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After over a decade when Varg Vikernes was in jail and released just two all-synthesiser albums under the Burzum name as part of an intended trilogy and which attracted poor reviews and much criticism, I confess my expectations for "Belus" were not high. I was prepared to give Burzum another chance since the earlier recordings that I know have been good. Fortunately "Belus" turns out to fall into that category too: it's not up to the level of "Filosofem" and "Hvis Lyset Tar Oss" in originality and emotional intensity but it's nowhere near as ghastly as "Hlidskjalf", one of the all-synth albums in the failed trilogy. All the same, "Belus" is inconsistent musically over eight songs and unless listeners know something of the lyrical theme that binds the whole album together, they are likely to be confused as to what Vikernes wants to be or is trying to achieve with his songs. (Astute MA readers will notice I didn't mention the "Daudi Baldrs" album but at this time of writing I had not heard the album. Being the kind of curious dumbo that I am, it's perhaps a wonder that I've not heard it yet. I understand I may not be missing anything much.)
The early songs in "Belus" sound very like part 2 of "Filosofem" in their repetitive minimal structures and their dominant guitar melodies and riffs. These have the same flowing quality and could almost be variations of the tunes on "Filosofem". What's different about these is their sound - it's a lot deeper and stronger, not so thin, and perhaps this is the sound Burzum was seeking for "Filosofem" before jail-time came between him and the album. The vocals are upfront and much more confident, and on quite a few songs on "Belus", black metal vocals and clean-toned vocals, spoken and sung, alternate as though Vikernes was engaged in a dialogue with himself or an imagined second person. The vocals often carry anger or some other emotion like resignation or indifference while more intense and complex emotions are carried by the guitar riffs and the drum rhythms - check out the half-happy / half-bitter ambience of the guitar passage in "Kaimadalthas Nedstigning". But apart from the technical details of Burzum's updated sound, there isn't much new or different from previous Burzum work in the first half of the album.
There is a short phase (tracks 5 and 6) of tight punchy aggressive melodic metal in the middle of "Belus" which is sure to go down well with a lot of listeners. The drumming rhythms are tight and fast and are like death metal rhythms. Vikernes scrabbles a lot with the fast guitar melodies but the structure of the songs being limited to repeated riffs, neither of them really goes anywhere, there's no climax or resolution to the quick build-up of tension and anger, and the songs end as suddenly as they begin.
The last two tracks are something completely different: they're very noisy and loose, they have a melancholic and definite black metal feel, and they verge on experimentation with sound, mood and energy. The guitars are so bleedingly raw in their tones that they acquire a hellish sound though embedded within is an electric sparkle. The constant repetition ends up reverberating in your head. In the very last track, drums fall away so it is all just ongoing relentless repetition of trilling guitar notes surging onwards and never seeming to end. The guitar seems to acquire a life-force that is all sheer energy.
The themes of isolation, dread and melancholy that were present on "Hvis Lyset ..." and "Filosofem" and which made those albums very intense emotionally haven't carried over to "Belus". Instead we have a theme of a god who descends to the underworld and comes back to ours though what the god returns with and how the experience makes the god a better or worse ... um, entity, I suppose, isn't revealed. Even if the god learns no useful lessons or has no new understanding and insights into his character, he could have had some effect on the underworld and the interaction between the two might have made for an interesting experience involving some emotional intensity: the god could have met an underworld friend but this being might not be able to leave the place or can leave only if the god meets certain conditions which he fails to do. I can see the parallel between this theme of descent into the underworld and rebirth - it's a theme that appears in ancient Germanic and Slavic religions - and Vikernes's recent personal history so there was plenty of opportunity and potential to personalise that myth of descent / ascent and to bring out the emotions inherent in that myth: the sense of struggle, coping with failure and despair, wondering what's happening in the outside world, will the rules change and I'm stuck here forever, the mixed feelings that come when you're on the rise (will I keep going up and up? am I being set up? if I get out, how will I cope?) and the exhilaration that comes when finally you're back out in the sunlight. Somehow though in the early half of "Belus", we get little sense of the despair and hopelessness that Vikernes might have experienced when he first went to prison. In tracks 5 and 6, the anger and determination start coming through but if fear and hope had been mixed through these emotions as well, the intensity that could have resulted might have made the songs more interesting.
In some tracks there is potential for the music to go off in a different direction or undergo a change or variation that might lift it in style or mood, and Vikernes is capable of throwing pleasant surprises as in the song "Kaimadalthas Nedstigning" where he struck out at a tangent in the instrumental section so why he didn't do the same for other songs, especially in tracks 5 and 6 which need a tension release to represent death or the end of struggle, is a puzzle. I can understand tracks 7 and 8 being loose and almost experimental in the context of the theme as they represent the god acquiring on new life. So there isn't a lot in "Belus" that will hold listeners spellbound all the way through. It's likely that parts of the album will appeal to some people and other parts to others but there may not be many who will like everything equally.
As he wasn't all that active musically while he was in jail, I'm inclined to look kindly on Vikernes for backtracking to where he left off and to carry over the better aspects of the Burzum project as it was in the late 1990s but I'm disappointed that his music hasn't changed much in style, structure or themes during the time he spent in prison, and even with what he has, he doesn't extend his range to the utmost. I'm aware he spent most of his jail-time on self-education and other non-musical activities which might be assumed to have influenced his music. It seems Vikernes's experience of prison - I hear it was fairly benign - didn't have much positive effect on his musical development which may be kind of ironic for those MA readers in countries where being in prison means being tortured physically, mentally and spiritually, and never having a hope of ever being released or seeing your loved ones ever again.