25 @ 25: Bathory, 'Under the Sign of the Black Mark'
Revelatory third album helped set the template for black metal
You can’t quite say Bathory’s 1987 album Under the Sign of the Black Mark is the Rosetta Stone of black metal, but of all the major “first wave” bands that influenced countless Scandinavians in the 1980s - Venom, Hellhammer, Mercyful Fate, Celtic Frost – Bathory’s third album, though it was far from intentional and came when Norwegian black metal progenitors were already creating their first recordings, fits into the black metal template perfectly, embodying the sound, the atmosphere, the aesthetics, the themes perfectly. Bathory was already a major influence on Mayhem mastermind Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth thanks to the first two albums, 1984’s Bathory and 1985’s The Return of the Darkness and Evil, but imagine his reaction upon hearing Under the Sign of the Black Mark, which had to encapsulate exactly what he was trying to accomplish with his own band. Even though the album’s creator would go on to think very little of this record, in the eyes of many it is an undeniable classic, a seminal album in black metal history.
The brainchild of Swedish multi-instrumentalist Tomas Forsberg, best known as Quorthon, although Bathory had an enormous impact on a generation of metal fans and musicians early on, by 1987 it was still very much a work in progress. The 1984 debut, if anything, was an astounding exercise in rawness, shamelessly channeling Venom, but for all the bluster and ferocity, the songwriting from the 18 year-old Quorthon was still amateurish. Enormous strides were made on the follow-up The Return of the Darkness and Evil, as Quorthon started to expand his musical palette without compromising that lo-fi rawness whatsoever.
It wasn’t until the late-‘80s, though, where things started to click for Quorthon and Bathory. Even though album number three, originally titled Nocturnal Obeisance, was recorded in the same converted garage with outdated equipment – dubbed Heavenshore Studios – as the debut, more attention was paid to the quality of the mix, and even though it was still as primitive as ever at points, the music was easier to listen to, enough to draw listeners in rather than repel them. That said, the more aggressive moments on the album, which are downright obliterating, are the ones that grab you the most. After the requisite ominous intro, “Massacre” explodes out of the gate at a thrash metal pace, guitars murky, bass barely audible, lead fills buried in the mix, Quorthon’s shrill snarl drenched in reverb. After an odd little intro riff that channels the Twilight Zone theme, the Nordic-themed “Equimanthorn” – Quorthon’s first foray into Viking lore, which would dominate the next few albums – offsets the blistering speed with effectively-timed mid-paced respites/ “Chariots of Fire”, on the other hand, is an exercise in simple, staggering brutality, unbelievably fast, to the point where the Venom influence is giving way to hardcore punk.
Go beyond those instances of speed, though, and Under the Sign of the Black Mark becomes even more rewarding. Simple in structure, “Woman of Dark Desires” is one of the catchiest of the early Bathory songs, Quorthon spewing lyrics about his band’s namesake as his heroes in Venom did in 1982. A track as theatrically murky as early Mercyful Fate, the Satanic-themed “13 Candles” boasts an unthinkable melodic chorus that works better than expected. “Call From the Grave”, on the other hand, is simply phenomenal, a huge leap for Quorthon, as he learns that a little restraint can go a long way. Much like Venom’s aforementioned “Countess Bathory”, its more deliberate pace sticks out amidst all the faster material, and the simpler riffing style, built around a wickedly contagious little descending chord sequence, allows his vocals to take a more central role. And in a perfect touch, when he screams the chorus, “Hear my call from the grave,” a glorious, screaming guitar solo kicks in, easily the most memorable solo of his on the entire record. Even better is the seven-minute “Enter the Eternal Fire”, even stronger evidence of Quorthon’s growing mastery of songwriting, an impeccably arranged epic that not only holds up extremely well, but presages 1988’s “A Fine Day to Die”, which many, including yours truly, considers Bathory’s finest moment on record.
For all the advancements made on Under the Sign of the Black Mark, for all the critical acclaim since, not to mention the adoration from throngs of fans, Quorthon’s negative comments about the album remain fascinating. In Martin Popoff’s The Top 500 Heavy Metal Albums of All Time, he tells the author, “The reason why I hate it is that during that period there were these Rockland guitar systems, a little box that you can plug your guitar into if you needed an amplifier. And the sound was s**t, but it was new stuff and we used it on the third album. And it doesn’t sound Marshall at all. I don’t know why we used it; I just hate it. I’ve actually been sitting down and listening to all the old the albums…and I couldn’t remember a single song from Under the Sign, not a single track, not a single title.”
You can’t talk about Under the Sign of the Black Mark without recounting the story of how its cover photo came into being. After seeing Francisco de Goya’s 1797 painting Witches’ Sabbath in a book, Quorthon searched for ways to recreate that image in some capacity for his new album. His inquiries led him to the Swedish Opera House in Stockholm, where the Georges Bizet opera Carmen was being staged, and he found out the rocky, mountainous set used during Act II would be a perfect setting for a cover photo. Quorthon’s idea was to have several half-naked girls in wigs kneeling on the rocky set towards a man posing as Goya’s “He-Goat”, and he had roped in four young women and a body builder named Leif Ehrnborg to model. In a rather amazing act of benevolence from the opera company, during the performance at the end of the second act when the curtain was pulled, Quorthon’s little entourage was allowed to run onto the set, pose, and quickly get the photograph they wanted. Everyone did as planned, Ehrnborg goofily running onto the set clad in a loincloth and a big papier-mâché goat mask, brandishing an ox bone in one hand and a cat pelt in the other. Unfortunately, shooting on the stage so close to the set, photographer Gunnar Silins was unable to properly fit the women models into the shot, and in order to make the He-Goat visible on a 12”x12” album cover, the photo had to be blown up considerably, and the end result is the memorable cover image everyone knows so well.
Following that album Quorthon would ditch the occult themes and go full-on into Viking metal mode – he was none too impressed with the mutilated animals black metal obsessives would present him, including a butchered guinea pig courtesy Mayhem vocalist Dead – and he would go on to be much prouder of the 1988 album Blood Fire Death. Although that album is in retrospect the superior piece of work, despite Quorthon’s protestations Under the Sign of the Black Mark remains a revelatory album, the first sign of a major artist coming into his own. Though Quorthon would die at the horribly young age of 38 in 2004, the mark he left with his first four albums remains an indelible one, and that crucial third record remains a watershed moment.