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Class 6(66)

Bathory: Hammerheart

09/05/12  ||  Sokaris

Introduction

The 80s were over and at this point Quorthon had more or less single-handedly established Bathory as an act that was constantly but carefully evolving. As soon as the band had mastered the art of creating an evocative atmosphere the focus was shifted towards more diverse songwriting. “Blood fire death” introduced more mid-paced epic elements, contrasting with the speed-centric songs that once made up the entirety of the Bathory sound. Not content to rest on his laurels, Q decided to bring the elements that would ultimately help found Viking metal fully into the spotlight. The larynx-shredding screams were replaced by a sort of raw, harsh singing and the occasional multi-tracked chant. Gone were the more brief thrash-influenced songs- the shortest song on the fifth Bathory opus clocks in at just under six and half minutes. With a complete lack of fear of the inherent risks of completely shedding the last vestiges of the evil early material “Hammerheart” was unleashed to an unsuspecting public.

Songwriting

9. This time around songs like “A Fine day to die” and “Blood fire death” are the norm and the only deviations come in the form of short instrumental tracks. The album still reserves the open and close for the longest (and incidentally enough, the best) songs on the album. The interludes mentioned before are another well-handled element that gives the album excellent flow. Each song takes it time to slowly develop and uncoil, sprawling across the sonic landscape while revealing majestic strumming riffs, massive drums, atmospheric keyboards and Quorthon’s unique brand of melodic vocalization. I do have to criticize “Valhalla” for sounding a hell of a lot like Metallica’s “For whom the bell tolls” in its opening riff, a riff that’s used again on the album later on. Special mention goes to “One rode to Asa Bay” for being Bathory’s greatest single track and possibly the best album closer of all time. I think if someone interrupted my listening at the “people of Asa land…” part just before the ending I would cause them serious physical harm. Just try not feel Viking as hell at that point, it can’t be done.

Production

8. Honestly a bit of a step down, though there was probably more to work into the mix this time around. There’s something about the way the toms reverberate that irks me, the guitar could use a slightly brighter tone and the bass is utterly buried. The snare seems to be less overly loud and dominating than it was in the past so I consider that an improvement. As usual Quorthon’s vocals are mixed well. Maybe just a touch too loud but they sit with the music fairly well. I do appreciate that the lead vocals aren’t heavily layered, but instead presented (relatively) raw and unfucked with. The dynamics are handled well. There are quiet, low-key moments with just acoustic guitar and background ambience and huge riffing sections with pounding drums and they’re both treated differently, allowing some diversity in volume. Keyboards are used throughout, usually soft pad sounds that help create a bigger scope to the sound. The additional touch works really well and adds a sense of grandeur to it all. Sampling is used appropriately as well that creates an almost cinematic touch. The album’s opener begins with the sound of waves, “Valhalla” utilizes the massive booms of a thunderstorm and the cries of an infant can be heard before “From Father to Son.” Some of it might seem a bit obvious but it does well to help paint a picture and even without reading the lyrics you can usually get a sense of what the overall sound is trying to convey. Generally the production works since it gives the music a larger than life feel when its needed and allows the quieter segments room to breathe.

Guitars

9. The huge-sounding riffs based around basic powerchord strumming have fully taken over. We’re again treated to wonderful solos that seem to go on for days, usually based around simple but effective slow bends and straightforward but explosive runs. The solos are almost like a secondary voice, every note shines through, there’s a clear structure and they provide additional hooks. I think the album could’ve used a few more of these actually. Palm muting is used sparingly, usually accented by percussive elements to create a rhythmic pounding over which an additional melody is placed. Even though the focus is much more specific than the last two full lengths, there’s still plenty of diversity within the guitarwork. “Baptised in fire and ice” is actually fairly groovy in sections even though the general epic tone of the album definitely influences the rest of the song. The verse riff of “From father to son” is surprisingly vicious (put a little more drive on it and it’s almost like something Asphyx would use) but still mid-paced so it fits in well.

