The middle record in Bathory's legendary Viking Trilogy, Hammerheart, has always been my favorite from the viking/black metal greats. While earlier releases still felt a bit muddy, Hammerheart was perhaps Quorthon's coming of age, a statement so great that he actually considered breaking up the band rather than attempt to push the band beyond the triumph of this record. While this is not only a cornerstone in viking metal, Hammerheart also expanded the sonic palate of what black metal could be. It brought in epic elements that were years ahead of their time and encouraged a type of atavistic attitude that was far removed from the destructive and Satanic tendencies of his peers. Quorthon used Hammerheart to unleash tempestuous music that remains relevant and exciting more than a quarter of a century later.
It's easy to forget how absolutely ahead of its time Hammerheart was. If we look at what other black metal greats were doing at the time though, we realize that most of the bands hadn't even formed yet, or, in the case of Darkthrone, were only just turning to black metal. Yet Hammerheart stands out as an almost modern sounding release; this one highly cerebral masterstroke broke all of the rules of traditional black metal and spawned something far greater than I think that Quorthon could have ever imagined. No, you don't have too many of the searing guitar riffs popularized by Mayhem, but that's just because Quorthon was already past it, his first records with Bathory predicting and then shattering nearly every trend that the genre was to face.
What's always fascinated me about Bathory though, and especially the Viking Trilogy, is that even as Quorthon includes more clean vocals he never really became a truly great clean singer. He replaced a lack of skill with sheer tortured passion, his powerful chants in tracks like "Father To Son" coming across as pleas to an uncaring god, who maybe just maybe could pull him out of his demented world. Beyond that, his ability to craft resonant soundscapes is endlessly impressive. As much as I love the chugging riffs, it is the potent choirs and keyboards that really draw me into Hammerheart and help to prove the supremacy of this band. It allows you the opportunity to get fully lost in music that properly reflects the spirit of black metal, bombastic, and romantic but still stripped down and real enough to remain authentic.
Hammerheart is important because for so many of us it was the first record that took us on a journey to foreign lands and gave us the chance to uncover true black metal landscapes. Hammerheart is a watershed moment in the history of black metal because it sees one of the genres most important bands bridging old and new. Yes, you have buzzing guitars and monster riffs, but you also have graceful moments of acoustic mastery and choral vocals. Hammerheart is an album that brings metal nerds together because it represents something so much greater than any one of us. It shows us the vision of one man coming together in one of the great artistic statements of our time. Sure he may not have been able to execute at the level he wanted to, but that only added to its potency and reminds us that black metal will never die.