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The real start of Bathort's Viking metal era, 'Hammerheart' is the classic archetype of the genre, a slower and more atmospheric off-shoot of Scandinavian black metal infused with neofolk elements to strive for an authentic and historically accurate Viking sound, because everyone knows the ancient Norsemen had electric guitars and amps (it's all in the Völuspá). Bathory was a mere pseudonym for the multi-talented Quorthon by this point (obviously his own stage name was a pseudonym itself, but his real name is Ace so it doesn't get much better than that), and the shift in focus to deal with more explicit themes of Ancient Norse culture and mythology inspired him to create several classic albums over the turn of the nineties, one of which (the fabled 'Blood on Ice') received a severely delayed release at the end of the next decade, subsequently prompting Quorthon to stop messing around with rubbish thrash and go back to his true calling by realising the truly ambitious four-album 'Nordland' project, but unfortunately passing into Valhalla when it was only half complete. 'Hammerheart' is his real Viking victory, as definitive of Bathory's second phase as 'Under the Sign of the Black Mark' was to the first, and equally polarising in its extreme approach.
With only one notable exception, 'Hammerheart' is composed of lengthy, thunderous, grand metal songs carried along by slowly pounding drums and a series of creative and highly infectious guitar riffs. Quorthon comes up with a legendary Viking riff in each song, accompanied by squealing, extended outbursts of lead guitar and frantic solos, while the atmosphere is enhanced further by concise and relevant sound effects. Aside from the significantly slowed pace that only speeds up in the instrumental sections, the most significant change from the previous album comes in Quorthon's vocals; no longer does he screech against a wall of sound in the gurgled grunt of a man possessed (though that was always pretty cool), but now fully embraces his distinctive and admittedly, brilliantly amateur singing style, becoming more impassioned and pained in the more dramatic moments of 'Valhalla' and backed up in most songs by a slow and atmospheric chorus singing along to the guitar melody. The relationship between guitar and vocals is clearly of paramount importance to Quorthon's playing style, which leads to some endearingly desperate vocal attempts to keep up with the faster riffs he's written, most prominently displayed in the excellent chorus to his finest song 'One Rode to Asa Bay,' a narrative that contains just a few too many words to squeeze into a paltry eleven minutes...
I admit that some of these songs are overlong, sometimes (especially in the case of the earlier tracks) unnecessarily, but what they lack in dynamic and progressive content they more than compensate for in atmosphere. The sound effects could be seen as a little clichéd or unnecessary - surely the music should be enough, without the sampling of waves crashing to the shore and crackling fire; thunder; a bustling, ancient marketplace; seagulls; and the chirruping of birds and galloping of horses, respectively (tracks three and six don't have any sound effects) - but I feel... sorry, I've forgotten how that sentence began now. 'Shores in Flames' and 'Valhalla' are both pushing it at ten minutes apiece, dazzling as they are with gloomy riffs, nicely-incorporated acoustic passages and incredible screaming solos, but after this the album really gets into its stride and doesn't let up. 'Baptised in Fire and Ice' boasts another in a long line of immortal Bathory riffs with its dominating lead guitars that give way to an atmospheric sing-along chorus carried off by Quorthon's choral voice, and the slightly shorter 'Father to Son' favours incessant catchiness with its swinging, heavy riff and irresistible sing-song verses.
The major stand-out track is the not-quite-central 'Song to Hall Up High,' Quorthon's passionate hymn to his Allfather Odin, which stands out so prominently for being the only short song (at two and a half minutes) as well as the only one to completely forsake metal in its unplugged, pastoral beauty. His voice impresses here in a way it doesn't always manage when yelling the longer narratives, and this really is the only song Bathory had released up to this point that could conceivably be played on mainstream radio, however much I'd push for 'Woman of Dark Desires' to reach a wider audience. 'Home of Once Brave' is necessarily low-key as the follow-up to avoid stealing any of its thunder, but still manages headbangingly good riffs in its somewhat tedious march towards a finale that's blatantly plagiarised from Metallica's 'For Whom the Bell Tolls,' but that's okay because they and most other prominent, loud bands of the era cite early Bathory as an influence.
The grandest of all finales is well worth waiting for, and has been one of my favourite songs since I first heard it, undoubtedly Quorthon's finest legacy and one that even his second- and third-best songs of later releases are still essentially variations on ('Twilight of the Gods' is similarly great, but it's basically a longer and slower version of the same song with more acoustic guitar and a less dynamic chorus). Anyone who doesn't enjoy it could conceivably claim that it ought to end at seven minutes when it seems like it might, before plodding on for three further minutes of excellent milking, but those people are idiots who'd probably argue that 'Into Glory Ride' wasn't Manowar's best album, as it's similarly indulgent and overlong. What do they know about music? I am best.
'Hammerheart' is a damn fine album that's a little let down by the overlong and less exciting songs taking up space at the beginning, but is more than made up for with its excellent later offerings and an overall atmosphere that would be unrivalled until the next Bathory album. If only all born-again disciples of implausible ancient religions would put their passions to constructive use like this, rather than self-righteously condemning others to eternal damnation because they happened to be born in a country that chose the wrong version of the divine figurehead/s to follow (imbeciles!) rather than the one your parents happened to believe in that's obviously the right one, then the world would be a much better place and there would be even more kick-ass music for everyone to enjoy in our final remaining years together, before the Mayan alien gods come and annihilate us all in 2012.
1. Shores in Flames
3. Baptised in Fire and Ice
4. Father to Son
5. Song to Hall Up High
6. Home of Once Brave
7. One Rode to Asa Bay
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Baptised In Fire And Ice
2 Father To Son
3 Song To Haul Up High
4 Home Of The Brave
5 One Rode To Asa Bay
6 Shores In Flames
8 Rider At The Gates Of Dawn