Vocals

8. Here’s where the biggest change lies and this might be a dividing point for some listeners. I remember when I first investigated Bathory I knew the act mostly by reputation and one of the most repeated sentiments was that Quorthon was essentially a bad singer that was able to make his voice sound good. I never quite understood this opinion… until I heard this and “Twilight of the gods”. From a technical standpoint he’s off-key a lot of times, his voice wavers and cracks in certain spots. For whatever reason it really does work, though. The breaks in his crooning seem to happen at just the right moments and there’s never a moment when he’s not putting his all into the words. He knows when to go soft (the beginning of “Shores in flames” and the somber acoustic track“Song to hall up high”) and when to really belt it out (just about everything else). The harmonies are also really well done, providing a nice contrast from a comparatively dry approach in most of the lead vocals. His voice probably wouldn’t work with someone else’s music but for “Hammerheart” it’s at home. There’s basically one last scream in the opener, simply Quorthon growling “Fire!” with all of the malevolence of albums prior. I would’ve been on board with a few more moments like this just to add to the diversity of the songs but the voices used all seem appropriate for the music they grace.

Bass

6. From what I can hear it’s blended in completely with the guitar. While there’s not much to say about the bass on its own, the mix allows it to contribute to the overall heaviness of the album even if it doesn’t do any additional melodic or harmonic work. It doesn’t hamper the overall sound of the album because I doubt there would be much room for the four string to noodle around the lower drums, thick guitar tone and additional elements like keyboards and various sound effects.

Drums

7. A drummer is credited but there’s just no damn way. Regardless it’s well done. The programmed patterns make sense, compliment and add to the rhythm of the guitar. Nothing in the way of flashy fills but they do help drive the music, providing tom-based patterns and buildups occasionally. There seems to be a different kind of percussion that opens and closes the album, though it’s hard to tell if it’s something programmed or performed. Quorthon was getting better at this but unfortunately there’s a bit of a ceiling with drum machines of this era.

Lyrics

9. As always, excellently written. On one hand, there’s more emotion in the subjects but there seems to be a lot more repetition in the themes. However, the narrative element and Bathory’s ability to tell a story have both improved vastly. With longer running times we’re able to experience songs that move from point to point and manage to reflect a different sentiment by the track’s conclusion. “Shores in flames” is both about pillaging foreign lands and the traditional Viking funeral pyre. “Baptized in fire and ice” briefly tells the story of a boy who grows into a warrior and “One rode to Asa Bay” details a fictional village’s indoctrination into Christianity.

Cover art

9. Nearly as gorgeous as the depictions of the Nordic gods on“Blood fire death”. Another painting was used, this one originally titled “The funeral of a viking” and created by Sir Francis Bernard Dicksee. It’s presented as a wraparound with figures gathered on a shore on the cover, the most prominent with a still flaming torch in his hand. Opening the jewelcase, one uncovers the rest of the scene, a small boat engulfed in flames being pushed into the raging tide. Another extremely appropriate usage of existing artwork on Bathory’s part.

Logo

6. Red again which somewhat causes it to blend into the cover. Maybe a slightly less dark more vibrant shade would’ve worked better. Still the same size and placement and once again we have an extended arm right up the middle, good composition.

Booklet

8. If you’ve read my other Bathory reviews you’ll see that I’m being extremely generous in my score. The first four albums all feature the same page sprawling advertisment printed on the reverse of the booklet. Since “Hammerheart” utilizes a two panel image so no tacky Black Mark shilling, right? Well, they sized the ad down and crammed it in the booklet. This I don’t mind so much but I’m still not in favor of it. Getting back on track, there’s an additional two panel painting on the inside, a more serene image of a coastline with the sun setting in the background. It ties back into the cover but also contrasts greatly in its overall tone, a fittingly epic scene.

Overall and ending rant

Was “Blood fire death” surpassed? Not quite, the mark wasn’t missed by much. In fact, depending on your tastes this might be the superior Bathory album. Either way, “Hammerheart” is a masterpiece and was a bold step forward for Quorthon, marking the full germination of Bathory’s affinity for epic atmosphere. Although this album might be most easily defined by what it took away from the Bathory sound (harsh vocals, up-tempo sections, thrash metal elements, dark lyrics) it should be given acclaim for the risks it took to focus on evolving songwriting and cultivating a natural progression.

9.5

  • Information
  • Released: 1990
  • Label: Black Mark
  • Website: www.bathory.nu
  • Quorthon: vocals, guitars, keyboards
  • Kothaar: bass
  • Vvornth: drums
  • Tracklist
  • 01. Shores in flames
  • 02. Valhalla
  • 03. Baptised in fire and ice
  • 04. Father to son
  • 05. Song to hall up high
  • 06. Home of once brave
  • 07. One rode to Asa Bay
  • 08. Outro