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Class 6(66)

Bathory: Under the sign of the black mark

04/05/12  ||  Sokaris

Introduction

It seems like each early Bathory album was a challenge for Quorthon to push his act onto a new plateau of quality, a more conscious effort to veer from the beaten path and develop his own style. With the third Bathory release things would start to heat up even more. Considered the last of the pre-Viking Bathory albums (though some precursors to “Blood Fire Death” are evident here) “Under the Sign of the Black Mark” would prove a glorious display of formative black metal elements and broad dynamics to create an astonishing listen. This is the first time a Bathory album really felt like a journey for the listener. Pacing and atmosphere are given more attention and the scope of the album’s production is much larger.

Songwriting

9. Miles ahead of “The Return……” in every way. The first three quarters of the tracklisting is more or less a list of Bathory classics. “Woman of Dark Desires” features a ridiculously catchy refrain and an excellent organ implementation (that sounds dirty). “Call from the Grave” is all nasty groove and “Enter the Eternal Fire” is notable for being the first Bathory epic. The energy of “Equimanthorn” is palpable and features a neck-snapper of a bridge. All this said, my only complaint is the album’s final pair of compositions (not counting the outro) seems about a half-step below everything else. Still good songs but it’s hard not to feel just a touch disappointed considering everything preceding is damn near perfect and it’s tempting to just stop the album early on some listens.

Production

8. Everything’s produced very aggressively, all punches unpulled. The drums pound, the guitars produce an absolutely spot-on tone for black metal (buzzsaw treble and hiss, sharp but not without heaviness) and the vocals just sound perfect. Each part of the puzzle is given plenty of presence, a credit to the mix’s balance. Grim and necro before anyone else but everything’s clear and powerful rather than tinny or muffled. Bathory didn’t necessarily get more polished with each album, rather each release just sounded meaner and more confident.

Guitars

9. Quorthon is a riff genius, whether it be paced and methodical or fast and manic. A lot of the genre’s best individual guitar lines would call this album home. The range in playing is impressive, the leads are a lot more tuneful and interesting and everything is just all around done better. The idea is still to do things simply but there’s great care in making the whole affair extremely memorable. The six strings lead the charge in rising to climaxes, building bridges and occasionally thrashing the fuck out. Nothing ever sounds like it was put in there to just connect two parts or fill space. I don’t know if there was some great amount of care to make each riff stand out on its own or if it was just matter of wonderful instinct and talent but this is a milestone to measure the riffier side of the Norwegian movement by. A milestone only the best of the best would reach.

Vocals

10. The vocals sound like barbed wire being vomited, all the while dark blood being gargled and spit forth. In other words, it’s fucking awesome. So much passion, hate and feeling put into every syllable all without sacrificing technique and well thought out vocal arrangement. It’s infectious to want to scream along to this album and I highly recommend it. The gravelly screams manage to be simultaneously menacing and catchy, highly evident in the choruses in “Woman of Dark Desires” and “Call from the Grave.” While we’re mentioning highlights in the screaming department, basically the entirety of “Equimanthorn.” The beginning is a fire-spitting, rapid-fire word machinegun, Quorthon never wavering or losing sense of rhythm. That all goes to hell in what rivals “Pleasure to Kill” as the midpaced break riff to rule them all. The scream unleashed here is a wonder to behold. If a doctor ever asks you to open up and say “ahh” you should do your best impression of this moment. Vocally, things wrap up with Quorthon just spewing out the title of the song over and over; catchy, caustic and captivating.

Bass

7. Pretty much glued to the lower frequencies of the guitar. Doesn’t step out of line much but it provides a nice bottom end to a massively awesome tone. It’s a subtle roar, if that’s possible, in that its felt more than heard. The kind of thing that a lot of people don’t notice (luckily I’m a frequently consulted expert on searching for bass guitar in metal albums) but taking it out would really mess things up.

Drums

6. This is a drum machine. Seriously. I’m confused why a drummer is credited and there’s paragraphs on the search for a sticksman and the process of recording drums on the official website’s detailed history. The drum hits sound so static and there are so few variations that I would be absolutely shocked if there’s actually person hitting any actual drums here. I will go buy a hat and eat it if I’m wrong. Anyway, the drum MACHINE sounds decent and to my ears is a huge improvement over the sloppy work on “The Return…….”

Lyrics

9. The diversity in the songs is reflected quite well in the lyrics. We have a hymn to the blood countess the band derives their name from, a well-written song about the horrors of being buried alive and interestingly two songs that would hint at the Viking era of the band that directly followed this album. Considering some of the lyrical goofiness in Sarcofago and the darker side of the German scene it’s refreshing to read something that’s genuinely dark and well-done.

Cover art

7. There’s an interesting story about how the album cover came together. Quorthon’s ambitious original idea didn’t quite come to fruition but it ended in a pretty cool image altogether. There’s a sense of mystique and darkness about it but with a greater sense of scale than the two previous minimalist album covers. Still, I’d have loved to see the over-the-top image the way it was originally intended in an alternate universe. That is, of course, if the story was true. The drummer/drum debacle colors me skeptical.

Logo

6. In cherry flavor this time, huge, front and center. Bold enough to stand out on the more colorful artwork this time around.

Booklet

5. The same issue that was present with the debut album. White text on black and nothing but an advertisement on the outside of the booklet. I suppose lyrics were at least included. I know for some it might spoil the mystery but I’d love more features on a reissue likethis. More info on the release, old magazine scans, words from Quorthon. There’s essentially the beginnings of a Bathory book on their website so it’s not like he would’ve been opposed with adding liner notes or something. Between the lame booklets and tracklisting fuck-ups I just keep being reminded of how much better a job was done handling the Venom reissues.

Overall and ending rant

People like to lump things into threes so common metal opinion is that this is the end of the trilogy of the darkness-obsessed early days and that “Blood Fire Death” was the first of the ‘Viking’ opuses. Although it’s not an entirely inaccurate way to look at things it doesn’t do justice to just how far advanced “Under the Sign of the Black Mark” is compared to the first two albums Even though Bathory were already pioneers there was always an underlying theme of evolution with each album. This album features the hook-riddled raucousness of the self-titled, the oppressive darkness of “The Return……” and hints at the epic direction the music would take with the next three albums. All of the integrity, passion and rawness of the early days was maintained while the playing improved, the compositions became more interesting, tempos were diversified, dynamics were used and the atmosphere was tempered to a pitch black hue. Whether you’re a fan of raw, evil thrash, epic metal or frosty second wave black metal this is a crucial part of your collection.

9,5

  • Information
  • Released: 1987
  • Label: Black Mark
  • Website: www.bathory.nu
  • Quorthon: vocals, guitars, bass
*Christer Sandström: bass
  • Paul Pålle Lundberg: drums
  • Tracklist
  • 01. Nocturnal Obeisance
  • 02. Massacre
  • 03. Woman of Dark Desires
  • 04. Call from the Grave
  • 05. Equimanthorn
  • 06. Enter the Eternal Fire
  • 07. Chariots of Fire
  • 08. 13 Candles
  • 09. Of Doom
  • 10. Outro