Venom made the genre’s eponym back in 1982, but it’s on Bathory’s self-titled debut that “black metal” became a subculture and motif distinct from other types of extreme music. Released two years after Venom’s thrashy ode to darkness, Bathory – under the leadership of Thomas Börje “Quorthon” Forsberg – took heavy metal’s longstanding interest in Satan and paganism to extremes never before touched. Although still rooted in thrash metal, this album changed the game by introducing sharp, hi-treble production to emphasize acerbity of sound and intent. Quorthon intensified thrash metal’s harsh vocals by enunciating further in the back of the throat with some nasal inflection, resulting in a grating scream in a high register that would evolve into the characteristic black metal shriek. No more are the tongue-in-cheek tracks about the teacher’s pet getting extra attention; Bathory made dead serious songs about being locked in coffins, raping virgin corpses, and sacrificing newborns.
There are two versions of Bathory: the original vinyl pressing and a compact disc/digital reissue. The latter is the choice version, as it features an incredible ambient introduction that was left off of the first vinyl release. While ambient introductions are so common as to be expected in black metal – other permutations of extreme music notwithstanding – “Storm of Damnation” is wonderfully effective at establishing a forlorn and ominous mood. Bathory liked it too, as they opened all of their subsequent albums with similar introductions, a trope that would also be utilized by every member of the influential early Norwegian black metal scene.
As with many “first” albums, Bathory is relatively simple in comparison to the many imitators and innovators that it spawned. The lyrics are devoid of the metaphor and poetry that typified second-wave black metal of the early nineties, with straightforward depictions of Satan, blasphemy, and a whole lot of deflowered virgins.1 Themes are repetitive and rehash many of the same words and phrases, a factor that possibly owes to Quorthon’s choice to write lyrics in English rather than his native Swedish. (Not to mention his youth: Quorthon was only eighteen years old upon Bathory‘s release. ) His occasionally haphazard enunciation also serves to make his lyrics creepier and inhuman, a trait that would – once again – be utilized by Bathory’s spiritual and musical successors.
The simple musicianship is belied by the compelling ambiance achieved by the austere production. While certainly black metal, Bathory is still heavily rooted in thrash metal sans extravagance, with basic power chords performed by the leading guitar and bass that follows root notes. The blast beat had yet to be invented; the percussion is very uncomplicated. “Sacrifice” and “Hades” have extremely similar progressions, and there is little of the now-ubiquitous tremolo picking. Although unimpressive by today’s standards, this stripped-down musicality proved influential in its own right, with the most blatant example being Burzum’s “War,” which utilizes a descending progression almost identical to that heard on “Necromansy.” Bathory is effective at establishing the gloomy milieu with which black metal would become inseparable; not “woe is existence” gloom like in doom metal, but in a primeval invocation of the animalistic fear of and fascination with death.
Regardless of its modesty in a world with Cannibal Corpse and Mayhem, Bathory is a fundamental part of an extreme music fan’s discography due to its status as one of the most influential albums in the history of heavy metal. There are several great songs, and the album provides an interesting window into black metal’s roots. Bathory will facilitate a current fan’s appreciation of the genre’s later developments – especially with regards to a few long-haired kids across the Baltic Sea who called themselves the “Inner Circle.”
1. Storm of Damnation – (3:07) – ★★★★★
2. Hades – (2:45) – ★★★★☆
3. Reaper – (2:44) – ★★★★☆
4. Necromansy – (3:40) – ★★★★☆
5. Sacrifice – (3:16) – ★★★★☆
6. In Conspiracy with Satan – (2:29) – ★★★☆☆
7. Armageddon – (2:32) – ★★★★☆
8. Raise the Dead – (3:41) – ★★★★☆
9. War – (2:15) – ★★★☆☆
10. Outro – (0:23) – ★☆☆☆☆2
1Five out of eight songs (not counting the intro/outro) mention virgins. Yes, I counted.