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Reviewing Burzum is never easy… I have a feeling like people judge Varg and band more for his deeds, beliefs and views – which sure, are controversial, but who cares – more than for his music. But isn’t the music the most important here? I must admit that, despite being who he is, Varg was and still is very talented musician. Or I would better say black metal / ambient composer, because he’s not very skilled instrumentalist, his playing is sometimes just primitive, but the atmosphere and special feeling, which he creates in his music are things, which make Burzum so special. In the early period of Burzum existence Vickernes composed many awesome songs… some has been featured on his debut LP “Burzum” and MLP “Aske” and just few months after releasing these two “Det som engang var” sees the light of the fullmoon and I personally must say that from all these three releases this one is my favourite. It’s not perfect, and also it is not my personal favourite in the whole Burzum discography, but certainly it is very good album and I like it more than the debut. “Det som engang var” has actually been recorded even before “Aske”, but the EP was released first, which is kind of weird... It was all because Varg didn’t want to give his second full length album to Deathlike Silence anymore, so he waited and finally released it through his own label Cymophane Records. He also wanted to release “Aske” by himself, but got arrested at that time, so DSP released it. Originally “Det som engang var” was released only on CD limited to 950 copies. I don’t need to remind you how expensive this pressing is. I am happy to have just a 2005’s Back on Black vinyl edition of it.
When comparing “Det som engang var” (what stands for “What Once Was”) to the previous efforts I can easily say that the music has progressed and overall it is better composed and recorded album. But the atmosphere and feeling of the music is pretty much intact and it is a right continuation of the debut. The album is opened with very calm and silent keyboard intro “Den Onde Kysten”, which sets the right mood and then “Key to the Gate” begins… it is very rough and relatively fast black metal song, with Varg screaming in it like possessed. I like how it (this song) develops and in the slower part there’s one riff and motif, which I love especially – the one when guitar lead appears. It is amazing. Surprisingly the music turns into quite melodic, almost kind of doomy at some point, but I really like it a lot, for me it is the best moment of the whole album. “En Ring Til Å Herske” continues with this kind of dark and epic black metal, with unexpected use of clean vocals mixed with the shrieking howls and the mood is kind of hypnotising and truly dark, cold and grim. Wow, I must say that three songs from the beginning and it can already be heard how varied the music on “Det som engang var” is. And later on it goes through even more diverse stuff – starting off with excellent “Dark Wisdom”, which belongs to the most known Burzum songs I guess and then we have – just like on the debut LP – a bunch of instrumental tracks. But while on “Burzum” they were sometimes pretty useless, here on “Det som engang var” they really complete the atmosphere and feel like a part of the concept, not just something what was thrown in by accident (and on debut LP I felt like that, definitely, and not only with the instrumental songs, but especially with so mismatched song as “War”). Ambient track like “Han som Reiste” sounds really damn well, in my opinion and is kind of dark ambient, which I like to listen to – you know, something similar to Mortiis, Wongraven… It is side B of the vinyl, which is especially filled with instrumental songs, creating this almost dreamy atmosphere… but it is abruptly distorted and disrupted by “Snu Mikrokosmos Tegn”, a nine minutes long black metal anthem, again quite varied, as there are both fast and chaotic parts as well as more melancholic and melodic themes.
Heading towards the end of this review I can only add that “Det som engang var” is just a classic black metal record. I do realize that Norway back in those days was releasing a lot of killer, cult albums and they all deserve attention… and maybe among them all this second Burzum full length is not my favourite, with the debuts from Immortal, Enslaved or Darkthrone’s “Under the Funeral Moon” being ranked slightly higher, but it is very good LP anyway. I like how Burzum’s music has been evolving and obviously I just cannot resist to the way Vickernes has been creating this feeling and mood in his music, which are just possessing and trance like. “Det som engang var” is a mandatory album in everyone’s collection and I trust everyone has his own copy. And look at that front artwork by Jannicke Wiese-Hansen! Wow.
Standout tracks: “Key to the Gate”, “En Ring Til Å Herske”, “Han som Reiste”, “Dark Wisdom”
Final rate: 87/100
A few months after recording the impressive and somewhat erratic, but nonetheless impressive debut album “Burzum,” a more focused Varg Vikernes returned to the studios to record “Det Som Engang Var.” Taking the positives of the debut and building upon them, Burzum’s sophomore release is an absolute masterwork of black metal.
What is interesting is that the songs for “Burzum,” “Det Som Engang Var” and “Aske” were mostly written within a year—and not in the order that they were released. So some of the material on “Det Som…” is actually older than the material on the debut. However, it does appear as if experience in the studio did Varg some good, as “Det Som…” displays much more craft in arrangement and layering than its predecessor.
The production remains raw, the riffs remain razor sharp, and Varg’s screams are still the sound of unbridled madness. However, plenty of new details have been added, giving “Det Som…” a much more textured sound. To begin, the production is a little deeper, meaning there is even more room for the riffs to buzz and resonate within the recording. Vocally, Varg supplements his powerful screeches with soft, gentile chants eerie spoken word passages. For a love of melody this album is a treat, as Varg churns out one imperious melody after another.
Compositionally, “Det Som Engang Var” constantly offers the listener something new while maintaining a telos. The album starts from the darkest depths, with haunting and subdued ambient piece followed by the vicious “Key to the Gate,” which bursts onto the stage with venomous hatred. After several waves of terrifying riffs and annihilating vocals, the song sinks down into a slow, doomy middle section. Varg builds the tension with brilliant craft, setting the scene for stunning moment when the song takes a complete 180 and bursts out an absolutely glorious guitar solo and majestic riff.
