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.

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