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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 However, that tone has been replaced by a tangible maw of darkness that immediately consumes the listener, as if the iconic, evil fortress gates on the cover were to swallow you whole.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.