The next 20 minutes are overloaded with magisterial sounds that summon images of pristine Nordic landscapes. On “En Ring Til Aa Herske” Varg takes his time, slowly developing a trance-inducing tunes toward its ecstatic peak. “Lost Wisdom” is the catchiest song, with a rock-like rhythm and folk leads. The album winds down with the dark, somber and eerie “Snu Mikrokosmos Tegn,” whose longer, interweaving structure recalls “My Journey to the Stars,” but is even more ominous. As if dragged down to the depths from where it came, “Det Som Engang Var” ends as disturbingly as it starts.
“Det Som Engang Var” also contains some of Varg’s first ambient pieces. The closer “Svarte Troner” is extremely disturbing, with soft, off-putting moans hiding behind spooky melodies and waves of white noise. “Han Som Reiste” consists of an excellent medieval melody—the kind of tune Summoning has made a living off of.
“Det Som Engang Var” is the closest one can get to the “other planes” of existence Varg speaks of in “Lost Wisdom.” It’s as if the listener is pulled out of his or her modern life and brought to a mystical, arcane world. Yet, like all dreams, the journey has to end and the listener is drawn back into the bleak reality of modern civilization once again. “No bear, no wolf, no troll. Breathless.” The beautiful dream of “Det Som Engang Var” comes to an end and only an ideal remains—an ideal totally disconnected from the modern world. What once was is lost.
(Originally written for http://listenwell-nocturnal.blogspot.com)
It was an interesting time, those days in the early 1990s where something new and cold was about to burst out of Northern Europe, provided one was actually privy to what was going on. Most who were of a mind to listen to what was generally accepted as accessible metal noted the changeover in the thrash metal scene and the complete demise of the typical 80s approach to heavy metal. But off in darker places was a lone magician who decided to pick up every instrument relevant to the genre and start crafting a series of masterpieces, 5 in all, in but a single year. It is difficult to decide which is more daunting; the number of albums put together, or how radically far apart from each other they are in overall character.
Of these dark, trance inducing creations, "Det Som Engang Var" stands as one of the more varied offerings. It generally embodies the dense, ambient character of latter offerings, yet contains a strong remnant of Varg's death metal past as well. Mingled amongst the hypnotic broken chord passages that sound like frost covered memories of the rock bands that originally employed them are a good number of creepy, chromatic passages and pounding low end grooves that, while not out of character for a number of more recent black metal outfits, is in direct contrast to the orthodoxy that was emerging out of most of Norway's other prime movers. The closest comparison could be made to "A Blaze In The Northern Sky", which was admittedly almost as much a death metal album as a blackened one, but here the presentation is not quite as jagged and crispy, more in the manner of a blistering snow storm rather than a punishing mixture of sleet and snow.
But perhaps more unique in the general scheme of things is lyrical content that dispenses with overt irreverence in favor of a sort of pagan historicism, mixed with some fantasy based lore ala J.R.R. Tolkein. Varg's agonizing wails are very suited to the part, playing up the role of a haggard storyteller who decries the victory of his adversaries, while longing for a more tranquil place to return to. Even the contrarian "Key To The Gate", replete with angered discord both vocally and musically, makes time for melodic passages that buck the trend of pure rage. "Lost Wisdom" and "En Ring Til Å Herske " visit a place of fragmented grooves, somewhat reminiscent of a slowed down death/thrash character in the mold of Hellhammer, but giving way to a layered atmosphere of vocal chants and thicker guitar drones, making for a multifaceted presentation that was alien even when put next to the contemporary works of forward looking death metal acts.
Amid the brilliant mixtures of heaviness and atmosphere, the serenity that slowly seeped its way into the Burzum paradigm begins to show itself here, though often it is still distorted by the wicked tendencies that Varg was carrying with him from his one time cohorts in the 2nd wave. "Han Som Reiste" is the only pure representation of the dreamy instrumentals that would come to define Varg's keyboard music, but traces of it are also to be found on "Den Onde Kysten" and "Svarte Troner" with horrifying elements mixed in. "Når Himmelen Klarner" actually showcases the ambient approach with distorted guitars employed and brings out a sound that is almost in line with the a melancholy instrumental variation on an early Mercyful Fate tune.
As odd as it may seem, this is actually among the weaker of the earlier studio offerings put out under the Burzum name, primarily because its heavily transitional nature comes off as a bit muddled at times. There isn't really one distinct moment of weakness to point to, just a general sense of a process of maturing that hasn't fully taken hold, caught between the rotting agony of the preceding death metal scene and a new found nobility taking hold amongst the undead. It's a bit of an oversimplification to simply pass this off as Varg's answer to "A Blaze In The Norther Sky", but for some reason that's the album that regularly comes up as a good point of reference, despite the obviously different presentation and more imaginative album art.
Compared to the lackluster chaff of the Aske EP, Burzum's 2nd full-length Det Som Engang Var ('What Once Was') must be the wheat, because it's an incredibly balanced offering that propels both Vikerne's metallic and ambient elements beyond the s/t debut, while slightly morphing the landscape to incorporate a darker, bolder production. We were given hints of this direction from the EP tracks "Stemmen Fra Tårnet" and the remake of "A Lost Forgotten Sad Spirit", which were actually recorded later than Det Som Engang Var and released first; but here upon the sophomore it's embedded directly into quality compositions that don't soon vacate the attention span.
I also noticed a more prominent influence here from Hellhammer and early Celtic Frost, that being processed into the more virile, groove laden riffs scattered about the metal tracks, not unlike what Darkthrone were doing with their amazing sophomore A Blaze in the Northern Sky, but not quite so noisy or prominent. Det Som Engang Var is perhaps less chilly and droning than Burzum. Less ice remains nestled upon its eaves. Less dryness or droning. However, that tone has been replaced by a tangible maw of darkness that immediately consumes the listener, as if the iconic, evil fortress gates on the cover were to swallow you whole. There's a compelling amount of variation here that is not always felt throughout Burzum's career, though the focus on repetitious motifs has not been utterly abandoned. This album also sees the addition of clean vocals, which are somewhat unpolished but add a new dimension to the sound; and a mix of English and Norse lyrics that heavily favor the latter.
