Friday, January 27, 2012

Bathory - Nordland I (2002)

After the split personality of Destroyer of Worlds, it was rather nice that Quorthon would return to a singular vision for its successor, the first half of his Nordland saga. If you couldn't already guess through a glance at the cover image, that vision entails a straight return to the Viking metal aesthetics of prior works Hammerheart, Twilight of the Gods, and the 'lost' album Blood On Ice. Only here, Quorthon has written a more substantial treatise on the subject, since both sides of the project total over two hours of material, and there are none of the banal pure thrash regressions that crippled Destroyer of Worlds. In fact, I feel like this first Nordland is perhaps the point at which he best expresses this style. Not that it's the best of his Norse journeys by a long shot, but because he gives it the ample space in which it needs to breathe.

Nordland I is very well paced to provide its narrative in the span of an hour. The intro passage "Prelude" is meticulously crafted to draw the listener into its antiquity, with blazing horns, war drums and the soaring clean choirs that had become a hallmark of Bathory since the late 80s. You can burn Necrolord's artwork into your mind, close your eyes, access headphones and then become a direct participant in Quorthon's Romanticized translation of old. With "Nordland" itself, the appropriate pomp and strength arrives with a thudding, mid-paced metal rhythm and drums that place it aesthetically between the climes of the muscle metal Manowar and the slower, intended swan song of Norwegians Immortal (Sons of Northern Darkness) who themselves owe Bathory a great deal for its influence upon their own career. Folksy dual melodies adorn its crested waves, and Quorthon uses a deeper clean vocal throughout the verses which showcases his own willingness to grow, even if his sum presence is still rough around the edges.

But "Nordland" is also symptomatic of one of the downsides of this extensive work: the lack of appreciable variation through its lengthier tracks. With a duration over 9 minutes, I would have liked to hear more happen in this piece outside of the predictable melodic progressions and the same, studied tempo. The same could be said for other swollen ingredients to the album, like "Foreverdark Woods". Its promising intro sequences features glinting acoustics, mouth harps and pretty much the perfect setup, but once the distortion is introduced you're just hearing the same chords repeatedly, a practice that might have worked in Quorthon's formative shift into the territory (Blood Fire Death), where the darkness and furor of the writing felt so desolate, fresh and hypnotic, but here it's just rather painted by numbers. No surprises wait in store for the listener through any of these longer tracks, and in this they differ from the stories upon which they draw their inspiration.

Really, Nordland is almost exclusively playing it 'safe', a practice treasured by some and trashed by others. Not a deal breaker for me, however, and I do admire that Quorthon has incorporated some faster material here sans resorting to the regrettable thrashing of the mid-90s Octagon. "Broken Sword" has a nice thrust to it courtesy of the driving double bass, as does the brute speed metal introducing "Great Hall Awaits a Fallen Brother", and the pair lends a well needed respite from the slogging pace of the contents leading up to it. Again, especially in the latter piece, Tomas plays with vocal potential, a clean melodic tone applied to the verse. Far from his best singing, but it functions well enough to discern that he's not a total hack, and this is the best of the longer pieces on the album, though it too only experiences a few shifts in tempo and could easily have been better packed. Shorter tracks like "Vinterblot" and "Mother Earth Father Thunder" don't suffer as much from the lack of variation, but they're really just covering the familiar ground of Blood On Ice and Twilight of the Gods without offering much embellishment.

Special mention should be made for "Ring of Gold", one of Bathory's best pure folk songs since the anthem "Hammerheart", and the acoustic guitars and vocal arrangements here feel lush and absorbing against the sparse samples in the background. In general, I find Nordland to be very well produced, rich and atmospheric, emblematic of Quorthon's mastery of this particular style. The drums don't suffer from the offsetting splash effect on Blood On Ice, and the mix is rich on various layers of depth, where Twilight of the Gods was perhaps an inkling too clean. There is a sense of airy fulfillment here which is sure to sate fans of those albums, and I think it's the best effort from Bathory beyond the year 1990, but not necessarily in contention with his rabidly influential works in the first 5-6 years. More of the same, perhaps 'too much' more, but a solid foundation for an hour of daydreaming that holds up after a decade.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (this land and heaven, forever tied)

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