Bathory - Hammerheart
In the days before metal was invented, young long-haired Scandinavian males would find an outlet for their hormonal frustrations by climbing aboard wooden longships and setting sail to go and indulge in a spot of rape, pillage and plunder on some unsuspecting coastal village to the south. I suppose it was inevitable then that a music genre which appeals primarily to young males, full of pent up aggression, a genre which has been criticised for being aggressive, violent, and anti-religious, should lead its Scandinavian devotees to make that link between metal and Vikings. Ladies and Gentlemen, warriors and berserkr, I give you Hammerheart.
The man behind Bathory, Quorthon, is generally regarded as being behind the so-called Viking metal genre. Now whether that is a genre in itself is open to question. Frankly, I just see Hammerheart as being a black metal concept album about Vikings, but each to his own I guess. And about Vikings this surely is, though let's be clear, we are talking the stereotypical image of Vikings, not the Vikings-as-traders-and-settlers. The opening track, probably the best in my opinion, "Shores in Flames", is about a typical Viking raid on some village somewhere, complete with lapping waves sound effects. And so it continues. "Valhalla" is a brief condensation of Snorri Sturlasson's "Elder Edda" - none too accurate I might add. The next two songs cover the passing down of tradition between the generations and "Song to Hall up High" is half ballad, half hymn. The decline of the Vikings is the theme of the penultimate track, "Home of the Once Brave" and that decline reaches its apotheosis with "One Rode to Asa Bay" as the coming of Christianity wipes out Viking culture. (I don't count the 23 seconds of "Outro" as a track).
So there you have it - a thematic and allegorical encapsulation of Viking history delivered in about one hour of music. If anything was a recipe for a complete and utter disaster, then this is surely it. That description reeks of pretension, or to put it into an alliterative, epic, skaldic metre beloved of Viking poets -
"It portends of pretentious and pompous, promising platitudes"
And Quorthon cannot sing. He sort of stands at the back of the recording studio and shouts at the microphone some distance away. Thankfully, he doesn't growl. Additionally, there are some deep baritone choral elements and the occasional tape recorded sound effect - waves lapping against the shore, fire crackling on wood, galloping horses' hooves and babies crying. And to cap it all, there are horns, real horns, the ones which grow on cattle. (We are spared the fictitious horns which grew on the helmets of Viking warriors - mercifully).
You may be forgiven at this point for assuming that I don't like it. Yet you would be wrong. It actually gets off to a good start with a quiet guitar suddenly giving way to a thunderous bass-heavy riff. This has melodies. This has guitar solos. If you don't take this too seriously but regard it in the same way as you would regard a Hollywood movie about Vikings (heroic warriors with horns on their heads spreading mayhem rather than the closer-to-the-truth settlers in search of new lands and trade), then this can even be described as fun. Whether Quorthon intended it to be that way, I don't know, but if he did he succeeded. If he didn't, he succeeded but in a different way to that which he imagined.
This album succeeds because it can be taken as seriously or as fun as you wish. There is enough truth in here (the Viking cosmology and the coming of Christianity for example) to make it believable, but it is also backed up with some good music and accessible vocals. A scholarly examination of early medieval Scandinavian culture it is not. A good yarn set to decent music it is.
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on 2011-02-21 CharlesMartel Said:
Viking metal has received a lot of criticism, but Bathory, who really started the genre, gave the nay-sayers a run for their money with "Hammerheart". A fine album.