As arguably the most recognisable name in black metal, Burzum is all too often taken for granted. The project’s mastermind, Varg Vikernes, has become an increasingly easy target over the years due to the cult mythos that has sprung up around the various “controversies” of his early career. Since his release from jail in 2009, many self-appointed critics have lined up to take their swipe at the albums that followed, namely Belus in 2010, Fallen last year and now Umskiptar, which was released last month. But why all the venom? Well, much to LURKER’s dismay, the contemporary metal fanbase aren’t the brightest tools in the shed, so to speak, and they’re also incredibly vain and fashion-conscious, as much as they might protest. People will say anything for those tasty “kvlt points”, and one of the most popular ways of getting them nowadays is by ridiculing Burzum’s post-prison work based on a grossly idealised perception of the band’s first era.
What seems to be lost on an alarming proportion of internet warriors is that not much has changed about the essentials of Varg’s one-of-a-kind approach since then. This is still the same old genre-defining overlord. Nevertheless, the Count has also managed to smuggle in a profound stylistic leap with each of these new records, spitting in the face of any difficulties a 16-year stint behind bars may have presented. This enforced hiatus has evidently had a marked effect on the man as an artist: he’s been able to refine and re-envision his music and ideology in solitude, reflect on what held him back in the past and rectify it, and ultimately realign Burzum for an age that couldn’t be more foreign to the world in which it was forged. Emerging on the other side, Vikernes’ creations still sound totally unlike anything else out there. When many modern black metal bands stumble at even this most rudimentary of hurdles, isn’t that worth more respect than a torrent of ill-informed reviews and forum spite?
LURKER holds that Belus, Fallen and Umskiptar are the crowning achievements of Burzum’s discography. This is not mere contrarianism – we have no interest in the foolish, copycat opinions that surround the band – it is an honest and discerning appraisal of the music in the context of its release, directly compared to Vikernes’ work of the early 1990s. Yes, much of this is truly timeless, incredible art worthy of its reputation. But much of it also comes off as immature and poorly realised, too hit-or-miss. In an attempt to set the record straight on this frequently misunderstood artist, or at least give our two cents, lurkers Rob, Richard and Alex explain why these albums deserve better…
It’s only after several dozen listens that I have come to rank Belus among Burzum’s finest records. Like all of Vikernes’ best work, it yields its delights only to persevering listeners – those who are prepared to take it on its own terms, not those of any 21st-century metal scene. With its minimalist drum loops, decrepit, whispered vocals and that intro, there’s plenty to put off a casual listener. But anyone who has learned to overcome the trials of Filosofem Side B will have little trouble seeing past Belus‘s apparent weaknesses, given time.
Belus tells the story of the seasons, from the death of Summer (in ‘Belus’ død’), when the eponymous deity passes into the underworld, to the return of spring (in ‘Morgenrøde’) and the rebirth of the sun-god. Vikernes achieves a perfect marriage of sound and subject: the guitar tone has a deep earthy glow topped off with an ember-like crackle – a far cry from the hissing treble of HLTO and Filosofem. Guitars are piled on in layers, in a way that builds up a rich texture without over-complicating the harmonies. Lines buried in the mix gradually drift to the fore as the songs progress with Burzum’s trademark subtlety. Varg has spoken repeatedly of the influence of house and techno on his earlier output, but it may actually be strongest on Belus. On ‘Kaimadalthas’ nedstigning’, he constructs a dense wall of riffs only to break it down, leaving just a thumping bass drum and looped phrases of sung and spoken vocals. It’s in the drums, though, that the influence is most visible. They may just be loops, but in Varg’s hands that actually works out as one of the album’s major strengths: tiny developments in the patterns are planted with a master’s touch and keep attentive listeners hooked.
In my zeal for the stranger, more electronically-rooted sides to the album, I almost wrote that Belus is barely a metal album at all. That, however, would be way off the mark. The record contains some of the finest riffs of Vikernes’ career, starting on a strong foot with the fantastic opening of ‘Belus’ død’. Cynics may point out that the song’s main riff was written well over a decade before, but (at least in this lurker’s opinion) the album’s newer songs contain its best riffs. The unforgettable verse riff of ‘Morgenrøde’ is one of my favourites from any artist so far this decade. Fetishists of the past also have ‘Sverddans’ to caution them. The album’s weakest moment, its thrashing riffs sit uneasily alongside the lifeless, whispery vocals, while the manic soloing sounds like it would be more at home accompanying a sped-up police chase in an old slapstick film. But this just goes to shows how much more ambitious Belus is than any of its early reviewers gave it credit for. There’s something to be said for any album whose weird side is intriguing enough to keep you coming back, trying to work out how it fits into the greater artistic vision. As Varg himself said: “My ambition with Belus is to create something I – and hopefully others too – can listen to for years and years to come without ever growing tired of it.” The album’s oddities, not just its many triumphs, have made this mission a success.
