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It was an interesting time, those days in the early 1990s where something new and cold was about to burst out of Northern Europe, provided one was actually privy to what was going on. Most who were of a mind to listen to what was generally accepted as accessible metal noted the changeover in the thrash metal scene and the complete demise of the typical 80s approach to heavy metal. But off in darker places was a lone magician who decided to pick up every instrument relevant to the genre and start crafting a series of masterpieces, 5 in all, in but a single year. It is difficult to decide which is more daunting; the number of albums put together, or how radically far apart from each other they are in overall character.
Of these dark, trance inducing creations, "Det Som Engang Var" stands as one of the more varied offerings. It generally embodies the dense, ambient character of latter offerings, yet contains a strong remnant of Varg's death metal past as well. Mingled amongst the hypnotic broken chord passages that sound like frost covered memories of the rock bands that originally employed them are a good number of creepy, chromatic passages and pounding low end grooves that, while not out of character for a number of more recent black metal outfits, is in direct contrast to the orthodoxy that was emerging out of most of Norway's other prime movers. The closest comparison could be made to "A Blaze In The Northern Sky", which was admittedly almost as much a death metal album as a blackened one, but here the presentation is not quite as jagged and crispy, more in the manner of a blistering snow storm rather than a punishing mixture of sleet and snow.
But perhaps more unique in the general scheme of things is lyrical content that dispenses with overt irreverence in favor of a sort of pagan historicism, mixed with some fantasy based lore ala J.R.R. Tolkein. Varg's agonizing wails are very suited to the part, playing up the role of a haggard storyteller who decries the victory of his adversaries, while longing for a more tranquil place to return to. Even the contrarian "Key To The Gate", replete with angered discord both vocally and musically, makes time for melodic passages that buck the trend of pure rage. "Lost Wisdom" and "En Ring Til Å Herske " visit a place of fragmented grooves, somewhat reminiscent of a slowed down death/thrash character in the mold of Hellhammer, but giving way to a layered atmosphere of vocal chants and thicker guitar drones, making for a multifaceted presentation that was alien even when put next to the contemporary works of forward looking death metal acts.
Amid the brilliant mixtures of heaviness and atmosphere, the serenity that slowly seeped its way into the Burzum paradigm begins to show itself here, though often it is still distorted by the wicked tendencies that Varg was carrying with him from his one time cohorts in the 2nd wave. "Han Som Reiste" is the only pure representation of the dreamy instrumentals that would come to define Varg's keyboard music, but traces of it are also to be found on "Den Onde Kysten" and "Svarte Troner" with horrifying elements mixed in. "Når Himmelen Klarner" actually showcases the ambient approach with distorted guitars employed and brings out a sound that is almost in line with the a melancholy instrumental variation on an early Mercyful Fate tune.
As odd as it may seem, this is actually among the weaker of the earlier studio offerings put out under the Burzum name, primarily because its heavily transitional nature comes off as a bit muddled at times. There isn't really one distinct moment of weakness to point to, just a general sense of a process of maturing that hasn't fully taken hold, caught between the rotting agony of the preceding death metal scene and a new found nobility taking hold amongst the undead. It's a bit of an oversimplification to simply pass this off as Varg's answer to "A Blaze In The Norther Sky", but for some reason that's the album that regularly comes up as a good point of reference, despite the obviously different presentation and more imaginative album art.