Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Black Metal Tuesday - Burzum part 2

HVIS LYSET TAR OSS (If the Light Takes Us)

Recorded five months later, but released in 1994, Hvis Lyset Tar Oss sits atop many a “best black metal albums” list. A significant progression in style from the previous two, Hvis... is a deeply emotional and melancholic sounding album. Only 4 tracks make up the 45 minute running time, each song a masterfully written, and slowly developing journey. This is arguably the album that started the sub genre of “atmospheric black metal” or the ridiculously named “depressive black metal.” 

Varg’s vocal attack is more refined and controlled, communicating more sadness than lunacy. Track one, (named after the previous album) is a fourteen-and-a-half minute masterpiece that develops and blends ideas with great care. This is the type of songwriting that most impresses me - taking a few good riffs, and stretching them out into a natural progression - less is more.

Track two, the title track takes a more pronounced minimalist approach, lulling the listener into a trance over a blast-beat (no one would’ve thought that possible). Inn i slottet fra droemmen (trans: Into the Castle from the Dream) continues along the same lines until it hits the 3:40 mark and then drops into the album’s finest moment - three riffs that build upon each other into a powerful climax that sets up the album’s keyboard instrumental, “Tomhet” (trans: Emptiness) - a keyboard only piece that closes the album like it began, with palatable sadness. When that flute starts up about 9 minutes in, it is truly a moving moment. Hvis remains my favorite Burzum album because of the emotional depth it possesses. This is the work of a man in his most prolific and maniacal period. He was burning churches and plotting murders at this point so... this is the work of a mad man. 


The final album recorded before his imprisonment, Filosofem is likely his most frequently cited work. The song writing is again rather accomplished, though this time it borders on self-indulgent (28 minute ambient instrumental?). What really makes this sucker stand out is the production. It will immediately capture you once the opening guitar of Dunkelheit begins. Varg talked of using the cheapest amp he could find, putting a mere 2 mics on the drums, and using a set of headphones as a microphone for vocals. This should sound like garbage, but it doesn't - it is unlike any metal album before or since. 

I once read a review of Filosofem that likened it to being swept out to sea - the first 3 tracks being the struggle against the waves, and the last 3 being the slow drift and eventual demise. This description is so accurate, that I sometimes wonder if it was taken from Varg's production notes. The first 3 tracks are definitely the stronger of the bunch. In fact, if the album stopped after track 3, it would be hard to say that it wasn't a perfect album. Dunkheit (German for "darkness" aka "Burzum") blends the buzzsaw guitars with an ambient synth over a slow plodding beat and Varg's distorted cries. His vocal approach is now subdued and controlled - almost sounding like a menacing whisper instead of the wailing and screeching of the earlier albums. "Jesus' Tod" has a solid old-school sounding Burzum riff over a 6/8 double bass romp which feels like a nice blend of the old sound with the new. 

Side B of the album has no drums and sees a sandwiching of two guitar suites with a mammoth-sized ambient keyboard piece in the middle. It is hypnotic and certainly sets a mood but, like most ambient pieces, I really have to be in the right mood and the right place to listen to it. As a drift off to sleep album though, it's pretty fantastic.

You could argue that all of Varg's work has a concept behind it, but Filosofem and Hvis Lyset Tar Oss feel like the concept was finally realized. Once in prison, Varg completed two keyboard-only Burzum albums. One (Dauði Baldrs) is worthless, while the other (Hliðskjálf) works as a ambient-mood setter. Once released from prison, Burzum returned to black metal (though he would never call it that). Belus and Fallen are both above average efforts and will appeal to fans of the Filosofem period (Varg obviously understanding his fan base there). His last 2 albums show him branching out again, and I'm not sure I'm on board. Enjoy your closing weeks of winter by hearing what this crazy asshole has to offer - you won't be disappointed. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Black Metal Tuesday - Burzum part 1

In honor of Norway kicking everyone's butts in the Winter Olympics, I thought I'd depart from the usual format and talk about my favorite Norwegian musician. Varg Vikerness (aka Count grishnackh, aka Burzum) is Norway's Charles Manson. You don't have to dig too deep to find detailed accounts of his deeds, but I'll try and sum it up in a few sentences. 

Varg was a key member in Norway's formative "Black Circle" which I've mentioned several times this winter. Like most black metal musicians, he started off in a death metal band. Burzum was his solo project and started as a part of the black metal movement. Burzum's self titled album is considered the second Norwegian black metal album after Darkthrone's A Blaze in the Northern Sky. As the black circle's movement became more than just music, Varg became a key player in the church burnings, being brazen enough to put a picture of one of the burning buildings on the follow up Aske EP. 

As Varg's influence in the scene grew, it was met with opposition from the other Black Circle kingpin and Mayhem bandmate, Euronymous. Shortly after Varg was released from jail for several counts of arson (lack of evidence), he murdered Euronymous in his apartment in Oslo. After a short investigation, Varg was arrested, charged, and convicted. He served nearly 18 years and was released in 2010. Since then, Varg has returned to music and has been very outspoken about his Pagan beliefs, as well as beliefs akin to fascism and Neo-Nazism. 