The ambient segments are confined to three tracks, beginning with the opener "Den Onde Kysten (The Coast of Evil)" which is frankly superb. Beautiful, tonal swelling curried through brooding feedback and crass ambiance and hints of longing, solemn majesty that are immediately beaten to death by the abrupt burst that is "Key to the Gate". "Han Som Reiste" is the sort of thriving electronic medieval dirge that Vikernes would later explore more broadly with his 1997 MIDI synthesizer album Dauði Baldr. The last would be "Svart Troner (Black Thrones)", the outro, which is full of harsh, hissing ambiance, unwieldy percussive strikes, eerie higher-pitched backing synths and grueling chants and whispers. I should also mention here the guitar piece "Naar Himmelen Klarner (When the Sky Clears)", which furthers the style used on "The Crying Orc" or "Dominus Sathanas": simple and powerful instrumental rhythm affixed with thick bass accompaniment and some drums near its closure.
But as cool as these things are, the true strength of Det Som Engang Var comes through its strictly metallic passages. "Key to the Gate" is perhaps the least of these, but it successfully storms from a discordant, driving rhythm to the creepy enclosures of its core bridge, an early stab of suicidal, depressive notation that helped launch a few hundred bands in the 21st century, all intent on the same, minimalist torture. However, Burzum takes us by surprise here with some warmer, glorious melodies woven into the latter half of the track. "En Ring Til Aa Herske (One Ring to Rule)" introduces the chanting vocals and the drudging, swaggering grooves to a hypnotic level, as he lyrically hearkens back to the very inspiration of the band name. "Lost Wisdom" is my favorite here, in fact, one of my favorites in the whole discography; Celtic Frost styled swerving that alternates with a sheen of glacial, rime-encrusted sadness and some of Vikernes' most effective shrieking ever.
"Snu Mikrokosmos Tegn (Turn the Sign of Microcosm)" is the most likely to wear out its welcome, being over 9 minutes in length, but it brilliantly shifts from a rather generic, straight blast of thick black metal to an amazing segment of plodding, numbing majesty at around 3:30, and it continues to dance in and out of this motif with some great if painfully simple drumming. I found the insertion of the clean, chanted vocals deeper in the bridge to be wholly satisfactory, and around 8:20 he retrieves the same, mesmerizing groove at exactly the right time to send off the song. It's this sort of decision which makes the man's songwriting so good.
Det Som Engang Var is by no means a perfect album, but it is substantial. The variation Varg implies throughout the track list is welcome, and the production still holds up very well. I didn't enjoy it quite so much as the other major Norse black metal album of 1993, Under a Funeral Moon, but then I've never denied that I'm a sickly Darkthrone fan to begin with. That said, I feel that this sophomore is a step up from Burzum. I would number at least three of these tracks among his best ("Lost Wisdom", "Snu Mikrokosmos Tegn", "En Ring Til Aa Herske"). I still listen to fairly often as a whole, and it certainly belongs in the collection of any discerning heretic or cellar dweller.
First let me get something off my chest: I fucking love Burzum. You know those fanboys who can talk all day about a band that plays the "best music evah", has a bunch of band shirts with the band and would go to great lengths to get hold of some obscure demo or bootleg just because it's with their favorite band?
That's me. And my band is Burzum.
That said, this album was actually the first Burzum album I got, and Burzum was what got me into black metal so when I got it I was blown away by it's awesomeness. Now, after having acquired all of Burzum's albums, I can look at this with the eyes of a critic, because compared to the rest of the material, Det Som Engang Var is okay. But just okay.
As I suppose everyone knows all of the material on this album was recorded by sole Burzum member Varg Vikernes back in '91 or '92, and was later released shortly before Vikernes was arrested for various church burnings. Does that have anything to do with the music? No. So lets stay on topic:
Starting out the album is "Den Onde Kysten", which is really just another word for "Intro". And boy, this is creepy. Quiet, almost melancholic use of an organ-like sound accompagnied by... snakes..? You may think 'wtf?' but for some reason this works well in creating a somewhat creepy atmosphere, and I sometimes think of Diablo II when I hear this. You know, the last level of Act I where you run around the catacombs beneath a haunted chapel? This should be how it would sound down there.
Of course nothing lasts forever, and "Den Onde Kysten" is only 2:20 long and all of a sudden POW! you get attacked by "Key to the Gate" with its deliberately chaotic and dissonant intro. The fast, pounding guitar roams around, finds a decent riff, plays that for a while and then discards it and goes back to roaming. Later in the song you get a slower section with a more hypnotic, mesmerizing guitar, all while Vikernes' demented screams continue to haunt the song with incomprehensible lyrics (thank God they're written on the cover). Also, the song has something as rare as a Burzum guitar solo - which is odd when you think about how Burzum is all about atmosphere, and solos tend to break out of any atmosphere. Whatever the case, at 2:56 begins the solo - and it's actually quite good. It shows how you don't have to get all Laiho/Malmsteen/Dimebag-shreddy in order to make a nice guitar solo - a few notes is all it takes. Also notice how at 3:34 the drums a short moment jump out of the mix and quickly finds the rhythm again. Funny.
Next up is "En Ring Til Aa Herske" ("One ring to rule") - well, the title cements the fact that Burzum is all about J.R.R. Tolkien. This song makes use of some pretty weird 'chanting' vocals. Especially considering the fact that Burzum vocals are normally only Vikernes' raspy shrieks, but of course the shrieks are still present. This song has a nice, heavy main riff and if not for the vocals this could probably even appeal to non-black metal fans. As opposed to "Key to the Gate", which did progress at least a little, this song basically repeats the same riff ad nauseam.
