Hliðskjálf – the name of Odin’s throne in Norse mythology – is the sixth overall full-length release by ambient and black metal musician Varg Vikernes under the Burzum moniker, and it is his second entirely electronic release. Recorded and released while Vikernes was serving a sixteen-year prison sentence for the murder of former Mayhem bandmate Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth and arson of several stave churches, Hliðskjálf represents the final of a planned three-part trilogy based on Ragnarok. The last of the series never came to fruition, as Vikernes abandoned the Burzum project shortly after this album’s release and did not record music again until the release of 2010’s Belus, which utilized the black metal genre instead of neofolk/ambient.
Hliðskjálf is an enormous improvement over previous release Dauði Baldrs, primarily due to the fact that it doesn’t use fucking MIDI sounds. Vikernes got a better keyboard and sampler during his incarceration,1 and it shows – each sound is much more lively due to the stripping of the sterility that made Dauði Baldrs an auditory equivalent of the uncanny valley. Oh sure, the same issues pop up – Dauði Baldrs and Hliðskjálf have incorrigible issues with repetitiveness that make most tracks boring rather than entrancing – but at least Hliðskjálf doesn’t sound like a Gateway2 computer having a Norse-life crisis.
Both “Frijôs einsames Trauern” and “Der Tod Wuotans” fail on the songwriting level for the same reason as “Bálferð Baldrs” and “Illa tiðandi” did in the context of Dauði Baldrs: Vikernes’ compositional ingenuity lies in his ability to synthesize modern classical concepts of minimalism and repetition in the context of black metal. When these same concepts are transcribed to electronic neofolk, these orphic lamentations become stale and stripped of the sublime harshness that made such compositions transcendent.3
“Tuistos Herz” is genuinely haunting, with a weird fluttering dissonance upon each keyboard chord strike. It’s similar in atmosphere and affect4 to “Tomhet” – the closing track to Vikernes’ Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, his earliest published experiment in long-form ambient composition. This quality is bolstered by its sheer variety of sound, with an airy fugue appearing approximately two minutes through the track. It’s a great example of what Vikernes can produce when he forsakes the pure minimalism that only achieved its purpose within the context of black metal for more nuanced work.
“Ansuzgardaraiwô” has a bit of an industrial, highly dissonant beat that appears and disappears to extremely sparse recording – once again entirely within the context of the cavernous synthesizer utilized in “Tuistos Herz” and Hvis Lyset Tar Oss‘ “Tomhet.” “Einfühlungsvermögen”5 is a bit more subdued, with a typical neofolk/electronic classical approach. Not bad, but not memorable.
“Die Liebe Nerþus,” “Frijôs goldene Tränen,” and “Der weinende Hadnur” feature digitized acoustic guitar arpeggios and fingerpicking6 that are – especially in the case of the second one – quite enjoyable, even peaceful. The final song is a tiny ditty not even eighty seconds in length, which subsists as a substandard coda to the entire album.
Hliðskjálf is no triumph of composition – neofolk, modern classical, ambient, or otherwise. It is certainly more enjoyable than the deservedly maligned Dauði Baldrs; if the latter were a CRPG soundtrack played on an Amiga 4000, than the former would be a Windows ’95 running that of Ultima VII.7 As with Dauði Baldrs, the listener would be hard-pressed to follow any storyline or pick up on the thematic material extant within Hliðskjálf; ambient music does not lend itself well to narrative exposition. The ambiance is effective, and for those looking for some furniture music to their next D&D campaign or Diablo run-through, Hliðskjálf may not be a bad choice.
Fun fact: additional artwork that accompanied the original release of Hliðskjálf was created by Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))).
1. Tuistos Herz8 – (6:13) – ★★★★☆
2. Der Tod Wuotans9 – (6:43) – ★★★☆☆
3. Ansuzgardaraiwô10 – (4:28) – ★★★★☆
4. Die Liebe Nerþus11 – (2:14) – ★★★☆☆
5. Frijôs einsames Trauern12 – (6:15) – ★★☆☆☆
6. Einfühlungsvermögen13 – (3:55) – ★★★☆☆
7. Frijôs goldene Tränen14 – (2:38) – ★★★★☆
8. Der weinende Hadnur15 – (1:16) – ★★☆☆☆
1Being from the USA, it still blows my mind that he was able to have instruments at all while in prison.
2ONLY NINETIES KIDS WILL GET THIS
3… and not in the Hunter Hunt-Hendrix kind of way.
4I love this word when used as a noun. “Affect” describes the actual experience of emotion so well.
5That looks like someone headbanged a keyboard. German is such a fun language to speak, though.
6Does it still count as fingerpicking when it’s more like… fingerplaying? Because of the whole synthesizer thing? Whatever.
7Who writes this shit?
8German translation: “Tuisto’s Heart”
9German translation: “The Death of Wotan”
10Old Norwegian translation: “Warriors of Ansuzgarda”
11German translation: “The Love of Nerthus”
12German translation: “Frijo’s Lonely Mourning”
13German translation: “The Power of Empathy”
14German translation: “Frijo’s Golden Tears”
15German translation: “The Weeping of Hadnur”