Bathory - Under The Sign Of The Black Mark
ZEMIAL's Vorskaath on Bathory's 'Under The Sign Of The Black Mark'
The year 1987 - my developing music collection was, for the most part, centred on Heavy Metal, Thrash, Speed & Death Metal, Punk and Rock. Despite the eponymous album by Venom, 'Black Metal' was not yet a distinct genre in itself. Death Metal and Thrash were the terms surrounding all that was extreme and 'underground' accompanied by hordes in denim, spikes and leather. Yet Death Metal and Thrash were not truly dark at the core; they were tough. Not very cerebral - the opposite. Nothing had prepared the ground for the darkness created by 'Under the Sign of the Black Mark' in 1987.
More than two decades later, its echoes continue and encompass much of what we call extreme metal today. Until that time, I had never heard anything as dark and ominous in metal. I have yet to find a metal album as drenched in darkness and emotion as this masterpiece. I am not using the word darkness as a conformed cliché epithet here. You only need to devote your attention to a single hearing of this album to realise that there is nothing more appropriate than darkness to describe what it evokes. The choice of sounds that make up the music, the lyrics, the red and black hues that frame everything you see, the cathedral style reverb on the whole production, the old portrait of Elizabeth Bathory... it is all part of a whole that impresses itself firmly in your mind and soaks the senses. Unlike music produced for the masses or by amateurs who do not know how to create music to stir emotion, this drives directly to the heart of all that you expect when hearing the first sounds of 'Nocternal Obeisance'. This is bedrock. This is the foundation of all that came to be known as the "Second Wave of Black Metal" and the crowning jewel to which many aspire.
However, the reason why 'Under the Sign of the Black Mark' stands above other efforts to the same and remains so influential, is deeper. Behind the darkness and otherworldliness, lay a mark of intellect, progress and a genuine push at the boundaries of extreme music. Celtic Frost deserves being mentioned as the only other significant group of true visionaries.
Quorthon gave synthesizers and guitar-synth a major role in an otherwise - still - conservative music style. Soundtrack-like themes with the synthesized sounds of strings and church organ were not the fashion of the day. He went further still, by using Chopin's "Marche Funebre" in 'Call From the Grave' and that, along with the epic approach for 'Enter the Eternal Fire', were the early signs of Quorthon tapping into a source of classical music that he would later draw from very extensively in albums like: 'Hammerheart', 'Twilight of the Gods', 'Blood on Ice' and 'Nordland I & II'. This was no longer 'Black 'n Roll'. That is not to say that a metal fan would not get what he expected from Bathory's extreme metal. The guitars were as dirty as can possibly be, the vocals in 'Equimanthorn' much faster than Slayer in 'Hell Awaits' and the list goes on. The screaming vocals that crown it all, have become the standard by which a band is called Black Metal. You get the picture?
The impression this album gave me was the singular factor that shaped my sound and music for the first decade of Zemial's existence. Most of the time when listening to Bathory, I used to take down all bass frequencies below 150 Hz and boost the highs to exaggerate the screaming sounds of Quorthon's vocals and razor-sharp guitar noise. That was the "Bathory setting" on my equalizer. The bass and bass drum were barely distinguishable most of the time (except for the unique bass drum roll in 'Woman of Dark Desires') and were more of a 'rumble'.
I remember discussing the production of a Zemial demo sometime in the early 90's, having the bass drums totally buried and with guitars and vocals soaked in reverb. It never went quite that way and my first chance to formally and officially pay tribute to the genius of Quorthon, was with my album 'In Monumentum' (2006), following his passing. At the sad news and ultimate confirmation of his death - which I had at first I thought to be some ridiculous rumour - I immediately proceeded with composing a Zemial album with songs representing each of the different periods that Bathory progressed through. Approaching 'Under the Sign of the Black Mark' was something I was very hesitant about doing, as I revered that record and had never intended to emulate it in any way, out of some manner of respect. However, during the writing session of 'In Monumentum' I went back to listening to Bathory intensely and more analytically than ever. Instrumentation, production ideas, sounds, lyrics, performance, equipment... I took everything into consideration and was poised with 'weapon' in hand. The resulting track representing 'Under the Sign of the Black Mark' was 'Born of the Crimson Flame'. The intro-synth part was inspired by '13 Candles', the bass drum intro by 'Woman of Dark Desires', the main riff by 'Chariots of Fire', the vocals by 'Equimanthorn', the closing guitar theme by 'Of Doom', the string synth by '13 Candles' again, and the awesome solo by Eskarth was inspired by the soloing style of 'Equimanthorn' and 'Chariots of Fire'. A muffled bass drum completed the picture. I notice these precise influences right now for the very first time - four years after composing that piece. I had not consciously made those decisions at the time of writing and recording. An overall 'feel' was the only guide. We used Gibson Les Paul guitars, Pearl Drums and Zidljian cymbals and recorded the whole album on 16 tracks; as faithful as possible to the specifications Quorthon gave on the sleeve notes and on his stories of Heavenshore Studio and the recording session. Listening it to it now as I write this, I am still satisfied that 'Born of the Crimson Flame' has paid proper tribute to a milestone album, that was a catalyst for the development of Zemial.
Quorthon's mastermind continued to push the boundaries of black, death, thrash and speed metal, along the way releasing albums that created genres in themselves: Viking metal, pagan black metal, epic black metal... Interestingly, production and performance errors in 'Under the Sign of the Black Mark' are plain to hear, as is the case with most Bathory albums. Yet these technical 'flaws' add as much to the character of this album as anything else does. They serve as a subtle revelation and reminder: behind all of this, was a young 20-year-old visionary. I suppose that is what BATHORY was all about: evolving despite one's current abilities.
The dream feeds the aspiration and the aspiration feeds the ability.
His legacy remains.
Select Zemial Discography:
I Am The Dark 7" - Hells Headbangers/Temple Of Darkness 2009
In Monumentum LP - NUX 2006
Face Of The Conqueror LP Iron Pegasus 2003
Sleeping Under Tartarus 7" - Gothic Records 1992