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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.