Classic Albums Revisited: Bathory’s Under The Sign Of The Black Mark

Looking back at one of the pioneering moments in the Black Metal story.

The singular vision of rock music’s greatest ‘lone wolf’ – no, not Todd Rundgren – Bathory were formed in Sweden in 1983 by singer, guitarist, visionary and (much later) sole active member Quorthon, aka Tomas Forsberg: to many, they define the pure essence of what black metal was and is, which is in many ways surprising given that they scarcely ever performed live and had completely stopped playing in that style by 1989. Their first two releases (1984’s Bathory and 1985’s The Return) are essential stepping stones into the genre, groundbreaking in their raw and unambiguous approach to both lyrics and music: yet whilst no one can deny the foundations laid down by those albums, it’s this, their third effort, that for many a listener cements and crystallises their diabolical approach.

That said, Quorthon himself often explained that though the band’s inspiration came directly from Black Sabbath (Venom were also cited as an influence by critics, although only the other bandmembers ever acknowledged this) Bathory were never a ‘Satanic’ band in the truest sense of the word: sure, they were defiantly anti-Christian, often using the power of demonic imagery to combat what they believed were the evils of organised religion, but they ultimately felt (as indeed do many) that a belief in the eternal power of Satan, himself a fallen angel from Heaven, would be tantamount to an admission of belief in Christ and therefore negatory to their central tenets. Furthermore, Quorthon’s lyrics, as displayed here on Woman Of Dark Desires and Equimanthorn, often betrayed not only a keen historical knowledge, but a dark, wry humour many other, later Scandinavian acts clearly didn’t possess.

One might even venture the above observation to be one of the greatest ironies of all: though practically every Nordic black metal troupe that followed, such as Mayhem, Emperor, Burzum and Darkthrone, all professed complete and utter worship (to the point of idolatry) of both Quorthon and Bathory, his own view was that the majority of those acts had “missed the point”. True, having moved in an increasingly more melodic, Viking Metal direction by the time of 1990’s Hammerheart album, and subsequently away from the genre altogether into Cheap Trick-influenced pop-punk/hard rock with his mid-Nineties solo work, he was clearly operating on a musical plane indefinable by the diktats of any occult allegiance: and whilst this may have made him a ‘traitor’ in the eyes of some, it also made him one of rock’s most uncompromisingly unclassifiable (and thus fascinating) performers in the eyes of others. For a while, though, before the churches started burning and the donning of corpsepaint became mandatory, Bathory had it nailed with twelve-inch spikes – and this seminal release, bedecked with such 12-carat ingots as Massacre, Of Doom and 13 Candles is (for me at least) the one where they got it just right. Tragically our Quorth, one of the most affable geezers in all metal, passed away from heart failure in 2004 at the shockingly young age of 38: at the time of his demise, he was only halfway through the band’s already-fascinating Nordland quadrilogy, now destined to remain forever unfinished. Still, though he died with clearly loads more left to give, the fact that he gifted us this album alone is enough to ensure he’ll never be forgotten.

DARIUS DREWE

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