In a musical realm where scale of influence has little to do with commercial success, few originators of the extreme metal arts evoke as deep a sense of mystery, or incite such hushed, reverential tones of admiration, as Sweden's Bathory.
Essentially a one-man operation helmed by the mysterious Quorthon, Bathory's development from the rawest form of embryonic black metal, to thrash, death, and back to its self-devised Viking-themed black metal, has mirrored and regularly defined the genre's very evolution. Indeed, along with Switzerland's Celtic Frost, Germany's Kreator, and Denmark's Mercyful Fate, they easily qualify as one the most important European extreme metal acts of the '80s and '90s. The Swedish-born multi-instrumentalist Quorthon (also known as Black Spade and/or Ace Shoot, although his real name, Thomas Forsberg, is still the subject of debate) formed Bathory in 1983 with sidemen Hanoi (bass) and Vans (drums). These two would soon be ejected, however, just as soon as they'd completed work on two of the best tracks heard on 1984's now infamous Scandinavian Metal Attack compilation. Influenced by every form of speed metal known to man at the time (which, admittedly, wasn't much), Bathory soon staked a claim as Scandinavia's answer to Motörhead and Venom (from whose song "Countess Bathory" they attained their name). And, like Venom's early work, Bathory too were challenged by the downright primitive recording conditions of Heavenshore Studios (actually a converted car garage and storage space) -- limitations which inadvertently set the rough, uncompromising template that was later carefully scrutinized and accepted as gospel by generations of black metal-metal musicians. In fact, 1984's eponymous debut and its like-minded successor, 1985's The Return were so inaccessible, so unprecedented in their abrasive anti-commercialism, as to be ahead of their time, carving a niche all their own within this quickly developing subgenre. Interestingly, the additional curiosity that Bathory rarely performed live (and never, after 1985), and that these recording provided almost no information about its constituents (which, aside from main man Quorthon, briefly included various anonymous bassists and drummers going by the monikers Kothaar and Vvornth) only added to their cult-like mystique over time. Not even this promising start was enough to sustain Bathory's momentum within such limited stylistic boundaries, however, and, after exhausting the possibilities of rudimentary black metal with his first two efforts, Quorthon realized that a creative face-lift was necessary. Sure enough, over the course of their third and fourth albums, 1987's transitional Under the Sign: The Sign of the Black Mark and 1988's watershed Blood Fire Death, Bathory re-focused its interests -- away from rock & roll-based arrangements and towards a more purely European aesthetic. Gradually incorporating symphonic elements drawn from classical music into its black and death metal base, by the time of Blood Fire Death Quorthon had abandoned most of the rote Satanic/Christian-bashing lyrics of yore, and embraced the pagan themes and Viking mythology of his ancestors. This anthemic approach culminated in what many consider to be Bathory's finest hour, 1990's landmark concept opus Hammerheart. Part quantum leap, part continuation of Blood Fire Death's sketches, the album in no way recalled Bathory's humble origins, and provided the archetype for 1991's nearly-as-revered Twilight of the Gods, to boot. Confirming the impact of this vision, these three works helped ignite a surge of patriotism through music for countless Scandinavian youths, who subsequently began celebrating their pre-Catholicism cultural heritage. Sadly, while commendable for encouraging a self-contained and highly inventive local scene (featuring Mayhem, Emperor, Darkthrone et al.), this movement also sowed the seeds for future acts of hateful vandalism (as ghoulish as they were absurd) and outright murder at the hands of a small extreme contingent. Ironically, Quorthon himself had by now grown weary of the stereotypes and artistic trappings of the revolution he'd helped galvanize. Feeling uninspired to write any new music in that vein, he abruptly announced Bathory's demise and spent the next two years compiling the Jubileum, Vol. 1, Vol. 2, and Vol. 3 collections. When his desire to compose finally did return, the music he came up with was so unlike anything ever released under the Bathory banner, that he chose to put out 1994's simply named Album under the Quorthon moniker instead. Filled with surprisingly straightforward alternative rock, the record nevertheless revitalized Quorthon's interest in heavy metal, and a new Bathory L.P, Requiem (released later that year), saw a return to the simple, brutal thrash metal of yesteryear. Subsequent Bathory efforts gradually upped the ante once again, as longer songs and more complex death, black, and even industrial metal elements were cautiously added to the mix for 1995's Octagon. In turn, 1996's ultra-doomy, Conan the Barbarian-inspired Blood on Ice marked a return to the Viking metal style, and offered a retooled collection of previously abandoned sessions from seven years earlier. But, besides proving that this epic style was back in his plans, the album's greatest reward may have lain in the extensive liner notes penned by Quorthon. These not only explained the long overdue album's release, but also revealed a significant amount of information about Bathory's until then very murky history -- almost to the point of upsetting older fans' long-held theories and expectations of their hero, ironically enough. 1997's second Quorthon set, the double disc Purity of Essence, arrived next, and again served as a repository for non-Bathory-like ideas; and the third installment of the Jubileum 'best of' series arrived a year later to close yet another chapter, and signal another extended layoff. Inevitably, however, Quorthon resurrected Bathory once again in 2001; his new album Destroyer of Worlds inaugurating a new phase at first characterized by a more streamlined, rock-oriented approach, while striking a mature balance with the grand scope of works past. But those Viking inclinations were once again brought to the fore on the subsequent, twin-album project Nordland, part one of which was released in late 2002, and part two arriving in 2003. Unfortunately, this return to both the style and form of old glory would prove to be Bathory's swan song, when, with a number of as-yet-unreleased demos already under his belt, Thomas Forsberg -- the living black metal legend known as Quorthon -- was found dead in his Stockholm apartment on June 7, 2004, apparently a victim of heart failure. With his death, so dies Bathory, although there is no doubt that his career-long record label Black Mark (owned and operated by Quorthon's father) will eventually unveil any unreleased Bathory material which may still lie in their vaults. ~ Eduardo Rivadavia, Rovi