In The Desert Of Seth

By G. B. Marian

Bathory: The Return… (1985)

The album cover for Bathory's The Return... (1985)

The album cover for Bathory’s The Return… (1985)

I have to admit, I love me some black metal. Generally I’m into the early stuff, everything from 1981 to 1987 or so. I’m talking about Venom, Hellhammer, Celtic Frost; all those satanic or dark pagan barbarian dudes from Europe who came before Mayhem. (Though I admit to enjoying some Darkthrone and Cradle of Filth, too.) But Bathory’s The Return… from 1985 is probably the quintessential black metal album for me personally.

Bathory is named after Erzsébet Báthory, of course, a Hungarian serial killer who lived during the 1500s and who murdered and drank the blood of several women in an effort to stay perpetually young. She is often compared to Vlad Tepes, otherwise known as Dracula, and she is the subject of several classic horror films (especially the gothic vampire thrillers of Hammer Studios in Great Britain). That’s probably where Venom got the idea for their 1982 song “Countess Bathory,” to which Quorthon chose Bathory’s name in tribute. (How many more times can I fit the name “Bathory” in this paragraph, do you reckon?)

I think of Quorthon as being the Trent Reznor of black metal. He was pretty much the main creative force behind the band at all times; I can’t even tell you the names of anyone else on a Bathory record off the top of my head. And as far as I can tell, Quorthon loved him some Hammer, some Venom, and some Hellhammer. Bathory is very much a starker and colder permutation of what began in those bands; raw, low-fi mixes that sound like they were recorded in somebody’s garage; echoing, distorted guitars; tempos running like terrified heartbeats; vocals shrieking like ghosts in the wind. Listening to The Return… in particular is like hearing what actual Nazgûl might listen to while they’re hunting for hapless hobbits in a dark mountain forest.

The first several Bathory albums are like soundtracks for low-budget satanic horror films that would have been shown on Elvira’s Movie Macabre back in the 1980s if they had ever been made. Quorthon later lost interest in the satanic stuff and started writing material that drew from Northern European mythology instead. That’s when he invented Viking metal, and his most famous song is probably “One Rode to Asa Bay” from the 1990 album Hammerheart, which is about the forceful Christianization of Scandinavia in medieval times. I’m not exactly sure if Quorthon really believed in the Gods, or if he even considered himself a Pagan; but spreading knowledge of Odin and His fellow Aesir was certainly important to him, and he’s practically revered as a saint among Heathens who also happen to be metalheads. Sadly, Quorthon passed away from this earth to become Odin’s court musician in Valhalla back in 2004.

The Return… opens with an instrumental ambient track, “Revelation of Doom,” that’s pretty terrifying to listen to at 2:00 a.m. with all the lights off. (Trust me, I’ve tried.) This leads into “Total Destruction,” in which Quorthon describes the beginning of Armageddon and the end of the universe. “Born For Burning” is dedicated to the memory of Marrigje Ariens, a Holland woman who was burned for witchcraft in 1591. (I especially dig this song because Quorthon depicts Ariens as fearlessly facing her cruel fate.) “The Wind of Mayhem” is about standing at the edge of a cliff at night and invoking the powers of darkness during a thunderstorm. Then Quorthon gives us a kinky sex fantasy in “Bestial Lust” and a description of demonic infestation in “Possessed.” In “The Rite of Darkness,” we get a good summary of every European Protestant fever dream about the Witches’ Sabbath there ever was, with naked witches singing songs, casting spells, and preparing to commit the obligatory human sacrifice. “The Reap of Evil” announces the beginning of Armageddon and of Satan’s rise back into the heavens, while “Son of the Damned” is like a Jack Chick comic strip about devil worshipers put to music. “Sadist” is about a serial killer who’s about to die and pay for his sins in hell, and “The Return of Darkness and Evil” sums up the entire album with its account of satanic rituals causing the end of the world. The album closes with “Outro,” a 30-second instrumental that makes me think of a Viking funeral (complete with a burning boat). This same track appears on every Bathory album from the 1980s, making them feel like episodes of an anthology TV show with the same song playing over each end credit sequence.

I was first introduced to Bathory in general (and to this album in particular) by the Tonester, the righteous Bard of LV-426 (and the lead guitarist and vocalist of Hexlust). In fact, The Return… was one of our favorite albums to listen to after meeting for Sabbath on Friday nights, back when it was still just the Tonester and me. We’d close our weekly ritual, blow out our candles, and sit in the dark and talk about life, the universe, and everything while this music played. We felt there was something especially sacred about doing this during the winter months, when we had to stay up much later than normal to see the Big Dipper. Thanks to psychotic right-wing extremists like Varg Vikernes, black metal will probably always be associated in most people’s minds with racism, church arson, and murderous violence; but for me and the Tonester, it was always much more innocent than that. For us at least, it was just about revering the dark and nocturnal aspects of nature through music, which made a lot of sense to us as Typhonians. I feel that Quorthon himself would probably agree with this sentiment as well.

Rest in peace, Quorthon, and Sutekh bless you.

Rest in peace, Quorthon, you hilarious bastard. Sutekh bless you!

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