As part of Black Metal History Month, we will be spotlighting classic albums that we feel are essential for any fan of black metal. This album is a part of that series. Make sure to pick up our limited edition Black Metal History Month t-shirt.
Black metal purists are often criticized for being too reductionist – too kvlt – in their views of what constitutes "true" black metal, but this attitude didn't necessarily come out of nowhere: the early history of first wave BM was largely a matter of stripping an existing aesthetic down to its core and rebuilding it from scratch… which is why seminal albums like Venom's Black Metal and Hellhammer's Apocalyptic Raids retrospectively sound like hybrids, or works-in-progress, compared to what would come to define the genre by the late 80's/early 90's. The first fully formed, unadulterated black metal album – beating Mayhem's Deathcrush to shelves by mere months – is arguably Bathory's 1987 masterpiece Under the Sign of the Black Mark.
This was nothing that frontman/mastermind Quorthon hadn't already been working toward, of course. 1984's Bathory and 1985's The Return both built upon the Venom template, though remaining much in that band's thrall (say what you will, though: even on that dusty debut Quorthon was busy cementing the template for black metal vocals; with all due respect to Cronos, King Diamond and Tom Warrior they were merely keeping the bench warm in this regard).
Under the Sign of the Black Mark begins much as the last album ended, with haggard, simplistic thrash played with energetic abandon and standard issue metal lyrics ("Massacre", "Woman of Dark Desires"), and if the album had continued in that vein it would have been no more notable than its two predecessors, great as those albums are in their own right. However, "Call From the Grave" kicks off a streak of leaner, nastier epics that recast the sound of evil in heavy metal music. Quorthon's shrieking, already spare and hands down the raspiest in the genre, turns downright maniacal here, a truly groundbreaking peal of evangelical hate. "Call From the Grave" is nothing short of the Ground Zero of Black Metal.
Seemingly reinvigorated by the cathartic unburdening of "Call From the Grave", Quorthon backtracks to primitive thrash for "Equimanthorn", though his vocals continue to pioneer new forms of unhinged savagery. The spiraling ascent of the closing guitar solo caps an effort that seemingly takes the band's initial sound to its logical conclusion, abandoning it moments later on a track that telegraphs the epic sound that would come to be Quorthon's pet for the remainder of the decade: "Enter the Eternal Fire".
It may sound ridiculous to refer to something so filthy and raw "mature", but as counterintuitive as it may be it's the very well-rounded nature of Under the Sign of the Black Mark that makes it a sort of Rosetta Stone for black metal to come. Frankly, "raw" was the only adjective truly connecting much of what is considered early (or proto-) black metal, though I guess a fondness for the underworld certainly didn't hurt, but it took until this third Bathory LP before the genre saw a true, finished product: frantic blast beats and hyper-violent shrieks here ("Chariot of Fire", "Of Doom") coupled with slower, epic riffs defiantly at odds with the melodic penchant of contemporary trad/power metal while, at most, barely even nodding in the direction of Sabbath/Candlemass-derived doom.
Three months later, Deathcrush would arrive – although hardly anyone actually heard it at the time – and further up the ante on extremity in heavy metal. Quorthon would merely shrug his shoulders and, as a response, invent Viking metal the next year instead.