"Lost Wisdom" contains the first lines I was able to understand from this album without having to look on the cover! "I believe.... *incomprehensible coughing* ...reality". Also, there are some pretty good drums on here and around 2:20 are some tonal arrangements that are very typical of the early Burzum material. At 2:53 one particular guitar suddenly shines through which makes for a good, a bit sad and 'cold' atmosphere. After that the song just meanders around a bit at random.
After the black metal ends you arrive at the place depicted on the album cover - a dark, desolated realm. As you stop up to marvel at the ruined, twisted landscape "Han Som Reiste" starts playing and tells its tale about how this was once a place bursting with activity, but now everything is gone.
Well... that's my idea anyway. However you choose to look at it, "Han Som Reiste" is still a great synth-melody. Yes, it's simple as hell, but after all that's what Burzum is good at - making simplicity sound good. The song jumps back and forth between a "dark" and a "light" melody, where the light one actually has a slight medieval feeling to it (in your face, Sigurd Wongraven!).
The start of the next song, with the beautiful name "Naar Himmelen Klarner" (go look it up in a dictionary) is actually very beautiful in its own right. It's just a guitar repeating some different chords and melodies, but it's done in a way that conjures up a beautiful feeling of the sky clearing after heavy rainfall. Around the 2 minute mark drums and stuff is added, and that kinda kills the atmosphere a bit, but otherwise the song just repeats the same riff for nearly 4 minutes, which may be just a tad too much...
Well, if you thought that the sky was clearing after the last track you were wrong! "Snu Mikrokosmos Tegn" starts out with some harsh drums just blasting away, but at 1:30 everything suddenly changed to an almost polka-like feel. What. The. Fuck.?! Burzum isn't supposed to make me want to dance! This tendency quickly disappears and the heavy drumming reenters. This is hard, unforgiving and pounding almost to the point where it could be mistaken for thrash metal. Around 3:30 another break, and now comes a more consistent rhythm, which unfortunately showcases the incredibly boring guitar. 4:50 more interlude build-up to... something... and hey, the chant from "En Ring..." is back! This interlude-sounding... something just continues on as Vikernes apparently tries to tell us something, but fails to get through (at least to me). Actually it sound more like a band that enters an interlude, forgets what they were supposed to do after that, and just loops the interlude. Towards the end the drums come back, but too late to save the song from being a tad incoherent.
As outro we have "Svarte Troner". To put it simple imagine a person sitting in a cold, empty room mumbling something incoherent while spontaneously pounding on different things with a drum stick, meanwhile a gas pipe is leaking - perhaps he did that - and you can hear the gas slowly filling the room as if the person has decided to stop living, outside the room you can hear someone who is playing ...is that an accordion? At last the person gets up, pushes a special button on his wristwatch and is beamed up into his spaceship.
Sounds trippy, doesn't it? Well, that's kinda what "Svarte Troner" made me think of. A very very weird way to end an album, I'd say.
Many peope, myself included, view this release mainly as a bridge between the early, unpolished material from Burzum and the later, compositional masterpiece Hvis Lyset Tar Oss. Vikernes still haven't quite found the right sound on this album, but he sure is getting closer.
Get this if you want "the missing link" or if you're a big Burzum fanboy like me.
Standout tracks include "Key to the Gate", "Han Som Reiste" and "Naar Himmelen Klarner".
As much as it pains me to call a Burzum release "decent" this is pretty decent. That, and very weird in places.
Det som engang var, what once was… What an oddly appropriate title for this masterful release. Odd because at the time of its release, the title didn’t bare any relevance to the state of this band, but as time went on it became more and more fitting. For it seems that Burzum will never again record anything quite like this album, Varg has moved on to new territories and it seems he isn’t looking back. However, this is by far my favorite work of his, as the sound here a much more matured and refined version of the style featured on his self-titled album and the Aske EP and said style is much more of my “thing” than anything he would go on to do (That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy those later albums). This is what once was of Burzum, and sadly, what may never be again.
This is definitely one of those albums that split its critics into two very different camps (actually this seems to be the case with most seminal black metal albums). It seems that most people either really love it and consider it to be a turning point in the black metal genre, or they loathe it and boil up with rage whenever it is mentioned. Both of these camps are very hostile towards the opposing one, constantly arguing in an aggressive manner, violently waving their hands and stomping their feet in order to get their point across, looking similar to a debate between Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin in the early 1940s, except with fewer moustaches. The middle-ground, however, is rather barren, occupied by few who simply stand there watching these two radically different sides verbally tear the other one a new asshole. I, clearly, belong to the group who love this album. Although, I really think that this album is sometimes even underrated by those who do love it, as it seems that many people will admit that its actual musical values are nothing special, and the atmosphere is the only thing that makes it worth one’s time. I have to say that I completely disagree with this. While the atmosphere certainly is great and makes for my favorite part of the album, even without it I’d still greatly enjoy this because the quality of the musical characteristics presented here is top-notch as well.
Of this album’s purely musical qualities, the guitar work is by far the best. Varg uses a variety of different techniques, creating quite a few distinctive groups of excellent riffs and leads that are all different enough from one another to truly make the album sound diverse but not so much that it falls apart. Much of this album consists of rather traditional sounding chord progressions that have a clear first wave black metal influence, yet this seems to be forgotten by many of its critics. One can clearly hear the Celtic Frost influences pouring from Varg’s guitar in songs such as “Key to the Gate” and “Lost Wisdom”, for example. The most prominent techniques used here, and the one this album is most famous for, is the slower, “depressive” (as it has come to be known) style. Varg uses this to create compelling riffs that truly shine by being as dark as possible; thriving on an unforgiving sense of dissonant minimalism. While these certainly don’t take as much sheer guitar skill to play as the aforementioned first wave riffs, they are so skillfully crafted that they strike me with amazement every time I listen to this. Other times Varg takes the same minimal style but puts a consonant twist on it, creating absolutely magnificent lead melodies that flow through the songs with an almost indescribable beauty. All these styles contrast nicely with each other. The more overtly consonant melodies dramatically clash with the dismally dissonant ones and the somewhat lively first wave riffs with the “depressive” ones.
