Friday, November 18, 2011

Bathory - Blood On Ice (1996)

Blood On Ice was originally written in 1988-89, intended as a possible follow-up to Blood Fire Death. The band was not sure about going with a full-fledged concept album and opted to let this material remain on the shelf, in favour of the songs that became Hammerheart. As the years rolled by, Blood On Ice became something of a myth, as Quorthon made some mention of it and fans eventually considered this to be a completed album that was just collecting dust, for no reason. For those that worshiped Bathory's Viking Metal records, it seemed like a crime for another one to go unreleased, while the band was seemingly laid to rest. After being bombarded with fan mail, Quorthon decided to give the songs a listen and felt that the material had the potential to be released. The only problem was that what he had on his hands was a mess. Far from being the finished album that everyone seemed to think it was, Blood On Ice was in dire need of being fixed up. Some tracks had no vocals, none had any backing vocals and the drums were quite difficult to hear, at points. Quite a lot of time was spent simply cleaning up the existing tapes, so that they could then be completed. This took place during the summer of 1995, with the final recording and mixing being done by early 1996.

Quorthon stated in interviews that about 40% of the material had to be redone, but that the rest was left untouched. In reality, it probably would have been better if the whole thing was recorded from scratch, since the production is rather atrocious. The raw edge that was found on Hammerheart is absent and even the sound of Twilight of the Gods, soft as it was, possessed more of a natural feel. The drum parts that were augmented by computer really take something away from the songs, at times. The songs are epic, memorable and dripping with a majestic atmosphere but this is difficult to enjoy thanks to the low quality sound. Gradually, it is possible to get used to it and the songwriting is definitely strong enough to lure you in and to eventually look past the production.

As for the music, itself, some of it is excellent and some could have been better developed. Perhaps, Quorthon wanted to remain true to the original concept, but he had the opportunity to either improve the songs or drop any that were not at the same level as the rest. There really are not any bad songs on here, but some of them could have used a little work. Despite this, the very best tracks rank among the greatest ever recorded by Bathory. The title track, as well as the reprise at the end, features massive riffs that hearken back to an age now long forgotten. "Man of Iron" is a beautiful track, with the focus resting on the medieval acoustic guitars and Quorthon's sombre clean vocal melodies. This one piece, alone, is worth the price of the album. "The Lake" is another standout track, built around slow yet powerful guitar riffs that evoke a sense of majesty. Like with many of the songs, there is a sorrowful quality to this music, emphasized by the woeful backing vocals. Many of the songs on Blood On Ice possess a similar atmosphere to the Lord of the Rings films. This is even present on the faster and more-upbeat "God of Thunder of Wind and of Rain". With songs such as this and "One Eyed Old Man", it is no surprise that Quorthon thought this material would be too much of a shift in the band's sound, at the time of its creation. The majority of the songs are mid-paced, which lends a lot to the epic feeling that is present, here. It all certainly fits in well with the Viking-era releases, and the tunes are stronger than those found on Twilight of the Gods, in particular. Of course, the heavy riffs are accentuated by acoustic bits and backing choirs. All of the elements that one would expect are present. There is a definite medieval vibe that permeates much of the music and this is good background noise for reading Tolkien. A lot of work went into preserving the purity of the material, with Quorthon being conscious enough to even make sure to try to utilize his voice in a manner similar to how he had back in the late-80s, rather than allowing it to be tainted by modernity.

Blood On Ice represented a moment in time where a very talented musician had to step back and take a look at himself and his legacy. Quorthon had accomplished a lot, yet Requiem and Octagon were far from momentous. It was following these disappointing outings that he really had to think about what Bathory meant to himself and to the Hordes. Obviously, he lrealized what meant the most and listened to what they wanted. Most were grateful with this release, as it is a very solid record and a worthy addendum to the band's Viking era. As long as one does not listen to it right after Hammerheart, the weaker production is less noticeable. Either way, after a couple songs you will get used to it and be able to better focus on the music. Considering the sheer amount of material, it would have been easy to let a few songs slip by, but even the least effective tracks here cannot be considered bad. If you like the aforementioned albums, or the later Nordland records, this is a safe bet. Turn the volume all the way up and feel the cold winds tear at your skin as the music takes you back to a time and place lost forever.