Bathory’s fourth album is something of a fascinating experiment with black metal, and the first step towards their becoming the foundation for Viking metal. Blood Fire Death was a project inspired by Quorthon’s boredom with the genre’s lacking Satanic elements, which he helped to create as a key figure in the first wave of black metal, only to dismantle them entirely and reform the identity of what black metal could be.
Blood Fire Death is tossed around as either a key proto-viking metal album or the first viking metal album by Bathory, depending on who you ask. With its over the top sound and glorious themes of Nordic myths, it does a powerful job of conveying ancient heathen culture, and the cover is simply one of the most beautiful examples you will see of Nordic art; Peter Nicolai Arbo’s The Wild Hunt (1982) depicts Odin and his entourage presaging catastrophe soon to come.
“I have never owned a Manowar record,” Quorthon stated in a 2002 interview, in regards to the story that he was influenced to change his tone due to Manowar, which had by 1988 carved a healthy niche in the underground European scene. “I don’t give a fuck if people believe that either.”
Quorthon addressed the concerns and speculation of the metal scene in a way that fit with his social habits, which were reclusive and uninterested in pissing contests. He was almost completely detached from the community, and chose only to address his faithful hordes of fans through fan mail and rare interviews. The band never toured; that is, when a band existed at all, it was for recording and practice. Bathory was exclusively guided by Quorthon’s creative ambitions, and his father/mentor Stig Börje “Boss” Forsberg worked key production and business dealings through their label.
However, Quorthon smoothly articulated the connection of Blood Fire Death and Manowar, by pointing the finger at Bathory’s drummer between 1986 and 1988. The tale, as Quorthon tells it, is that “Bathory had a drummer who was heavily influenced by Manowar. He didn’t enjoy any other type of metal, but he was somehow sold on Manowar,” which might provoke a few shocked reactions from IMV readers. Yes, a band respected the whole world over for being at the pinnacle of black metal elite had a drummer who was guided by a band that no one would ever think of putting into the same category as a black metal band. Yet in the mind of Quorthon, something existed in the tone of Manowar’s sound that was essential to completing the vision Quorthon had of Bathory’s next stage.
“It wasn’t like we decided to copy what they were doing. However, the typical heavy Manowar beat seemed to perfectly suit my new ideas for lyrics at the time,“ said Quorthon.
And where those lyrics were going would venture far from the dated and silly antics of Satanism that was the rule for black metal at the time.
You have to remember that Quorthon was an innovator whose origins with Bathory trace back to 1983. He did not need Slayer or Sodom to wisen to the ways of extreme aggression, and Mercyful Fate’s first album did not come out until Thomas Forsberg had already cloaked himself as the demonic entity Quorthon in black metal’s traditional Satanic backdrop; although, to be fair, Mercyful Fate were a band before Bathory. Thomas Forsberg’s creative spirit prevailed with only Black Sabbath, G.B.H, and Motörhead as guidelines for how to make cool music. On his first three albums, you can hear the raw intensity of G.B.H and feel the powerful grooves of Motorhead, while Quorthon depicts dark and beautiful atmospheres worthy of Geezer Butler’s darkest visions. When Under The Sign of The Black Mark was released in 1987, you can tell that Bathory was at an apex, and the first wave of black metal as a whole was slowly losing its momentum. As younger more ruthless musicians from Scandinavia took the Satanic models of the first generation, Bathory was faced with a critical moment that in hindsight may have determined if they were going to be remembered as more than just another first wave band that did not go far after 1987. Unlike contemporaries Celtic Frost, who chose to make a bizarre swerve toward glam with the deeply hated Cold Lake album, Quorthon decided to transition into something with integrity in mind.
The transformation of Blood Fire Death and what brought it into fruition is something that we can now only understand by looking at the past. Forsberg’s untimely death in 2004 at the age of 38 left many tales untold, but what we do have is an album that at thirty years old still sounds as fresh and chilling as it did when it was first distributed.
Listening to “Oden’s Ride over Nordland” at 1 AM in a dark room evokes something majestic, and considering these dark times, one can almost feel bathed in otherworldly presence crying out from Valhalla foretelling of Ragnorak, or maybe at least consider the idea sounds appropriate. The horses continue to gallop into the introduction of “A Fine Day To Die,” which is carried off with a soft acoustic strumming and somber chanting. Something is on the horizon, an inevitable confrontation, and the tribes of Odin must charge for war. A cultural affirmation takes place in the first five minutes of this record that to this day is unlike anything I have heard in an album that could be described as pagan or Viking metal, excluding in other Bathory albums. The powerful drumming of Vvornth charges up a trance as melodies dance around poetry like “asleep is the mountains, yet the night is awake.” A blood-curdling scream of “DIE” closes Bathory’s first Viking metal song with a piece of the old school.
Blood Fire Death carries that old Bathory swagger into “The Golden Walls of Heaven,” known for its not so secretly encoded message that reads SATAN in every verse. That old school G.B.H fire is still as evident as possible, and the song is worthy of consideration at least of being one of the band’s most excellent ragers.
What differentiates Blood Fire Death from Hammerheart is the experimental phase. One can tell that Bathory was at its crossroads, and although they were obviously going into an interesting direction with pre-Christian Nordic culture, they weren’t going to drop the themes of relentless nihilism and debauchery. Powered by moody, whiplash inducing grooves and raw ambiance, Bathory continues to honor the spirit of the hordes in between Blood Fire Death’s groundbreaking contributions. “Pace To Death” and “Holocaust” tap into the frenzy of cocaine overdose and apocalyptic paranoia. The wordplay on “Holocaust” is something that could make a poet smile, with “metal phallus seeds of death” repeated in the chorus to represent nuclear missile strikes all over the world.
Then it’s down to my favorite song on the album; “burning naked but smiling, not full of fear but pride,” a eulogy for all of those who refused to yield to Christianization, “For All Those Who Died” might make you cry unironically. “Tears sign the confession, with crusted blood lips sealed,” the poetry provides a terrifying glimpse into these executions while the music provides unfettered rage.
“Soon the dawn shall arise
For all the oppressed to arm
A chariot of thunder shall be seen
And bronze horns shall sound the alarm
Fists will raise like hammers
To a cloudy black sky
Bonds and chains fall to the ground
Children of all slaves
Stand united and proud
All people of bondage shall triumph
And live by the sign of…”
“Blood Fire Death,” the final track on the album (not including the ghastly bass drum outro), sounds like a rallying cry for resistance in dark times where oppression is all but certain until the hour of fate. Thirty years after its release, the prolific black metal album speaks to an uprising with its back to the wall.
It’s difficult for me to make an argument for what the best pure Viking metal Bathory record is, given the quality of Hammerheart, Twilight of the Gods, the Nordland albums, and even Blood on Ice. On the other hand, because Blood Fire Death sticks out as unique among these, for its raw primal Viking metal tracks mixed in with a friendly dose of old-school Bathory, it’s even more difficult for me to weigh it against the later albums. In a sense, I would say Blood Fire Death is the perfect record for anyone who wants to explore everything great about Bathory in 45 minutes. At 41:17 precisely, you can feel the evolution complete at last, as Thomas Forsberg completes the transformation of Bathory and ensures that the band will be remembered for far more than being just another first wave of black metal band that tanked after 1987.