Bathory’s “Hammerheart” Still Fills Our Viking Hearts 30 Years Later
Very few bands can claim they were integral in the formation of an entire genre. When it comes to metal, there’s certainly a few that can be pinpointed, whether it's Black Sabbath, Death, or Repulsion. Even fewer, if any really, can lay claim they greatly helped form not one but two whole subgenres. From the westward suburbs of Stockholm, Quorthon and his band Bathory were just that. Alongside infamous names like Venom, Hellhammer, Celtic Frost, and Mercyful Fate, it was Bathory that helped forge, especially on the musical front, the foundation of black metal that would truly explode in the early 1990s. Conversely, when that explosion finally occurred, it was Bathory that had shifted gears toward something newer that later would be defined as viking metal.
The earliest sign of this change in Bathory’s trajectory can be found on the album Blood Fire Death, where the title track and “A Fine Day to Die” stood out as mid-paced epic works diverging from the themes of satanic blasphemy to ancient warfare. This all progressed two years later with 1990’s Hammerheart, perhaps the metal world’s first true viking metal album. Viking culture and religion has been tapped into for many decades in rock music ranging from Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant screaming to the gods on “Immigrant Song” to Manowar’s tribute to “Thor (The Powerhead).” From the latter of which it was rumored Bathory took direct inspiration; regardless of how much truth is there, Bathory elevated their music beyond mere thematics and basically crafted an unheard style.
On Hammerheart, this shift from blistering speed to epic, mid-pace marching became the record's main stride, accompanied with multi-tracked choir chants, acoustic guitars, and atmospherics that help pull the listener into an older (and for some, quite distant) world.
Constant in Bathory’s sound was Quorthon’s knack for hooks and some of the most scorching lead guitar shredding that never felt out of place. However, one big change: the black metal scream -- the one that Quorthon in many ways helped establish for the second wave of black metal -- was abandoned for clean singing. But not just any sort: Quorthon’s voice comes across as untrained and still packs a lot of gravel in the throat, it feels less like emulating Dio or Rob Halford than it does Lemmy attempting to sing opera. For some, these can be a bit distracting; like many unique voices in metal, though, it takes patience and appreciation of unbridled passion and conviction over technical proficiency.
Bathory's key aspect is their perpetual shroud of mystery. Today, even the most intentionally obfuscating bands have had their secrets revealed as the world has shrunk; even still, Bathory remains in so many ways an enigma. He never played live save for rumors of shows from the band's earliest days. Further, no one quite knows if anyone actually performed in the band alongside Quorthon besides the two earliest accompanying members, Frederick Melander and filmmaker Jonas Åkerlund, as Quorthon has described in interviews a number of members coming and going (though there’s never been anyone to truly confirm having played in Bathory). Drum machines were often rumored to have been used, and Quorthon eventually admitted they were, though always accompanied with varying claims of included human performances. Aside from that, Quorthon constantly denied associations with other bands and seemed to mock many of his contemporaries and those who followed his path.
The fog of mystery and deliberate confusion surrounding Bathory did finally disperse some after Quorthon’s untimely death in 2004 at the age of 38. His full name was finally revealed as Thomas Börje Forsberg, which also confirmed the long running rumor -- often denied in interviews -- that his label owner/band manager "Boss" was actually his father, Stig Börje Forsberg (who recently passed away in 2017). With both men gone, the magic of Bathory in many ways is preserved for the ages as fans will continue to speculate how exactly those albums were created and what exactly were Quorthon’s true thoughts and intentions. It’s ironic, perhaps, given Bathory’s viking-era focus on Odin and Thor, that he personally had more in common with the Norse trickster god Loki.
Despite all the rumor and mystery around Bathory, or perhaps because of it, the band’s legacy continues strong to this day. When it comes to the viking era music, it immediately had an impact on bands in the black metal scene that likewise wanted to seek something a bit different musically and conceptually. Prime examples of such include Enslaved’s full adoption of the viking subject matter which, while becoming more complex, still stands as a core bedrock for that band and Primordial who, while not Scandinavian, have taken to heart viking-era Bathory’s emphasis on the importance of cultural heritage, along with singer Alan Averill’s transition from black metal rasp to Bathory-esque clean but gruff vocals. Further, bands like Amon Amarth -- perhaps the biggest metal band in the world directly associated with vikings -- clearly formed upon the foundation that Bathory established even though Amon Amarth is death metal.
In Spring 2017, I finally got to pay my respects to Quorthon and Bathory when I traveled from Los Angeles to Stockholm to attend the first iteration of the Stockholm Slaughter Festival. It was my first time in Sweden, and one thing I just had to do was visit Quorthon’s family grave, which some research informed me was only a few stops south from the city center on the Stockholm metro.
Early on the morning after the fest, with intercontinental jet lag still ailing me, I traveled down to the Sandsborgs Cemetery which I entered after first visiting the famous Skogskyrkogården cemetery (a spot any metalhead would want to visit alone for the Entombed cross).
It took a bit of looking around, but I finally arrived at the family plot. I could tell it was the right one not only for the family name of Forsberg clearly chiseled on the tombstone, but also due to multitude of guitar picks and even a small bottle of Jägermeister scattered in the vegetation in front of the grave. I sat down on the grass in front of the grave and played from my phone on headphones the Hammerheart tracks “Song to a Hall up High” and “Home of Once Brave." Not once did anyone else seem to come by while I was there. I sat peacefully with epic and mournful music playing through my ears contemplating my travels, the world away from home I now sat upon and Quorthon’s storied life.
It was a highly emotional moment for me to attempt the nearest sort of communion available with a musician now deceased who had given me so much of an emotional outlet since I was a teenager. His music even from that age could transport my heart and soul into a realm of imagination where warriors and gods walked upon the same soil that overflowed in beauty.
When the music finished I took a deep breath, pulled myself up from the ground, and walked back to the metro station where I headed back into town to meet up with my friends. I came to Sweden that year most of all to take part in fellowship with friends witnessing a rather unique musical experience but just as valuable was that time spent with myself. Absorbing not only the historical importance of where I was but also the spiritual presence of that moment. Bathory’s music, like much of the metal I love dearly, makes me lust for life but it also washes away any fear of tomorrow.
For in a life well lived, any day is a fine day to die.
I know you watch over me
Father of all the past
And all that will ever be
You are the first and the last
The watcher of all that lives
The guardian of all that died
The one-eyed god way up high
Who rules my world and the sky
Northern wind take my song up high
To the hall of glory in the sky
So its gates shall greet me open wide
When my time has come to die.
"Song to Hall Up High”
Hammerheart released April 16th, 1990 via Noise Records.