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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.