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Up to the Challenge - 95%

CrimsonFloyd, August 20th, 2011

After a decade in prison, Varg Vikernes’s return to black metal was an extremely anticipated event. Putting aside the absurd amount of social and political hype that surround Varg’s first post-prison album, there was also a ton of musical pressure. Before being imprisoned, Burzum released a pair of masterworks that defined and redefined the genre of black metal; “Hvis Lyset Tar Oss” and “Filosofem”. Most of the past decade’s best black metal releases owe a great deal to those albums. Fair or not, Varg was expected to release a similar masterpiece in his first go-round after incarceration. Astonishingly, Varg was up to the challenge, releasing both the heaviest and most diverse album of his career. At the same time, the composition is intricate and the mood is complex, cultivating a dynamic presence that remains throughout the album.

“Belus” packs a punch. Gone are the keyboards, which had always given Burzum’s sound a gentler dimension. However, the increased presence of soft, clean vocals both preserves and transforms Burzum’s softer side. The guitars are big, sharp and heavy. They stand well in the forefront, grasping the listener with forceful moods and emotions. Still, every note of the bass is audible and drums are clear. The vocals—far raspier than on previous recordings—are also easily discernible. The production leaves plenty of open space in which the riffs bounce and echo, making for a full-bodied sound. The result is an album that grabs the listener with the pure force of the sound, and then enraptures them with the interplay of melodies.

And boy is this album enrapturing! As the glorious cover art implies, this is an album of contrasts and tensions. There are two central elements at play on “Belus”. First, there is the somber, reverent and reflective spirit, similar to the songs “Det Som Engang En Var” and “En Ring Til Aa Herske”. Second, there is the dark, attacking spirit, similar to “Jesus Dod” and “War”. The way these sounds come together and split apart over the course of the album is nothing short of brilliant.

For example, “Glemselens Elv” contrasts two folk melodies—a blistering guitar melody and a groovy, Germanic bass line. The two melodies dance around each other, from time to time coming together in a series of solemn bridges before breaking apart again. The contrast of clean and growled vocals further plays off the dark/ light theme.

“Kaimadalthas Nedstigning,” one of the most beautiful Burzum songs to date, plays off the theme in a more direct manner. The verse is sharp, frantic and biting, while the chorus is meditative, delicate and venerable. The precise, militant march of the verse naturally slides into the somber and reverent chorus. The soulful clean vocals and tragic guitar solo make the second half of this song splendorous.

Another landmark is the closing pair of tracks “Morgenroede” and “Tilbakekomst (Konklusjon),” which really feel like a single song. These songs cultivate the same trance inducing mood as the ambient tracks “Tomhet” and “Rundgang um die Transzendentale Säule der Singularität”. However, these tracks do so metallically. The shimmering riffs and pulsating bass entrap the listener amidst webs of repetitive patterns—which through only the slightest bits of variation, build toward profound emotional apexes. Like “Tomhet” and “Rundgang…,” “Morgenroede” and “Tilbakekomst” have a soothing and cleansing effect that stands as the perfect palate cleanser after the emotional intensity that characterizes the rest of the album.

The profundity and originality of these highlights, along with the brilliantly executed light/ dark theme, make “Belus” a classic. As usual, Varg does not settle for the status quo. While countless copy cats have spent the past decade trying to replicate the sounds of “Hvis…” and “Filosofem”, “Belus” shows that Burzum is not stuck in the past. Rather than dampening his artistic impulse, it seems Varg’s time in prison has led him to traverse stunning vistas previously unexplored in black metal.

(Originally written for http://listenwell-nocturnal.blogspot.com)