Although good riffs and melodies really mean nothing if they aren’t arranged in the songs properly and, fortunately, this is another one of Varg’s many strengths. He has a real knack for splicing these very different sections together in ways that still make the songs feel like they are logically progressing. For example, “Key to the Gate” starts off with some very heavy first wave riffing, providing a compelling intro that really grasps the listener’s attention, before diving down into very dark depths, using only the simplistic dissonant melodies, which then build up to the climatic melodic leads that take the song to its end. While none of the other songs actually play out like one, they all progress in similarly coherent ways even though they are made up of many different, and sometimes rather obscure, elements. It is in this way that these songs feel diverse but not so much so that they become disjointed.
Another big knock on this album is about Varg’s somewhat odd vocal presentation. He uses a rather exaggerated scream that is quite high-pitched and raspy, and at times, sounds as if he is actually groaning in pain. Some may call it melodramatic or overdone, but I really like it. It accompanies the guitars and the overall atmosphere of this album very well, as all of them are very passionate and emotional. During some of the slower songs, he also uses a deep, dark but clean singing voice, and this sounds great as well.
As I mentioned before, the atmosphere of this album is my favorite part of it, which is really saying something considering the very high quality of all of its other elements. The atmosphere contained within these songs is such a true expression of isolation that it makes this album a complete classic. Yes, while this album is playing one feels completely alone, and this feeling takes two distinct forms. One is, admittedly, more forgiving than the other but no less captivating. Many times on this album, the isolated feel gives the music a thought-provoking, philosophical, sometimes almost spiritual aura. The illusion of being alone, completely separated from society, secluded in your own thoughts brings this complex atmosphere to life. It may just be me, and it’s not like I’ve had any major epiphanies listening to this, but I believe that parts of this album can be very good for deep thought and reflection because of their isolative nature. Other times the atmosphere of isolation brings about much darker, heavier emotions. The sorrowful tones of some of the more “depressive” sections bring an atmosphere of horrible loneliness and mourn to the listener, truly showing the pain of solitude. A sad scene of a poor, forlorn soul forced to live alone, separated from the rest of humanity, by some tragic event, mournfully weeping amongst the shadows of a far away, forgotten forest comes to mind while listening to these songs. This feeling of sadness and emptiness is past on to the listener and makes the experience quite moving. It’s just stunning how incredibly powerful these beautiful expressions of pure grief and sorrow are. However, I fear that I may be making this sound a bit more melodramatic than it actually is. While the atmosphere that Varg has constructed here is certainly very emotional, it doesn’t lack subtly, especially not in the way that many bands trying to re-create this sound do. This album gives the listener the feel of pure isolation, but it never over steps its boundaries, becoming some pathetic parody of its self.
In addition to the black metal tracks, there are three dark ambient songs on this album, all of which are of about the same quality. They all carry more or less the same aesthetics and work in the same ways that the black metal songs do, having that excellent isolative atmosphere. However, all three are constructed quite differently. But from the somber, slow-moving “Den Onde Kysten”, to the epic grandeur of “Han Som Reiste”, to “Svarte Troner’s dissonant industrially tinged soundscapes, no one of these songs are any less than excellent. All of them showcase Varg’s talents for creating brilliant ambient melodies and deeply immersive atmospheres (both of which would be shown even more later on in Varg’s career with his two entirely ambient albums). Although, I must admit, all of these tracks sound very synthetic, I’m guessing the keyboard he used was of pretty poor quality. This doesn’t bother me at all, but it may turn some people off.
Well, I think I’ve said all I can about this stunning piece of music. This album is, in my mind, an utter classic of the black metal genre, and it is one of my favorite albums of all time. Everything here is of incredibly high quality. The guitar work, the vocals, the song-writing, the ambient pieces, and the overall atmosphere; all the elements work perfectly on their own and together, creating one of the most engaging listening experiences ever. This is certainly some of the best black metal to ever be released and any fan of the genre owes it to themselves to pick this up.
The second full-length release by Norwegian one-man-band Burzum moves beyond the primitive raw black metal of the self-titled debut and controversial ‘Aske’ E.P. towards something more refined, involved and emotionally resonant, an experimental balance that would continue with the next two albums before Varg Vikernes was imprisoned for the murder of Euronymous, his former Mayhem bandmate and producer. Released in 1993, ‘Det Som Engang Var’ expands the scope of Norwegian black metal, and is one of the most intriguingly unsettling listening experiences I frequently subject myself to.
The songs are mostly based around simple repeating guitar riffs and pounding, albeit rather quiet drums, all providing the background for Varg’s screams and yells. As with all Burzum releases from this point onwards, the opening songs are more distinctive and perhaps traditional, moving between guitar riffs and featuring distinct verses and even guitar solos, while the later songs tend more towards creating a bleak and hypnotic soundscape to lull the listener into an evil black metal trance. Odd as it may sound, this is actually very effective, although it’s more a case of being so used to the treble-heavy guitar lines and cardboard-sounding drums that they fade into white (black?) noise. The production values are genuinely rather low, but like all good black metal this adds greatly to the tomb-like atmosphere, and is at least genuine in these early 90s releases unlike some recent attempts by big-name bands to purposefully primitivise their sound. An example would be Ulver’s ‘Nattens Madrigal,’ which received large funding from Century Media records that was allegedly spent by the band on cars and girls and stuff, before they finally got round to recording their album haphazardly in a forest. Burzum’s raw production, heavy on the treble but not exactly tinny, lends a distinct buzzing whine to the guitars and holds up well throughout.
