Friday, November 27, 2009

Bathory - Blood Fire Death (1988)

And so it would happen, in 1988, that Quorthon would transition from the primal black chaos of his first three works (all pretty fine by their own rights), into the mightiest epic of his career. Blood Fire Death is the first Viking metal-themed work of note since Led Zeppelin's immortal "Immigrant Song", and remains to me the very highest watermark by which all other works of its kind must eventually be compared. With the exception of Enslaved (who have also written several masterpieces, though usually with a different, complex progression to them), no other band can really stress the point of 'Vikinghood' quite like this one. This album arrived alongside the top crop of the best overall year in metal history, and thousands of bands have been trying to live up to it since.

I'll note here that despite the larger, epic structure of its tracks, Quorthon retained a lot of what made his earlier albums so vibrantly destructive and misanthropic. He has simply merged that furor with a lyrical hierarchy that means enough to him that he would continue to trace it through the remainder of his career as Bathory. But his later success would be limited...some of the works like Hammerheart, Twilight of the Gods, Blood on Ice, and Destroyer of Worlds were worthwhile, but I felt that his insistence on the cleaner, shaky vocals and ever increasing use of acoustics provided them all with an inconsistent quality. However, not the case for Blood Fire Death, which walks a straight and true path of belligerent savagery and and kicks your ass again and again for 9 tracks and 45 minutes.

It does not kick your ass with metal alone, as the intro piece "Oden's Ride Over Nordland" proves, a stunning three minute intro of thundering horses and epic choirs that hover below a gathering storm structure, gray and black clouds penetrated by the light of the suncross and the wisdom of the Father's sole, gazing eye. The track flows nicely into the acoustics that introduce "A Fine Day to Die", Quorthon adding subtle vocal flavors, and then at 1:45, all fucking hell breaks loose...and we all welcome our doom. Prepare your soul, my friends, because this is THE END. Fight or flight! Vvornth's crashing kit exclaims the immortality of the riffing to follow, and the guitars grind you into a mid-paced paradise where Valhalla calls every wayward man of honor to crush the fucking skulls of his enemies. The vocals are sick, tortured and 100% authentic gleanings into the genius that, for a brief period of years, possessed this man. The track is just over 8 and a half minutes of bewildering punishment, slowly churning along like a juggernaught of axes and screaming that cannot die until the deed is done. "The Golden Walls of Heaven" follows, and Quorthon shows that he has not abandoned the speed of his previous works, as this is a vicious and brutal punishment which channels early Kreator and Sodom-like speed/thrash into the bowels of Asgardian lore.

Soundless wings lacerate the night
Angels of death emerge accross the sky
Thorned heads spiky limbs climb the air up high
Attack of the pearly gates
Now wait for the sign...

Not convinced? Then the mean, crushing rhythm of "Pace 'Till Death" shall quell all doubts, an hymn of destruction that once more takes the brutal German thrashing roots to the fullest extent as it helps usher in the age of barbaric black metal. Noisy and unforgiving, with messy, hack leads and a scorching, thunderous end. "Holocaust" is another neck breaking tribute to the insanity of warfare, and once again it bears the heavily influence of insane Euro speed/thrash, with guitars so thick on acid and high on blood that you probably should be deaf after hearing them. More streaming, turbulent leads which go nowhere (except straight through my heart), and more cancerous, raw power! "For All Those Who Died" brings it back down a notch to a deadly, mid-paced battering. The way the chords ring out over the surging bass of Kothaar and the simple, stick and bash drumming is beautiful, and Quorthon again poisons the masses with the savage lamentations of his cruelty. The song is a steady five minutes of rocking, the only climax the heightened slamming of the drums over the noisy distorted rumblings in the end.

Burning naked but smiling
Not full of fear but pride
Knowing death alone could cleanse them
Of the reasons for which they all die

"Dies Irae" claims all your remaining lifebreath, ramming it back down your throat with a mailed fist of frost. The song is so fucking heavy that I feel like, even 20 years hence, it slowly peels off the dead cell layers of my skin with only implied, psychokinetic frost and fire. Gods, what a headache! What a beautiful, lummox of wrath and pain. And the breakdown is viler and more penetrating than an einherjer receiving the blessing of Sif between his thighs. At this point, the album is already one of the most brutal and effective metal works I've ever heard, and's not over yet. THE BEST IS YET TO COME. And it comes in the form of the title track, 10:30 of classic, immortal riffing and atmosphere that anyone worth his weight in sea salt could live and die by. The track is truly immense...the riff at 1:00 is the best 'Viking' metal riff ever written in history, so strong that I get the shivers running through my head and spine just hearing it. The way the keyboards glint above it, and Quorthon's vocals summon both the chaos of Loki and Ragnarok and the primal chaos beyond the destiny of all mankind. The bridge is even more glorious, with the vocals taking on a grim majesty, a king dethroned, a dying and rising soul. The extensive bridge of this epic breaks for some acoustics, and some surging thrash rhythms that march across the battering of the drums. There is also an outro piece which breathes like wind and thunder, but you will hardly care, because you have just been leveled and brought to your knees. What could be left of you?

Blood Fire Death is staggering. When I first heard it, I simply could not fucking believe it. I was just starting high school that year, and had to bring it in to school the day after I got the cassette, to let all the poseurs know the latest herald of their apocalypse. I may very well have transformed a half dozen glamboyant hairspray chuggers that day, and frightened away another score or more. This was something new...something savage and carnal and yet emotionally impactful. This album is a mountain. It will not move. It escalates from track to track. You can erode it with age, but its imprint will always remain, in the ground soil and dust and memory. It's mandatory listening, whether you enjoy black metal, thrash or speed metal, or Viking/folk metal. And if you've not heard it, I will arrive at your doorstep, beaten cassette in hand, one eye burning directly into you.

Highlights: The first 45:43 of the album. The final 45:43 of the album.

Verdict: Epic 'Where Can We Go From Here' Win [10/10]
(now the limit is so close)

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