have called “A Fine Day to Die” the birth of Viking metal.

On 1990’s Hammerheart, Forsberg expanded upon Blood Fire Death and made Bathory’s first complete Viking metal album. By Twilight of the Gods a year later, the subgenre had firmly rooted characteristics. To whit: black metal through a Nordic folk filter with classical elements. Its pace is slower than black metal, its riffs more intricate, and there is a unique focus on choruses that have almost evolved into sing-along territory over the years in the hands of other bands. Viking Metal choruses invoke and build upon the “Soccer chant” backing vocal aesthetic that Iron Maiden innovated. Enslaved and Amon Amarth are examples of bands who adopted Bathory’s latest subgenre early on and have kept it alive, even though Enslaved no longer employ the style.

From the opening sounds of Twilight of the Gods’s first (title) track, there is no mistaking Forsberg’s confidence. This is orchestral drama in full force. His clean vocals spin folklore over straightforward riffs and driving drums that sound closer to the classic sounds of Judas Priest than the black metal sounds of Mayhem.

Forsberg’s sound crystallized on songs like “Hammerheart,” which sound like battlefield anthems of Viking warriors, if Viking warriors all had a knack for vocal phrasing and harmony. This song, Forsberg’s rearrangement of part of Gustav Holsts’s “The Planets,” is unabashedly nostalgic for a period of time before Forsberg was born. Here, it’s almost easy to find the earliest inklings of bands like Sonata Arctica, uninhibited by fears of being too theatrical. “Through Blood by Fire” hits harder and feels a bit more raw and aggressive, and its slow pace and anthemic chorus mashing against the more vitriolic mood creates a doom-infused finish.

In addition to a sound and song composition that feels more sure of itself than on the previous record, Twilight of the Gods’s production is more polished than on Hammerheart, as well, possibly because Forsberg handled most of the album’s labor by himself. Bathory always had an element of solo act in the making: Forsberg simply found musicians to fill roles needed in order to record his albums. Some, like bassist Kothaar and drummer Vvornth, were musicians Quorthon would be able to turn to repeatedly, almost resembling a united band. For the most part, though, Quorthon sought total control of the sound he wished to create, and since the band did not perform live after 1985, it was easy for him to go it alone. Producing the effect of a full band was something he continued to improve at, and the difference between Hammerheart and Twilight of the Gods is discernible. Those choruses of Viking men belting it out after an especially hard-won battle are all Forsberg. He multi-tracked himself for all vocals, as well as having played the acoustic and electric guitars and the bass, and programmed the drums.

Twilight of the Gods doesn’t come with the sort of history-making status that Bathory, Blood Fire Death or Hammerheart do, but it’s recognized for its quality and high position in Bathory’s catalogue. This is an album that wasn’t trying to invent something new; it was flying Viking metal’s banner, sure of its new sound and strong in the subgenre’s earliest days.

Forsberg returned to that tone for Blood on Ice, though 1994’s Requiem and 1995’s Octagon would be released first, and would mark a move to old school thrash. Blood on Ice’s 1996 release would welcome Viking metal back into Bathory’s discograph, paving the way for 2001’s Destroyer of the Worlds and Nordland I and Nordland II in 2002 and 2003, which were meant to be the first two of a four-album series Forsberg died before completing.

Twilight of the Gods wasn’t Viking metal’s rise or its fall, for Bathory or metal as a whole. It was the high point of its reign, the period when a ruler sits comfortably on his or her throne and flourishes.

—Courtney Iseman

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