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.