After truly shaking out the cobwebs of incarceration with Belus, it was Fallen that proved Vikernes had a lot more left to say musically. Almost completely devoid of the impetuous evil stomping of his youth, with this album the Count took a more tuneful, folkier turn – much to the chagrin of those still wishing for a return to the mythical, oft-cited “glory days”, whatever the fuck they were. When listening to Fallen now, more than a year on from release, I can’t help but smile at all the pointless nostalgia that boils over into the public arena. There seems to be a lingering opinion that the Burzum of old has been lost forever, but I’m not convinced. Although this lurker may have been more interested in Power Rangers than black metal when Filosofem came out, I’ve since heard it enough times to know that Varg’s apparent stylistic shift post-prison is more a necessary step forwards than anything drastically different.
Vikerenes’ guitar style is not only an essential element of his aesthetic, but a cornerstone of the genre as a whole. To hear him subtly develop it to fit his new vision while the majority of the scene continues to rape his legacy is simply a joy to behold. On Fallen, riffs emerge like old long-lost friends, vaguely familiar and wisened by age, stepping in to guide Burzum to previously unreachable heights. The way the notes seep from every direction on tracks like ‘Jeg Faller’ or ‘Vanvid’ suggests that Varg just wasn’t talented enough to compose this music in the beginning, as if his ability was all that stood in the way of Det Som En Gang Var breaking out from its dingy monochrome.
Of course, we know this isn’t the case; Burzum was crafting something very specific back then, something for which the project is rightfully hailed. Yet Fallen is a new beast, bursting with melodies and a hypnotic accessibility heretofore absent from Burzum’s discography. It meant some were left mourning the loss of that primitive, despondent rage found on earlier albums – but I hear another rage altogether. Not the anger of a snotty tearaway teenager in over his head, rather the fury of a frustrated artist finally being given that chance for unbounded creative release.
Fallen sounds like the record Varg always wanted to write. That he intended it to be “mastered like classical music” foreshadows the astonishing attention to detail found throughout. As the elaborate guitar patterns thread through the syncopated rhythms of ‘Valen’, there’s a gifted composer behind it all, revelling in atmospheres and themes that never quite slotted into the Burzum universe before – fine mead, oaken halls, lost epics, shoreline raids. The crystal-clear production conveys these new ideas perfectly, but even that has been attacked by traditionalists.
“Not ‘necro’ enough,” they bleat in hideous unison, blind to the fact that many of the finest black metal albums did actually deviate from these obsolete rules and regulations. But Burzum has outgrown its bloody origins in the early Norwegian scene far better than other acts, and in doing so avoided becoming obsolete itself. This could very well be Varg Vikernes in his prime, as the following album Umskiptar so fervently attests.
Approaching Burzum from the now cult-like narrative that surrounds the Norwegian second wave has birthed a lot of misguided suppositions about what Varg’s music actually entails. People come to black metal and are greeted with tales of church burnings and murders. Bands like Mayhem present tracks entitled ‘Chainsaw Gutsfuck’. Tales are woven about the flippant relationship Varg shared with Euronymous. They expect the anger that surrounds Varg’s actions to filter into his music – and it rarely does. Save for the earliest instantiations of his sound, Varg’s discography has always leaned towards a more resplendent oeuvre than the ones his countrymen crafted.
Those who might rush to label Umskiptar as bland and fairy-like would do well to revisit those albums proclaimed as seminal in the development of both Burzum and the second wave of black metal. Repetition is everywhere in Varg’s work. Anyone guilty of labeling Umskiptar as repetitious should go away and listen to Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, which only succeeds because of the minute variations on a repeated theme. Those who proclaim Umskiptar to be uninteresting should spend some time with Dauði Baldrs and Hliðskjálf before suggesting subtlety is not a dominant force in the work of Burzum.
The most justifiable criticism hurled at Umskiptar seems to be the chief concern many have had with Varg’s post-prison output in general – that it all lacks an aspect of anger. From Belus through Fallen to the present form of Burzum, it becomes obvious that Varg is done sharpening knives… and this comes as no surprise. A bit of reflection reveals aggression has not been a priority in the development of Burzum since the days of Aske. The progression that took place between Det Som Engang Var to Filosofem is one away from violence and towards atmosphere and majesty. From the ambient, largely under-appreciated moments of simplicity that make up the synth stage of Burzum to the flashes of fully realized finesse that litter Umskiptar, a clearly defined development of sound is hard to deny.
There might always have been an aggressive drive to Burzum, which accurately reflects the steadfastness of his beliefs and actions in reclaiming Norway from the tyrant clutches of Christianity. However, to suggest this was the focal point of his work is naïve. Varg was never the embodiment of black metal people proclaim him to be. The actions of his youth and the mythos that surrounds the man do little to sway the catalogue of sound and melody he left behind. One has to only bear witness to the sublime beauty at the heart of Burzum’s most recognized track, ‘Dunkelheit’, and the serene numbness that washes over you, to understand Varg has always been more enchanted by nature than the typical black metal schematic.
Don’t get me wrong – Umskiptar is different. It does represent a mellowed out Varg, as if he is finally ready to shed the expectations that we as fans have built up around him. The Tolkien fables are long gone. The tangibility of the chancy “articles” that frequent his official home page live vicariously through Umskiptar. Varg’s goal has evolved to represent nature in a pagan framework as majestically as possible and Umskiptar provides this in spades. It is a logical “metamorphosis” into a field of sound beyond black metal. Yes, Umskiptar is not black metal. Why should it be?