Thursday, July 29, 2010

Bathory - Hammerheart (1990)

Hammerheart is the fifth Bathory record, though only because the Blood On Ice double L.P. was shelved and deemed too much of a difference in style, compared to Blood Fire Death. In retrospect, it may have been a wise move, as Hammerheart seems to be a more direct extension of what was accomplished with some of the most notable songs on Blood Fire Death, such as "A Fine Day to Die" and the title track. Recorded in Heavenshore Studio in June 1989, Bathory's fifth album was finally released in April 1990.

This album represents the true beginning of the band's Viking era. Whereas its predecessor began and ended with this style, the rest of the material was a mixed bag. In the end, as good as all of those songs are, the album doesn't flow very well and it had a detrimental effect on the overall presentation. Hammerheart features a much more cohesive structure and the songs compliment each other, for the most part. Right from the start, "Shores in Flames" and "Valhalla" pick up from where "Blood Fire Death" left off. The epic structure really goes back to songs like "Enter the Eternal Fire", and this sound dominates the album. There are a good number of choir effects which add to the atmosphere, greatly. Unlike the previous album, there is a common theme present throughout the whole record. The primary difference that one would notice, upon first listen, would be the difference in the vocal performance.

On Blood Fire Death, Quorthon allowed a bit more of his true voice to come through, creating somewhat of a strained and raspy sound that was unlike that found on earlier albums. In the end, it was still enough to be considered harsh. On Hammerheart, he uses a cleaner sound, though it's hard to really call it clean singing, in its purest sense. The clean vocals are more dominant on the album, especially on "Song To Hall Up High". On tracks like "Valhalla" and "Baptised in Fire and Ice", his voice has more of a rough edge, reminiscent of Blood Fire Death.

The production is very close to that of the previous record which, of course, was recorded in the same studio. The sound is powerful and heavy, mostly due to the songwriting, and everything is just clear enough while still retaining a raw edge and a good amount of fuzz in the guitar sound. Considering the limited number of tracks available to record, it's amazing that so much was able to fit onto the record; all of the various sound effects and backing choirs, as well as clean guitar parts.

Of course, the album isn't entirely flawless, though it pains me to say such a thing. In particular, "Baptised in Fire and Ice" and and "Father To Son" represent the real low point of the album. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your view), they are lumped together in the middle of the record and only create one interruption in the flow of this masterpiece. It's not that these songs are completely terrible, but they just don't seem to fit. Some riffs are decent, but they're mixed in with other riffs that simply don't fit this style. It's a shame, since there are some decent riffs found in both songs. At any rate, this is the only real complaint about Hammerheart.

Regarding the highlights of the album, more or less, look to every other song aside from those two. "Shores in Flames" and "Valhalla" get the album off to a great start, featuring twenty minutes of epic, mid-paced Viking Metal. The latter probably edges out the former in terms of quality. While "Baptised in Fire and Ice" has some annoyingly out of place riffs, it's passable. Only "Father To Son" manages to slow the momentum of the album, but it's short enough to be negligible. The next song, "Song To Hall Up High", adds yet another element to the evolving Bathory sound. It is a great interlude, featuring clean vocals and acoustic guitar, adding so much to the atmosphere of the album and serving as an excellent way to lead into "Home of Once Brave". This one then returns to the same high standard set by the opening tracks, possibly surpassing them. Near the end of the song, a riff is stolen from Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls", but it's done quite well and suits the feeling of the piece. However, nothing on this entire record could possibly match up to what would come next.

"One Rode to Asa Bay" may very well be one of the most powerful and epic pieces of music that I have ever heard. After a minute or so intro, an acoustic guitar begins to set the stage. The crushingly heavy guitar and drums continue with this melody as this monster of a song unfolds. As with the majority of the other songs, this one is mid-paced and rather slow. Quorthon's vocals lean more to the clean side of things, though still a little raspy. And for anyone that has criticized him for not having a great singing voice, I think this is a perfect example of passion and heart making up for any possible lack of talent (though I got used to his style fairly quickly and actually appreciate it for what it is). The lyrics tell the tale of Christians bringing their alien religion and forcing it upon the people of the North, so long ago. It's actually very depressing, particularly for those who have studied history and seen how this foreign mythology has slowly destroyed the true European culture for centuries. The song is filled with good riffs and great solos that convey a lot of feeling; however, the most poignant moment of the entire song comes near the end.

"Now this house of a foreign god does stand
Now must they leave us alone
Still he heard from somewhere in the woods
Old crow of wisdom say
...people of Asa land, it's only just begun..."

And with that final line, each and every time that I have listened to this song, regardless of the setting, a chill runs up my spine and I get goosebumps all over. For years and years, this same thing happens, whether I anticipate it or not. I think it's a combination of the lyrics (and knowing the deeper, historical, significance of this), as well as the vocal delivery and the structure of the song. The solo that follows is absolutely perfect and the whole thing is the epitome of the word epic. "One Rode to Asa Bay" is an incredible and memorable way to end and album and to leave the fans eager for the next album. It's songs like this one that prove the musical genius of Quorthon and cement his place among the Metal elite. As many times as he has been ripped off, no one has ever come close to replicating the feeling that he was capable of conveying.