It’s a familiar tale, if you’d been paying attention. Varg Vikernes (aka “Count Grisnackh”), the sole power behind Burzum, represented both the flowering potential of black metal as a new and potent form of individualized musical expression, while simultaneously representing all the worst personal and ideological excesses that Norwegian black metal came to be associated with. Church burning. Murder. Dodgy ideological tendencies and a flirtation with extreme rightist and racist imagery. Burzum’s individualistic art became completely overshadowed by Vikernes’ crimes and antics to a fatal degree, with the band attracting leering tabloid style coverage, lemming-like “fans,” and a 4-REAL reputation for violence somewhere between Eazy-E and GG Allin (just a guess). Varg Vikernes currently sits in prison. It is likely that he will never make another Burzum album again. His heart seems to be no longer in it. And that, despite all the rest, is a fucking shame.
What strikes you most and first, checking out the breadth of Burzum’s music compressed onto one cd, is the rapid development and progression that a very young Varg Vikernes made in his music over a remarkably short and prolific period of time. To go from primitive Bathory-esque thrashings to cinematic, ambient keyboard melancholy all in the space of one year is nothing short of amazing. Prime Burzum material is every bit as influential as it is undeniable and enjoyable.
The album opens with “Feeble Screams From Forests Unknown.” The opening track off his self-titled 1992 debut is an epochal storm of primitive black metal, fully bowing before Hellhammer and Bathory. Standing out by dint of its gonzoid conviction and Vikernes’ absolutely pained, androgynous screams that sound like nothing less than the moment of death, or birth — slow and painful — the progression from there is stunning in its speed and confidence. “Stemmen Fra Tarnet” keeps the low-fi violence, nasty buzzing guitar tone and tormented vocals, but adds to the mix devilish, dirty riffs, increased compositional chops, and marked dynamic shifts. Clearly the rulebook was burned along with the churches. Note that this more thrashy hybrid would be ripped off copiously too. “Lost Wisdom” is even further cleaned up and poised, at times sounding as assured and ready for the big leagues as Metallica was circa Ride the Lightning, at other times taking a turn for the melancholy with grinding doom passages worthy of Sabbath. Keeping it messy and unsettling throughout are Vikernes’ vocals, primal scream therapy that few vocalists can live up to (but check out the obvious influence on a young Malefic and his Xasthur).
Burzum was speeding through the history of metal at lightspeed. The darkling musique concrete of “Svart Troner” from 1993’s Det Som En Gang Var is even more surprising, that is, until the whole fucking album is blown out of the water by the magnificent “Det Som En Gang Var” from 1994’s Hvis Lyset Tar Oss. A gorgeous, sprawling fourteen-minute masterwork, this should have been the moment that sealed Burzum’s immortality instead of all the goddamned extracurricular shit. Within a little over a year, Vikernes and Burzum had gone from primitive scrapings to this progressive masterwork. And it’s still fucking heavy as hell. After a hymnal synthesizer prelude, cavernous drums usher in probably one of the most evil thrash riffs ever, that then gets OVERLAID by eerie synth beauty — and I’m knocked right on my fucking ass. When Grisnackh starts screaming that ulcerated pre-verbal howl over this ornate, orchestrated darkness — goodnight Irene, I’m fucking done, metal almost, ALMOST, doesn’t get any better than this. (Note that Dimmu Borgir would water the shit out of this and take the template to the bank, but without the majesty and gravitas.) The song stretches out like this malevolent prayer. It’s clear that Burzum had reached a fearsome creative peak, the fucking confidence in a song like this, where Vikernes would contemptuously flout any expectation by slowing down the tempo to a thrashy creep, overlay it with delicate synths to the point where it almost sounds, y’know, commercial, and then rabidly drool all over it and it still sounds glorious? Fuck! Check out the two-note guitar solo. The second movement of the song is even more lush and beautiful, still he screams, caught in his own nightmare. The coda is this brief snatch of a dirty rocker riff that the Stooges or Motorhead would have stolen in a second.
“Jesus Tod,” is an intriguing instrumental, like Brian Eno’s early ambient projects, only cloaked in an all-consuming air of melancholy, and utilizing a completely different palette — the black metal serrated guitar used as an instrument of expressive beauty instead of violent bludgeoning is a great inversion. This is a fascinating glimpse of another path Vikernes would have been able to fully explore (as this was his last album recorded before prison), had he not thrown it all away so thoughtlessly.
His prison compositions, made completely by himself on crude MIDI equipment, are low-fi dark ambient meanderings. It’s occasionally intriguing, much like Bobby Beausoleil’s prison compositions, with small hints of Wagner and ancient European folk musicks, but one can’t shake the feeling that Vikernes was just going through the motions at this point, increasingly distracted by the all-consuming task of maintaining his own fringe persona and philosophies. His flame of inspiration snuffed out, these songs seem to be made out a sense of duty, rather than in the madness of creation.
The songs, not the singer, I have to keep repeating to myself.
Candlelight Records: www.candlelightrecordsusa.com