1. Den onde kysten (The Evil Shores)
2. Key to the Gate
3. En Ring til å herske (One Ring to Rule)
4. Lost Wisdom
5. Han som reiste (He Who Journeyed)
6. Når himmelen klarner (When the Sky Clears)
7. Snu mikrokosmos tegn (Turn the Sign of the Microcosmos)
8. Svarte troner (Black Thrones)
The Tolkein themes present in the song-titles and album art stem from Varg grounding his musical project in ancient Norwegian mythology, which he claims Tolkein took much inspiration from (the name ‘Burzum’ itself is taken from the inscription of the One Ring, and arguably means either darkness or light, depending on whether Tolkein or Varg is to be believed). Nevertheless, unlike many of the power metal bands influenced prominently by ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ most notably Blind Guardian, the influence is entirely absent from the listening experience, which sounds more like an elongated, torturous release of sorrow and hatred than any kind of epic journey across mountains. ‘Den onde kysten’ and ‘svarte troner’ are both fairly non-ish instrumentals bookending the rest of the album, effectively creating the mood but being mostly redundant, especially as the surrounding material jars with them completely. The album really begins with the excellent ‘Key to the Gate,’ easily the most accomplished and memorable song here in the tradition of all Burzum album openers, which blasts into uncompromising black metal from the onset before settling down slightly into a distinctive riff and crashing, relentless drums. Varg’s vocals are the main highlight of this song, extremely emotive and disturbing as he clearly lets out all the grief plaguing his sad and ill-fated Norwegian life. This is no ‘emo-core’ angsty yelling, but a hellish cackle and wails from the heart that are all pretty disturbing and morbidly fascinating. The song changes rather abruptly into a very pleasant melodic guitar solo half-way through, which is slow, precise and premeditated... much like the murder of Euronymous (sorry, couldn’t resist).
The album sadly takes a rather immediate down-turn after this point, as the songs become increasingly repetitive in the lead-up to the ‘trance,’ also seemingly requiring a major decrease in tempo. ‘En Ring til å herske’ is based around a slower riff, dirty sounding like Black Sabbath, with distant, mostly chanted vocals as Varg calms down a little. Aside from the addition of subtle keyboards towards the end, which will come to prominence after, this song is too long and features too few changes to keep things interesting. ‘Lost Wisdom’ fares better, the last song of the album’s first half and based unapologetically on a catchy riff and drum beat. Who said black metal couldn’t be fun while it’s being depressing and disturbing? Varg’s use of multiple guitars, at least two of which can be discerned through the muddy production, fills out the sound impressively as they focus on different ends of the scale, and there’s another great, slow solo (slow-lo is the term I sometimes use, but that always requires a long explanation in brackets such as these, so I’ll stop using it from now on). Varg’s screams are more animalistic/demonic here, which is a nice change from the very different styles of tracks two and three, and overall this sounds much like the opening song from the next album, only more concise and ten minutes shorter.
Seperating the two sections of the album is the keyboard instrumental ‘han som reiste,’ the biggest departure of this album that takes it more into the realm of electronic silent film scores. The organ-like keyboard is effectively dingy and sinister, but also strangely pleasant, and the endless repetition of the same bars makes this one of many songs that are forced to fade out after an arbitrary time, when the listener’s personal tolerance could extend or constrict the length with each listen, though hopefully not to the extent of the twenty-five-minute piano loop of the later ‘Filosofem.’ ‘Når himmelen klarner’ is another instrumental to follow, but this time utilising the more customary instruments and allowing Varg to better demonstrate his guitar abilities as they take the lead role, though the song noticeably lacks a solo, which would presumably come at a cost to the atmosphere, and doesn’t really go anywhere. The album’s ultimate statement of hypnotic black metal, before this would be perfected with ‘Filosofem,’ is the grand and lengthy finale ‘snu mikrokosmos tegn,’ which brings back the speed and drum bashing but repeats to the extent that the whole thing becomes background noise very quickly.
No Burzum album is an easy listen, and it was at this point that Varg Vikernes’ musical agenda started to become prominent, if executed a little amateurishly. The ambient nature of the later songs makes them less intrinsically compelling than the album’s first half, which can stand strong outside of the dark magical experience the musician is so determined to inflict, and overall the latter half of this album sits rather confusedly between black metal and ambience without really being either. It’s surprising just how relaxing, or perhaps boring, the album can become, especially as anyone walking in would effectively see you chilling out to the sound of someone being tortured, and as such it’s an album that still fascinates me. Despite some peoples’ misguided claims, there’s nothing to be found in Burzum’s music that is any way subliminal towards Varg’s ideologies, which themselves have often been misconstrued, and the listener is more likely to nod off after this listen than go out and burn some churches or stab their friend multiple times in the back. If anything, this only makes you pity the fool.
'Det Som Engang Var' appears to be a very cherished full-length amongst black metal fans. It's held up there with the best of them. Whenever a discussion rages on about the 'ultimate' black metal full-length of the early 1990's, 'Det Som Engang Var' always gets a mention. Burzum's support has never really dwindled, despite the fact that Varg is associated with so many negative acts. Though, I think it would be unfair for a fan to not support an act because of a well documented bad lifestyle.
'Det Som Engang Var' is a national treasure for Norway. It signified a giant leap towards the infinite abyss that is black metal history. Norway are by far more often associated with the greatest black metal bands and the greatest black metal records. It's a country as cold as the black metal reputation, though in recent years the underground scene has almost ceased to exist. The acts of yesteryear don't cut it when it comes to the material spewing out of countries like Germany and France in Europe, as well as the United States, of course. Burzum's reputation was somewhat marred by the solely instrumental ambient works Varg produced later in his career, but as I said, the first four records are held in such high esteem.
