Saturday, March 21, 2009

Bathory - Under the Sign of the Black Mark (1987)

The room was cold and dark, illuminated only by the light of nine black candles. I recorded "The Haunted Mansion" that night, while I was in the cemetery, enjoying the solitude and the Autumn weather. Once I returned home, in the middle of the night, it was time to listen to what I had missed while I was away. On that edition of the radio show, most of the music was generic and mediocre, yet one song immediately commanded my attention and blew me away. This song was "Equimanthorn", from Bathory's third L.P. Under the Sign of the Black Mark, recorded in late 1986 and released in early 1987. I was already familiar with bands such as Venom, Slayer, Hellhammer/Celtic Frost, Sodom and Kreator, yet I had no idea that something like this existed. This was my introduction to Bathory. I had just recently read about the release of Blood On Ice and had quite a different impression of the band, so I was very surprised by what I heard. Within a few months, I tracked down a copy of this legendary album and was drawn deeper into the murky realm of Black Metal.

Under the Sign of the Black Mark begins with a brief intro, titled "Nocturnal Obeisance", continuing the tradition of Quorthon opening his albums in such a manner. Through the blowing of cold winds, one can hear distant sounds of torture and dread. This serves to draw the listener into a false sense of calm, before "Massacre" erupts at full speed, crushing your skull like a hammer. The song is brief yet furious, blasting all the way through. The drums seem to overpower the thin guitars, unless you turn the volume way up (which is how this should be experienced anyway). Quorthon's vocals are raspy and sinister, sounding far more evil than most others in the underground metal scene at the time. Much like the first two albums, the sound is very minimalist and would go on to become very influential. This takes the concept established on the first records and eliminates the Venom influence, creating something even darker.

"Woman of Dark Desires" is the next song, with the subject of the lyrics being none other than the band's namesake, Erzsebet Bathory. Musically, it retains a similar feeling to the previous song, until the more mid-paced chorus. The refrain is actually very memorable. The song features some use of an organ, which adds to the dark and evil atmosphere. The aura created by this album is not cold, like so many that were inspired by this but, rather, it is like burning in the pits of Hell.

The sounds of a man clawing at his own coffin lid and desperately gasping for air introduce "Call From the Grave". From the first moments, a claustrophobic feeling of suffocation takes hold. The chords are strummed openly, as the mid-paced riffs build to create an epic atmosphere. Quorthon's grim and tormented vocals are filled with despair and the lyrics are possibly the deepest that had been written by that point.

"I tear at the lid I'm suffering
In a cold and nameless grave
If Hell is what awaits me
I feel no fright"

The tone and harmonics of the lead solo are absolutely perfect and it possesses a sorrowful feeling. This song is not only a highlight of the album, but a highlight of Bathory's existence.

The next song is the one that introduced me to this band. "Equimanthorn" begins with a riff that almost creeps up upon you, from the murky shadows, and then explodes with fury and rage. The lyrics seem to foreshadow Quorthon's interest in Norse mythology, though the actual name Equimanthorn was something that he made up. This song is speed beyond speed, destroying everything in its path. Even the vocals are spewed forth with such rapidity that they are difficult to decipher. After a couple minutes, the song slows down a bit, utilizing more mid-paced thrash riffs. Again, an epic nature creeps into this song before ending with a wicked lead solo that shreds through your flesh.

Under the Sign of the Black Mark features much more variety, regarding the songwriting. This is very evident in "Enter the Eternal Fire", which is a mid-paced and truly epic masterpiece. It begins with slow and heavy riffs, accompanied by the chiming of funeral bells and some brief acoustic parts, as well as sparse keyboard use for the background. This slow doom-laden atmosphere picks up from where Hellhammer left off with "Triumph of Death", doing well to define the atmospheric tendencies of Black Metal. Though the lyrics do not deal with Norse mythology in any way, the music foreshadows the epic style that Bathory would continue to develop on later albums. Much like "Call From the Grave", the lyrics are deep and seem to convey horror and misery as a long journey leads into the depths of Hell.

"And He calls my name
First a whispering then louder
And he wants me to follow
And to Enter the Eternal Fire......"

This song is consumed by a morbid and obscure feeling of dread. Beyond the mid-way point, the song becomes even slower, as the acoustic guitar returns just before a somber lead solo cuts through your flesh while wrapping around you, squeezing the air out of your lungs. The song builds to its agonized climax as Quorthon's chilling screams haunt your mind.

"This can't be
Raging flames all over me
Inferno of heat
Oh no, oh no, oh noooooo, noooooo, noooooo......"

"Chariots of Fire" begins with some brief synth intro, much like a horror movie soundtrack, before unleashing a high-speed attack. Sharply contrasting the previous song, this one stands alongside "Massacre" and "Equimanthorn" as another blistering assault upon the senses. The song is short and to the point, never changing pace throughout.

Eerie whispers are found in the opening moments of "13 Candles", which soon explodes with devastating riffs that are fairly mid-paced and catchy, much like "Woman of Dark Desires". This song is about the birth of Satan's son, and has a dark and evil feeling, especially the demonic vocals found during the refrain. Quorthon sounds very reptilian in certain parts of this song. It is quite possible that, if he had lived long enough to record the Mayhem L.P., this is what Dead would have sounded like with proper studio recording.

The lyrics to the final song, "Of Doom", are somewhat peculiar as they make reference to the Bathory Hordes. Typically, I don't like these kind of lyrics, but it's Bathory so it gets a pass. The song, itself, is an unrelenting piece of Black/Speed Metal. Initially, I assumed that this song had some relation to the previous one, as "13 Candles of Doom" would have been an appropriate song title but, no, they have nothing to do with one another. As the song nears its end, it slows down a bit, sounding slightly reminiscent of something from Hell Awaits, in atmosphere. It fades out into oblivion, leaving its black mark upon those who have experienced this classic release. The standard, ominous, Bathory outro concludes this L.P.

Under the Sign of the Black Mark is the culmination of the evil and Satanic Black Metal era of Bathory, as the following album would bridge the gap between this and the epic Viking Metal era. Overall, this is probably the most influential of the old Bathory albums. In particular, it is said that Darkthrone took this record into the studio when they recorded Under A Funeral Moon, so that they producer would know what sort of sound they were going for, and the music reflects this very well. While Venom coined the term "Black Metal", Bathory perfected the art form and it is Quorthon's vision that went on to inspire countless legions of bands that would follow. Under the Sign of the Black Mark has stood the test of time and remains an undisputed classic of underground metal.