While I do not endorse Varg's political beliefs or his crimes, I would be lying if I said those don't factor into the mystique of his music. He represents a true world evil that is just uncomfortable enough to be compelling. In an era where upside down crosses and goat head altars are commonplace, Varg is truly a scary and frightening entity. As awful as it is, metal needs it's villains, and Varg is public enemy number one. 

All of this would be nonsense if the guy's music sucked. It doesn't. Quite the contrary, Burzum pre-prison work is among the finest Norwegian Black Metal ever recorded. It was honest, genuine, and strikingly original. Burzum may be the key factor in black metal becoming such a compelling genre of metal in my adult life, long after the thrill of other forms of extreme metal had worn off. So, to honor Norway, I will honor their black sheep by discussing his first 4 albums. (first two this week)

*it is important to note that Varg's lyrics are never political in nature, so there is no need to endure any of those messages in his music - it's not there. 

**It is also worth noting that these four albums were recorded in the span of 15 months or so (January 1992 through March 1993), but released several years apart. 


1992's self-titled debut is a raw, self-produced masterpiece. Look around at all of the one-man-band black metal outfits today (myself included) and you'll see an inspiration from this album. Varg wrote and performed everything in this album (except for the lead guitar in "War" which was performed by his future murder victim). 

This is Varg's roughest and most abrasive work. The ambient and atmospheric elements that would become so pronounced in his later work are more than hinted at here, but there are moments where the traditional metal elements still peak through. His vocals will be an immediate standout. Though the music is rather even and some would even say, subdued, his vocals sound like a raving lunatic with his dick caught in a bear trap. Some will have great difficulty getting past it, and it took me a while too. Now, I think they're incredible. He was the first guy to take an approach other than hatred or evilness in extreme vocals - it is utter anguish. 

Musically speaking the debut has traditional metal elements, but also a distinct influence from old school video game music. I swear that first riff of Ea, Lord of the Depths sounds like a dungeon level in The Legend of Zelda. This album introduced the melancholic undertones that would become so prevalent in this genre. Listen to that riff at the 6:10 mark in Journey to the Stars it is the perfect blend of sadness and menace - the black metal miracle. Varg would only improve from here, but it's a hell of a start. 

DET SOM ENGANG VAR (trans: “What Once Was”)

The second album was recorded a mere 4 months later, but released just shortly before Varg was incarcerated for murder. The album opens with a few minutes of ambience which leads to “Key to the Gate” and the most ferocious minute of music Burzum has recorded. Shortly thereafter, it slows to a crawl and more familiar sounding material. Because of the short time in which Varg recorded another album, it should be no surprise that this one is a bit less consistent compared to album #1. Less consistent, but not lacking in quality material. It expands on the themes established in the debut, melodic, dark, with plenty of atmosphere. The slow and foreboding  “En ring til aa herske” (translated to “One Ring to Rule” - ala Tolkien) shows Varg using sung vocal lines underneath his screechy lunacy, to a surprisingly effective degree. 

This album undoubtedly has the cleanest production of the first four. All the instruments are cleanly audible and the drums sound well mic’d with compression, eq, the works. The strongest moments come towards the end, beginning with the sorrowful instrumental, “Naar himmelen klarner” (trans: When the Sky Clears) and finishing with the epic “Snu mikrokosmos tegn” (trans:  Turn the Sign of the Microcosm). Varg’s songwriting skills have developed significantly, even in four months’ time. 

Both albums are worthy to explore if you're interested in the genre in the slightest, but next week I'll cover the next two, arguably the best of his career.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Black Metal Tuesday - Jahreszeiten

Horn - Jahreszeiten

This modern black metal band hails from Germany, and plays a folkish (read - "Medieval") subtype more akin to Norway's Windir than their "War Metal" countrymen. Jahreszeiten is the one-man-band's debut from 2005. Nerrath (sole member) uses dual guitar harmonies to their limit on this satisfyingly DIY sounding release. 

The lyrics appear to switch from German to English throughout, one can never be sure. But from the sound of it, this is one of those "homeland" black metal albums, more concerned with sounding ancestral than evil. The result is some great riffs and melancholic harmonies that are bittersweet and damn-near beautiful at times. Track 4 opens with such a classic medieval riff, you can almost see the knights on horseback, riding valiantly through the countryside. Horn really do sound like Germany's answer to Windir, with a few more variations within their tracks than Valfar's project. With the exception of a short outro track, the songs are +6 minutes in length, covering a great deal of ground in each song. He also manages to achieve quite a bit of atmosphere without the use of keyboards.

Production-wise, Horn's debut sounds like it was recorded in a garage, but each instrument is clear and happily in its own space in the mix (with the exception of a bass guitar which I'm not sure exists at all). This is a very listenable record which will undoubtedly appeal to fans of the more melodic and "nature-focused" black metal bands (again, Windir, and to some extent, Wolves in the Throneroom). Jahreszeiten is a nice, rich listen and worthy of attention. It gets a 3.5 out of 5.