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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.