Sunn O)))’s “Bathory Erszebet” is myth-making horror drone

Jeff Terich
Sunn O))) Bathory Erszebet

Blood on the Tracks is a bi-weekly series that documents songs with dark histories. Sometimes they’re songs about something gruesome or terrifying, and sometimes they’re seemingly innocent tracks that are given a bizarre and sometimes horrific new life over time.

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Metal is obsessed with the legend of Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory. The Swedish band Bathory were pioneers of the sound and aesthetics of black metal. Before that, Newcastle proto-black metal heshers Venom wrote an ode to “Countess Bathory,” and decades later, campy metal-pop act Ghost wrote a hook-laden occult-rock anthem to the infamous figure, titled “Elizabeth.” And if you squint a little, it sort of sounds like James Hetfield is barking “Ba-thor-y” on “Battery.” (Though my understanding is that it’s actually pronounced “bow-der-y”, so maybe not.)

That’s because the myth of Countess Bathory is metal AF. A ghastly tale of horror that existed before horror was even a genre (and has since inspired at least 10 different movies of, eh, varying quality), Bathory’s tale rivals that of Count Dracula (or Vlad the Impaler) himself in terms of sheer, bloody terror. In the 16th century, Bathory supposedly killed and tortured hundreds of women, earning her the reputation of the most prolific female serial killer of all time. More than 300 witnesses testified to her cruelty, her acts in question ranging from murdering servant girls to mutilation, freezing them, starving them, covering them in honey and live ants, and burning them. Though one of the most common, if apocryphal, parts of Bathory lore is that she bathed in her victims’ blood to preserve her beauty.

To what degree this is all true remains an open question more than 400 years later. Given her noble status and the era in which she lived, there’s no question that a lot of people surrounding her probably met an unfortunate fate. Plenty of theories abound that Bathory was a victim of a political conspiracy, and that political and religious conflicts, as well as the spread of Hapsburg power into Hungary, could very well account for many of the deaths attributed to the Countess. That the story is so vile to, at times, be essentially beyond belief is, to some extent, why it lives on. It’s prime fodder for strange, erotic horror b-movies and yes, of course, metal songs.

By the time Sunn O))) released their own recounting of the villainous Countess, there were already probably dozens if not hundreds of similarly themed songs in metal already. But theirs wasn’t so much a metal song in the sense that Venom’s or Ghost’s are—Sunn O))), despite the grim reaper dress code, make avant garde drone music that just happens to employ loud guitars as its central sonic force. Which is also metal AF in its own way. But for much of “Bathory Erszebet,” that doesn’t happen—the entire introductory seven minutes of the track (which comprises 16 total) is just a low, ambient drone. But the climactic introduction of those growling, low-end guitar tones comes coupled with the truly peculiar vocals of Malefic, the musician behind L.A. black metal outfit Xasthur. Something’s off about them, though. They’re distorted. Muffled. Black metal vocals always kind of sound inscrutable in their own way, but these are different. Because he recorded them while locked in a coffin.

So the story goes. Look up the details of this just about anywhere on the Internet and the word “allegedly” always comes up, which is likely intentional. A good story is always better with a seed of doubt, but not too much of it—just enough to make you want it to be true. Malefic, supposedly claustrophobic, was locked in the coffin until he was finished with his vocal take, in order to draw out genuine horror, which is plausible enough when you hear his breaths just before the first of his many goblin croaks. He very well could be gasping panicked breaths inside of a morbid chamber, sentenced to his own form of torture as he builds on the myth of a woman responsible for plenty of her own. The song itself is lengthy but tense, a masterful piece of avant garde metal that’s all harrowing atmosphere and creeping dread. The sound is breathtaking, but the imagery that surrounds it only enhances it.

It’s hard to make out what Malefic is saying, of course—perhaps being inside a coffin doesn’t necessarily allow much flexibility in terms of enunciation—but the lyric sheet is pretty epic: “Dwell forever in her great unholy stomach where the damned befoul themselves in the glory of her fecund and bloody history/Worship in the torment of a million wasted lives/Bathe in the horror that the blood of time carries with the plague.” His depiction is so dramatic, overwritten in a way that only metal can be, and yet it’s absolutely perfect—you don’t just casually tell the story of Bathory with passive nonchalance. If you’re going to do it, you have to sell the almost supernatural nature of its horrors. And hell, might as well do it while reclining inside of a locked coffin.

If that’s actually what happened, which 15 years later remains alluded to but not confirmed, to my knowledge. If it somehow ended up not being true, it’s not as if “Bathory Erszebet” would somehow lose its appeal as a piece of music—Sunn O))) are nothing if not masters of crafting immersive atmosphere. But the myth is what makes it all the more interesting. Fitting that a track whose namesake has a legend far more horrific than one could ever presume the truth to be likewise has built up a strange and fascinating myth of its own. One good tale of horror merits being retold through another.


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