When it comes to 'Det Som Engang Var' I tend to feel it's a little off the pace. The two records that followed it produced a far better sound, the production suited Burzum's style more and Varg had matured away from this highly derivative offering. Burzum were obviously developing when 'Det Som Engang Var' was issued to the adoring fans, but yet, it's still highly regarded. To me, 'Det Som Engang Var' is lacking that something special which made Burzum what they are, or were on full-lengths like 'Hvis Lyset Tar Oss' and 'Filosofem'. The ambient style was just beginning to poke it's head into Burzum's music.
We can see this more clearly on such tracks as 'Han Som Reiste'. Monotonous keyboards slowly trudging along like we have all day to sit and listen. Uninspired keyboards ruin this particular track and don't really do much justice to Varg's musical abilities. Whilst I can appreciate this was a transitional period for Burzum, I simply cannot appreciate the content. It's primitive and passé. Though I suspect for the time it was widely accepted as a phenomenal addition. Time hasn't favoured some of Burzum's material on 'Det Som Engang Var'. It feels somewhat jaded, especially the production.
'Det Som Engang Var' is oddly enough one of the most original Burzum full-lengths, though. It's not as repetitive as everything else Burzum have created. The leads do tend to repeat themselves a bit, but not as much as one would expect. The percussion is often simple blast beats, but when it does alter, it's effectively hard and harsh in sound. The production helps give this cold feel to the music and it's hazy. The vocals are far more used on 'Det Som Engang Var' than the two records that followed it. Vocals are an important part of black metal if you're trying for a largely distant atmospheric sound.
Varg's rasping vocals achieve this well, but they need improving, which they did do after this record. When the vocals change to a more operatic clean form, I get rather confused. They don't suit Burzum's bleak atmospheric tendencies, although they do form a good partnership with the lead guitar. Ambiance is just beginning to make it's way into Burzum's music, and not to great effect. It's rather weak at this moment in time, but it does improve. However, we're focusing on this work, not what came after it.
I believe that this work is absolutely amazing, yet it takes some time to grow on you. I rarely stumble upon music that takes time to sink in, though this CD is one of those rare occasions where the value of the album grew with time.
The album opens up into an endless void, and the track beyond opens with a melody built on dissonant chords, yet ends up sounding decent somehow. Regardless of the dissonance, it is quite enjoyable to listen to. I was surprised by how emotional the track became the more that I'd listen to it. It expresses, with a voice of hatred, how little satisfaction can be found in the world. There is nothing to be considered "fun" in this album - just expression of emotions in pure forms. It isn't enjoyable to listen to as a whole, yet rather seems to be a journey through your mind.
The chants found periodically through this album really add to the thick atmosphere, giving it a dense feel. The biggest change of emotions is between tracks three and four. Track three is a dismal track, consisting of chants and screams beneath a guitar line. It moves on slowly, and seems endless. The fourth track, "Lost Wisdom," starts off with what feels like a pop riff, and moves on towards a dismal droning of chords. It is an ageless piece.
The fifth track is an ambient track, recorded in MIDI, I'd imagine. It's odd, and sets an atmosphere for the sixth track, though I believe the fifth track to be weak in contrast. The sixth track is true sorrow. It was recorded before any other track on the album, and sounds unbelievably sad, no matter when you listen to it.
The seventh track is unrelentless, pounding, pure black metal. It's probably the darkest track on the album.
The eighth track ends this album in sorrow and emptiness, much like the first track begun the album.
It's quite the journey to make, but this album is worth every listen you pay it.
Ah, Det Som En Gang Var, an album most fans of Norwegian Black Metal are not without. This album may have sold more copies from Varg's infamous church burnings and the killing of Euronymous than for the musical value. With that aside, I bought this album not for the music of a deranged killer, but for the music of one of Black Metal's patron saints, so to speak.
The cover of this album alone would make one wonder what kind of music was inside the digipack it is sold in these days. A nice illustration sets the mood for "true" black metal with a side of depression and agony that only Burzum seems to offer. The first intro track pulls you into the mind of Varg Vikernes as you prepare for the double bass guitar attack that most black metal has after it's intro. The next track, Key to the Gate is of course exactly what most would anticipate. For the first few minutes, it is a pretty typical black metal track with Varg's somewhat annoying vocals. A ways through it slows down a bit and is what I find to be one of the most defining parts of the album. This song made this album one of my favorites, as it shows Varg's more musical side.
Moving on, En Ring Til Aa Herske follows a similar pattern to the track before it. Alot of heavy black metal with moments of slower depressing guitars. These are the most memorable portions of the album, but it doesn't go down- hill in the least bit from there. All of the Norwegian-titled tracks seem to be the best, especially Snu Mikrokosmos Tegn.
The 1% of criticism I have on this album is Varg's vocals. Many say that his despair-filled voice adds emotion and a unique feel. I would agree with this if I did not think that it was just an excuse. The people that say Varg's vocals are some of the best in black metal, are wrong. It sounds like he's getting his penis caught in a slamming door. Because of the outstanding musical output on this album, I am willing to overlook the vocals.
Here we have another master album from one of the kings of black metal: Varg Vikernes. From start to finish, this album is a roller coaster of emotions and raw music. If you look past all of the commotion surrounding Varg, his ideals, and his actions you can feel loads of sensitive emotion in his music. The guitars are heavy as usual, and have this crunchy sound to them. Varg’s raspy screams really add to the atmosphere of the music.
At times you can feel the pain of this man through his blood curdling screams. The bass is there and can be heard quite clearly. The drums aren’t anything mind blowing, but still okay. Varg is more known for his guitar work anyways. The guitar work is a bit primitive at times, but it‘s mobilized effectively and provides enjoyment to the listener.
