Fewer people have done more to change the world of heavy metal than Thomas Börje Forsberg, while remaining in deep obscurity. Forsberg’s stage name was “Quorthon”, and he was essentially the band Bathory, named after the infamous Elizabeth Bathory, a Hungarian countess and possibly the most prolific murderer in modern history. Elizabeth Bathory was rumored to bathe in the blood of young girls as a means of retaining youth. More than anyone else (with maybe the exception of Euronymous), Quorthon created the sound that would become Norwegian Black Metal.
Bathory’s debut album Bathory was explicitly Satanic, though no more so than previous albums by heavyweights Venom or Mercyful Fate. However, the sound was quite different. The guitars, though overdriven, are whisper-thin. The different elements of the drum kit are indistinguishable, and form a low rumble beneath the mostly thrash-type riffs. Most notably, Quorthon was the first to adopt the shrieksing style of vocals common to Black Metal (as opposed to the guttural growl of death metal). For the uninitiated, this sounds a bit like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Also notable are interludes of atmospheric noises— wind, moaning, tolling bells— you know….hell sounds, to keep us all honest. Black metal fans often refer to atmosphere as an important element of the genre, and this may be an early example.
Over the next three albums, Quorthon, working almost in isolation, would develop this sound, before abruptly turning away from it with 1990’s Hammerheart, in which more acoustic instruments and clean vocals were incorporated with austere minor key Scandinavian folk tunes to create a second genre, Viking metal.
The point is that Quorthon created the black metal sound, perfected it, and then grew bored with it, all before a Norwegian black metal album was every recorded*. There is no doubt that a Bathory album belongs on this list.
Under the Sign of the Black Mark in many ways exemplifies a step in an arc of development of black metal. Though the guitars are still rather thin, they are mixed louder than the previous two albums. Unlike the previous two albums, Quorthon recorded all drums, guitars, bass, vocals, and synth, with only one additional musician credited with “additional bass guitar”; surprisingly, this is a massive improvement. Quorthon’s drumming is more chaotic (in a good way) than previous session musicians. Additionally, the vocals sound much less Smeagol-like, and more hellish. The riffs have become tighter and more dissonant (a trademark of black metal) as well as more aggressive. The album also experiments with tempo and time signature—from the blazing blast beats on “Massacre”, the snare-on-the-beat “Woman of Dark Desires”, the mid-tempo “13 Candles”, and the quick waltz “Enter the Eternal Fire”. The album is eerie and hellish all at once and is delightful.
So why did it take so long for me to write this review?
I don’t think any Bathory fan would rank Under the Sign of the Black Mark as Bathory’s best album. For my money, it isn’t the second best either. The black metal sound isn’t completely developed on this album, as it is on the 1988 masterpiece Blood Fire Death. That album turns away from the narrow (and edgelordly) satanic focus, to something grander: Ragnarok and Armageddon. From the sound of hooves and winnying of horses in “Oden Rides over Nordland”, to the bleak descriptions of cold mountains and Viking battles, this album is badass from start to finish. that The instrumentals are far more developed than on Under the Sign of the Black Mark, and the songs are more varied and complex. Finally, by using more breath in the vocals, Quorthon’s tone on this album becomes a wail from beyond the grave, and would be emulated by the most celebrated black metal vocalist of all time, Per “Dead” Ohlin. But that’s a story for another time.
Though most of the trappings of black metal were abandoned in 1990’s Hammerheart, the song structure and instrumentation are even more complex than Bathory’s previous albums. Additionally, Hammerheart makes use of more complex melodies and clean vocals and vocal harmony. This is a collection of grim Scandinavian folk songs, naturally welded onto a heavy metal skeleton, to create an original, haunting, and beautiful album.
I’ve come to the conclusion that Rolling Stone recognizes that metal albums at the extremes are important to include on this list. They must have few writers who really dig these challenging albums enough to do the analysis. Sadly, Forsberg died unexpectedly of a congenital heart defect in 2004 at the age of 38. In his career, Quorthon wrote and recorded 12 studio albums, and laid the groundwork for two genre’s of heavy metal.
*Mayhem’s 1987 Deathcrush release comes close.