Quorthon, the Jimi Hendrix of Metal

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Having run into an album that I had not heard in a long time, I felt compelled to not only listen to it again, but also write something to convey the interesting story behind it and it’s author. “Purity of Essence” by Quorthon.

While heavy metal fans might be aware of the diversity of subgenres within metal, most non-fans have no idea how broad and deep the variety is in the genre. My favorite link for conveying this information has been the Map of Metal for some time now – it’s both visually creative and extremely informational. The tracks on the map there are the lines of influence – what gave rise or influenced what. And the ring of chains are temporal, showing the growth and proliferation of subgenres as the decades have passed.

With that aside, you may notice that the entire upper half of the map is black, where everything is a child of Black Metal at some point. It’s at that point that our story begins. In Scandinavia. In 1983 Sweden, Bathory was formed by Tomas Börje Forsberg, otherwise known as Quorthon, and in 1984 Norway, Mayhem was formed. Both bands had a new sound that revolutionized half of the metal landscape forever, and influenced all of it.

The name of this new sound, Black Metal, was based on an album by the band Venom, formed in 1978 in England. It had a combination of elements that was not present in metal up to that point, at least not all together as a single gestalt. Extremely distorted guitars, high pitched percussive singing style, atmospheric sound effects mixed with music, nihilistic and existentialist themes mixed with anti-religion and Satanism, and a story-like cadence to songs that often doesn’t include a chorus line at all. This is what became the quintessential exemplar for the subgenre of Black Metal.

As the decade went on, the subgenre gained popularity in Scandinavia and then farther overseas. The themes conveyed by the bands and their songs remained mostly in the dark areas of anti-religionism, but where the bands took their themes differed wildly. While Mayhem took their own themes a bit too far, with the one band member committing suicide, and another literally setting fire to a bunch of churches and then murdering his fellow guitarist… Bathory instead just continued to work on it’s musical expression, and slowly moved away from Satanic themes to more general paganism and specifically Nordic Mythos.

By the time 1990 came around, there were a number of Black Metal bands, and the subgenre was expanding. But Bathory had already tacked sideways with their albums “Blood, Fire, Death” and “Hammerheart”, which were strong in Norse mythology. It was at this point that the band was essentially single-handedly responsible for kicking off the Viking Metal subgenre, which a second time in the same decade altered the course of metal. On the next album, “Twilight of the Gods”, the vocals were cleaner, there was more instrumentation, and acoustic guitar played a much more prominent place in the music. It also channels Hayden’s “The Planets” heavily in many places.

As a note, I’ve heard rumors that he did not much like this album, and chalked the entire thing up to a week long drug binge, though I can’t find the reference at the moment. In retrospect, it’s interesting which works an author dislikes the most, and in this way Quorthon reminds me of JRR Tolkien, who disliked The Hobbit, even though it was his most popular work.

However, regarding the album, while Quorthon worked with a few drummers and bassists over the lifetime of the band, he had more or less cut all band members out of the music creation process by this point, and played every instrument himself, even layering multiple backing vocals of his own behind himself, creating a very unique sound. As a self-taught musician that learned to play drums, guitar, and bass starting from a recording at literally age 2, he liked having complete control over every aspect of his creative process. He brought in guests musicians from time to time, but from this point on was mostly recording himself and spending more time in the studio mixing things, as is clear if you listen to Hammerheart and then Twilight of the Gods – the production quality and musical complexity are much higher.

He also recorded Blood on Ice around this time, which was also Norse and Viking themed, but did not release it for some time afterwards. He then went on to make two albums that hearkened back to his Black Metal roots, before finally releasing Blood on Ice, followed by another Black Metal one, and then two Nordland albums.

During this later time period, he also branched out yet again and made two albums and an EP in yet again another complete change of genre. “Album” and “Purity of Essence” (disc one and two) were released under his name, Quorthon, rather than that of Bathory. They incorporated elements of rock and roll, grunge, industrial, and alternative rock, and really showcase his breadth as a composer and performer. Both albums, plus the “When Our Day is Through” EP, alternately comingle parts of those other genres, sometimes with a splash of Black Metal guitar, but sometimes none at all. They’re truly rare collections of striped, spotted, variegated music.

Unfortunately, in 2004, Quorthon suffered a heart attack at died at the young age of 38.

While his band never toured, due to the one-man-band aspect of the music (they played in public only twice) he never quite got the fan base during his lifetime, that he deserved, in all the genres he touched. But in the metal community, he’s a literal originating god of two metal subgenres, and I hope he can be remembered for that and his unique musical style and polyinstrumental ability.

A few additional random tid-bits of information about Quorthon and Bathory can be found here and here, for those interested. And some of his few interviews can be found here and here.

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