Quorthon, the Grandfather of Epic. That enigmatic and seclusive genius who created some of the first (and best) black metal in history and later went on to pursue heroic Viking themes, thus being an ancestor for two metal subgenres: black metal and Viking metal (though I hate the term). All this was done through his first-born, baptized in fire and ice with a name that strikes fear in the feeble and is honored by metalheads across the world: the mighty Bathory. If you don’t know Bathory or haven’t listened to them extensively, making them one of your life’s musical priorities – do it. Now.
“Blood on Ice”, or parts of it, was originally recorded in 1989 when Quorthon’s Viking longship was just making its first raids to the shores of the metal scene. The songs being in Q’s mind all too different from Bathory’s previous material, they were set aside for the moment. Instead, he recorded and released the immortal classics “Hammerheart” and “Twilight of the Gods”, which had a somewhat rawer vibe to them and made the transition from the band’s BM roots smoother. And finally, in 1996, “Blood on Ice” was finalized…
This album is one of the most Epic metal albums ever recorded. Yes, it deserves the capital E. I’ll explain the style of music found now. Bear with me – blackened viking heavy metal with a grandiose aura of Wagnerian proportions manifesting a saga of fire and steel. Yeah. I know, categorizing sucks but now you probably understand what it sounds like. Sort of. All songs are great, and some hold purely amazing qualities of composition and arranging, such as “The Lake”. This fantastic anthem is catchy as hell, with a dark atmosphere perfectly reflecting the lyrics, heightened by background choirs and ambient guitar leads, and to cap it off – as strong a chorus as there has ever been in the realm of metal. And what’s most impressive about all of this is that Quorthon managed to fit all the pieces together in the best way possible, so that transitions between parts are not just smooth or natural, they just couldn’t be done in any other way. It just has to be just like it is. The sing-along factor of the tracks overall on “BoI” is so high that there should be a fucking karaoke version of this motherfucker.
Speaking of singing along: if I’d score the passion, feeling, and conviction in Q’s vocals, I’d give him an 11 out of 10. Unluckily, he’s so off-key at times (for example the 1st verse of “The Stallion”) that even Enrique Iglesias cringed when I played a few songs to him. Yes, I know Enrique. He’s my manwhore. Meaning, I rent his ass to people and take the money. Too bad he starts singing after a while, most clients can’t bear the noise. Back to Quorthon’s vox – there’s no growling or shrieking on “BoI”, only mid- to high-pitched melodic heavy metal vox which sound mighty fine for the most part. Almost all of the time, or at least more than half, there are “Aaaaaahh” or “Oooooohh” choirs in the background, enveloping the songs in epicness, epicity and epichood. Sometimes Q gets a nice rasp/distortion to his voice, and sometimes he gets something else, which is not at all as pleasant. To say the least, he sounds raw – but he fucking means every syllable.
“Blood on Ice” is a concept album. You might have guessed that by now. It’s a tale of a boy whose village is ravaged, his family killed, his life destroyed – and his quest for revenge. He gathers heroic things like strength, wisdom and a sword and sets upon a trip to hell to avenge the fallen. Sounds familiar? Yeah… it’s Conan all over again. Also, Quorthon borrowed a lot from both the Viking and German mythologies so most of the stuff feels like you’ve heard it all before. Still, the epicness wins you over with such tasteful lines such as:
”Creator of life. Guardian of the dead.
Goddess of battle and war.
All of yee watch me. My sword by my side.
Proudly I sit on my horse.”
I’m serious. The tale is so macho it makes your dick hard just by reading it, and twice its normal size if you dare sing along. I do it all the time while performing in the sack. Quorthon writes at length (six pages) in the booklet about the record’s historical aspects, recording details and influences. All you could possibly want to know about it. This, combined with all the lyrics, with written introductions to every song that tie the saga together, make the booklet more valuable than on most records.
What about the sound on “Blood on Ice”? An album’s production in itself has no value, it’s how well it works with the song material that counts. So what do we get here? Well… The drums sound like a drum machine, with lots of reverb. The choirs sound far away, with lots of reverb. The guitars sound frizzy and fuzzy, with lots of reverb. The acoustic guitars sound like acoustic guitars. With lots of reverb. There’s a lot of stuff going on here, and there’s lots of reverb all over the place. Sounds…chaotic? Yes, a bit. Indistinct? Actually, not that much. All the hits by the drum machine are so clearly punctuated that you never lose the beat or sense of rhythm. The sound canvas is instead huge and epic, but the lo-fi recording makes everything sound raw. Sounds like a pretty good production for this record to me.
The guitars are not as dominant as on most metal albums, many riffs are doubled by the choirs and the guitars often bring a supportive chordal texture more than a leading role. Ambient guitar leads and melodies are found aplenty, but they’re seldom in-your-face. Acoustic guitars come to the forefront much more when they kick in and bring a great heathen atmosphere. Whatever that is. Some not-so-well-played solos play their part but nothing more. All in all, guitars are just another piece in Quorthon’s puzzle, not bigger than the other instruments. But the riffs, oh man – the riffs!! The bass contributes nothing mind-blowing, but very melodic playing and some cool solo interludes (5:51 on “The Revenge of the Blood on Ice”).
The drums sound, as mentioned, like a drum machine. I guess it is a drum machine, although Quorthon mentions drum kit placements and whatnot here and there when speaking about the recording sessions. Q liked to lie a lot, though, we all know that. I’m going with my ears on this one and calling it a drum machine. It’s programmed OK, and there are many “I feel the need to air drum”-parts, but that’s mainly due to the songwriting and not as much the drum arrangements. Still, nothing wrong here. Except that it’s a fucking machine.
The cover art was done by Kristian Wåhlin aka Necrolord, who, as we all know, knows how to paint. This one has a drawback though; it’s quite chaotic, as KW tried to get as many parts of the saga as possible into one picture. It’s still quite nice, with a flaming penis and all. Huh? Oh, right. A flaming sword. Bummer.
While “Blood on Ice” wasn’t released during the pinnacle of Bathory’s viking era, I still rate it as high on the classic scale as “Hammerheart”. In fact, “BoI” is my favorite Bathory album. Its bombastic and epic arrangements coupled with the superb songwriting make for a match in heaven/hell (your choice). If there ever was a viking metal album that was worth purchasing, it’s this one. Served with chilled mead and raw meat. Vegans fuck off.
Quorthon: vocals, guitars, songwriting, lyrics
02. Blood on Ice
03. Man of Iron
04. One Eyed Old Man
05. The Sword
06. The Stallion
07. The Woodwoman
08. The Lake
09. Gods of Thunder of Wind and of Rain
10. The Ravens
11. The Revenge of the Blood on Ice