This album consists of four instrumentals and four songs with Varg singing (two of which are in English). The opening instrumental really gives off the feeling of power. It’s dark and simple, yet enjoyable. It gives good lead way into the next track, “Key to the Gate”. Track two starts off kind of fast and heavy, moving into a more mid paced melodic song.
You get to hear a lot of Varg’s “pain screams”, as I like to call them. The melody in this song is enough to make you feel as if Varg’s inner child is shining on those notes (at least that‘s what it reminds me of). The next song, “En Ring Til Aa Herske,” is a more slow and ambient piece all around. Varg sings, but it’s ambient in it’s own way. This obviously wasn’t a song that was meant to be “dangerous” or anything.
Next we have Lost Wisdom, which is probably my favorite Burzum song. This track is no joke. It’s filled with heaviness, deadly screams, and killer melody. The lyrics sound kind of sad, but it’s still a heavy song. Definitely the best song on the album, I think.
The next track is another ambient piece. It’s all synthesized, and seemingly minimal, but if you listen you can catch some complexities. A good addition to this album indeed, as it sets the mood very well. The next track we have an instrumental song. It starts off nicely, but as the song begins to progress it gets kind of bland.
It’s a pleasure to listen to, but not nearly as strong as the other songs on the album. The next song is a very cool one, and to me this is one of the high points on the album. The guitar melodies are simple, yet brutal and crushing. The song builds up with heaviness and eventually halts to slower pace riffing. Before the song starts to end, it picks up a bit.
Amazing song, and probably my second favorite on the album. The last track is another synthesized instrumental, but it burns with melody and dark atmosphere. Accompanied by noises and some effects, the atmosphere is kept throughout the song. Not a bad final track to end off with. All and all, this is an amazing and vastly overlooked by black metal fans.
If you are a fan of ambient, heavy, and crushing black metal then this album is definitely for you. I’d even go as far to say that it’s essential for black metal fans. I think most BM fans would enjoy it very much. Beautiful album and highly recommended.
Certain kinds of extreme art cannot become effective, cannot reach the distilled, pure archetype, unless the artist communicates something which transcends humanity in such a way as the artist is excluded from the human state through his art, thereby escaping its trappings and limitations. With black metal, a genre as imbued with misanthropy as it is, the case is hardly different; here, reaching the distilled essence means an experience which, for the listener, is perceived as coming from a place frighteningly alien, thoroughly inhuman, a place which cannot be penetrated or grasped by the human soul in its mundane day-to-day existence.
Burzum has always succeeded in this. To be fair, though, Varg is probably aided by the fact that his image, personality and deeds aren't exactly perceived as those of a 'normal' person. Intentionally or not, through his actions he has come to be perceived (among his supporters as well as his haters) as some sort of a modern-day mythical figure; the first thing learned by anyone with a remote interest in Norwegian black metal these days is the church burnings / Euronymous vs. Varg story, which in a sense might read like a mythological saga which should not have taken place in these modern, all-too-human times. But whether it's "mythical figure" or "raving lunatic", and whether or not this unconsciously affects the listener and gives Burzum an 'unfair push' in its path towards the goal described above - the point is that it gets there. And 'Det Som Engang Var' (''What Once Was'') is invincible proof.
This album sees Vikernes taking the ideas which had surfaced on the selftitled debut (Although DSEV is the third Burzum album by release date, it is actually the second one recorded; it was released only after the 'Aske' EP, but was recorded prior to it) and focusing them in a more particular direction. After a brooding ambient intro track, laden with low, reverberating, hollow subterranean music, 'Key To The Gate' starts off with a fast, chaotic seizure of mad lycanthropy, and elaborate dynamics evocative of old Bathory, only to morph into a slow melancholic dirge with wailing, melodic lead guitar. It contains such a sense of completeness as it is rare to find in a single song; has to be heard to be believed - surely this is one of the best songs Varg has ever written. The third track, 'En Ring til aa Herske', with its plodding pace and eerie clean background vocals, is like a slow, desperate march through the bleak mountain ranges of Mordor, chained and prodded along by the black Orcs - not an incongruous metaphor, perhaps, when you consider its title. 'Lost Wisdom', the next song, is a mid-paced, minimalistic black metal composition of the kind Varg is known for; the riffs are well constructed and surprisingly catchy, and the mood is overwhelming. The lyrics, exploring planes of existence different than our own, can actually be seen as symbolizing the entire experience of this album.
On the second half of the album, things get even more otherworldly. A repetitive, melodic, slow, five-minute synth instrumental, 'Han Som Reiste', opens it; using nothing but two synth patches, the subtle ebb and flow of the melody itself is emphasized, which is droning but almost beautiful, associating itself immediately with some natural scene or other of Norwegian landscapes. Following it is another instrumental - 'Naar Himmelen Klarner' - written as far back as '89, for the Uruk Hai project. Mostly a single distorted guitar, though later other instruments join, the melody lines on this track are incredible; it's not hard to see where bands like Judas Iscariot and Nargaroth got some of their ideas for droning guitar instrumentals.
'Snu Mikrokosmos Tegn' is a severely underrated track. Perhaps heralding what was to come on 'Hvis Lyset Tar Oss' - drawn-out in length, utilizing repetitive and simplistic (yet layered) guitar, it starts out as very fast, chromatic black metal, after a few minutes turning into a slow, sparse, melodic composition, with an organic, undulating melody and not much of anything except the guitar, which uses that melancholic, bleeding, open-arpeggio riffing style pretty much patented by Burzum. The lyrics reflect the ecological annihilation of nature and its effect on human spirit; very well-written poetry. This is followed by the closing track - yet another instrumental, much in the vein of the intro but this time more complex; a background of various noises and effects, accompanied by dark, wistful bursts of synth melody. The atmosphere is kept throughout.
This album has an incredible esoteric feel to it, perhaps more so than other Burzum material. There doesn't exist a more potent testimonial for the relevance of ''what once was''. ESSENTIAL.