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What Once Was Of Burzum - 90%

ThrashingMad, September 2nd, 2008

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.