A lost, forgotten, sad spirit is the finest description of one-man project Burzum. Not Varg Vikernes himself, mind you; all sympathy from his lonely upbringing as one of two children in his school district1 quickly evaporates upon learning of his highly racist and antagonistic perspectives to anyone and anything Judeo-Christian, notwithstanding his murder of Mayhem bandmate Euronymous. The checkered2 history of the man behind one of the most critically acclaimed and influential acts of the early Norwegian black metal scene may certainly eclipse the art itself, as it may be hard to separate the quality of Vikernes’ project from the disgust with which many regard his life history and attitudes. Although forsaking Burzum due to its creator’s notoriety is an action certainly not without merit, the project is a cogent masterwork of extreme metal.
Burzum’s debut was written and recorded in direct response to the explosion of ever-more-technical death metal bands and in antithesis to the obsession with high production that Vikernes interpreted as posturing and a sacrilegious dilution of heavy metal’s inherently anti-Christian and anti-establishment aesthetic.3 Vikernes recorded Burzum – and other albums – under purposefully lo-fi conditions with minimal technical flourishes, taking upon the role of a reactionary against excess in return to purity. The production is on par with what most extreme metal bands would call a demo, yet not in a dismissive connotation.4 5 There is a cavernous quality that envelopes the tracks in an ominous, vaguely enchanting reverb.
Although not the first music recorded under the Burzum project – that honor goes to Filosofem, ironically the last of the per-incarceration Burzum albums to be released – Burzum is a simple, even immature work. The basslines are spartan, almost entirely following the root chord notes (although surprisingly audible for lo-fi black metal, especially on “A Lost Forgotten Sad Spirit”). Percussion alternates between mid-tempo blast beats and heavy emphasis on snare/cymbal; “Ea, Lord of the Depths” has one of the best percussive introductions in the entire Norwegian black metal scene, but on “War” Vikernes’ demonstrates his inconsistent musical ability and makes several egregious missteps in keeping time. Other than the guitarwork – of which Vikernes demonstrates his competence in “Feeble Screams from Forests Unknown” and “Ea, Lord of Depths”6 – the instrumentation is crude. Even Vikernes’ hawkish wail is Burzum is contentious; it either perfectly aligns with the album’s nightmarish anguish or pushes the album into self-parody. Its wolflike quality may correspond with the album’s pagan symbolism and rawness of primordial vigor or sounds too tinny to complement it; the distinction is up to the listener. Yet although the man was not an impressive musician on this album by any stretch of the imagination – even with Burzum‘s purposefully stripped-down aesthetic taken into account – it is exactly the aesthetic for which Vikernes sought, and in that it is a success.
The three long songs: “Feeble Screams from Forests Unknown,” “A Lost Forgotten Sad Spirit, and “My Journey to the Stars” are stimulating experiments of the anti-guitar, in that Vikernes eschews the formulaic solos and riffs of death and thrash metal by focusing on repetition and dissonance, cycling through several distinct chord structures and utilizing guitars as an atmospheric base rather than a showcase for virtuosity. Although the structure demonstrated in Burzum is relatively commonplace nowadays – in a world where where “atmospheric black metal” is a genre tag on Allmusic – in the early nineties, black metal was still deeply rooted in thrash and death à la Bathory, Venom, Celtic Frost, and even early Immortal. Burzum spit in the face of such foundations, and its bellicosity mirrors Vikernes’ harsh, pitiless opinions of contemporary heavy metal culture and even his fellow members of the scene in Norway. Modern listeners may interpret the album as – ironically – the most the standard black metal release under Burzum, but only because its influence is so broad and because Burzum would push his own ideals in further experimental forms in follow-up releases.
Burzum is one of the first albums – if not the first that matters – to recognize the parity of aesthetics between dark ambient and black metal. The two sides of Burzum end with tracks played entirely by keyboard and percussion: the droning, airy “Channeling the Power of Souls into a New God” and the low-bass rumble “Dungeons of Darkness.” They are straightforward affairs – especially in comparison to “Tomhet” from Hvis lyset tar oss – but do well in providing a bit of spooky ambiance in closure. “Dungeons of Darkness” contains portentous gong-bashing by Euronymous, which adds a level of contextual discomfiture akin to that elicited by Mayhem’s De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas when one hears he and Vikernes – victim and murderer – play guitar and bass together.
Burzum is a historically important album, and its place in the early Norwegian black metal scene makes it a necessary listen for those interested in extreme metal. Despite its shortcomings in instrumentation, its theory and concept are engaging; and its album cover is a haunting symbol of the fear, dread, and existential dismay that typifies Norwegian black metal. Det Som Engang Var, Hvis lyset tar oss, and Filosofem are impressive in terms of musicality, performance, and composition; yet Burzum’s debut is Vikernes’ spirit at its most tormented and agonized – and at its most lonesome.
1. Feeble Screams from Forests Unknown – (7:28) – ★★★★★
2. Ea, Lord of Depths – (4:52) – ★★★★★
3. Black Spell of Destruction – (5:39) – ★★★☆☆
4. Channeling the Power of Souls into a New God – (3:27) – ★★★★☆
5. War – (2:30) – ★★★☆☆
6. The Crying Orc – (0:58) – ★★★★★
7. A Lost Forgotten Sad Spirit – (10:52) – ★★★★☆
8. My Journey to the Stars – (8:10) – ★★★★☆
9. Dungeons of Darkness – (4:52) – ★★★☆☆
1The other one having killed himself, according to this Sputnikmusic article: http://www.sputnikmusic.com/review/14328/Burzum-Burzum/
2Okay, maybe a bit more than that.
3Quite a bit of this can be read in Vikernes’ own words on his web site, which features a series of autobiographical articles on black metal, neopaganism, and ultra-nationalism. A key section is Vikernes’ description of his feud and subsequent murder of Euronymous, in which he often mocks the artificiality that he perceived as infecting heavy metal and even his own local scene. Check it out at: http://www.burzum.org/eng/library/a_burzum_story02.shtml
4Vikernes dislikes talking about the recording set-up of the early Burzum albums, calling such conversations pointless and exactly what he rebelled against in the early nineties. But if you’re curious, he does discuss his equipment on his web site at: http://www.burzum.org/eng/library/a_burzum_story06.shtml
5… which would be taken to its logical conclusion on Filosofem.
6The solo on “War” was performed by Euronymous. It harkens back to black metal’s thrash foundations, although it is oddly out of place on an album that fought so hard to disestablish itself from heavy metal norms.