without Internet Explorer,
in 1280 x 960 resolution
It seems difficult to base a critique of any work of art upon arbitrary or commonly-accepted standards when such a work is expressly and explicitly intended by design to not fit within the confines of normal definitions. In this case, Burzum’s Hvis Lyset Tar Oss is most aptly described as black metal, and yet, even though that is the best description of the record’s sound, it is not only black metal. Hvis Lyset Tar Oss has been called ambient music, or electronic music, or neofolk, and yet, even though those phrases do describe parts of this album, it is neither completely ambient nor wholly electronic. The music of Burzum was never intended to fully fit within a genre, never meant to allow itself to be defined by a word or a phrase. The goal of Varg “Count Grishnackh” Vikernes, in composing music as Burzum, was to create a sound which was a mirror of his soul, a sound all his own and not identical to the prevailing death and black metal music of the day. Rather than pummeling the listener into submission with a blistering message of death, hate, and gore, pounded into his ears by scathing guitar lines and relentless drum fills, Vikernes’ music insinuates itself into the listener’s psyche. Repetitive themes, unwavering drums, and comparatively simple guitar chords combine magically to create a sound unlike any other. A “magical” combination indeed, oddly enough, as such was the full intent of Vikernes – to try his hand at magic, to create “nachtmusik”, music to be played in the evening (“abendmusik” then, if you will). As one fell asleep, conjured images of high fantasy would cast a Spell upon the listener, revealing to him a world quite unlike his own and yet so similar; displaying for him the darkness that was in truth the repressed goodness deeply latent within our own existence and upon this Earth we call home.
The opening incantation of the Spell of Hvis Lyset Tar Oss is the song Det som en gang var (which, translated from Norwegian, signifies What once was). This song opens the listener’s mind to the full Spell of the record, preparing him to receive its message. The songs Hvis lyset tar oss (If the light takes us) and Inn i slottet fra drømmen (Into the castle from the dream) follow, their goal to weaken the listener’s hold upon his way of thinking, his adherence to logic and the accepted ways of this world - to make him the more ready once the final phrases of the Spell are cast. The Spell of Hvis Lyset Tar Oss concludes with the lengthy ambient track Tomhet (Emptiness), and with this song Vikernes succeeds in persuading the mind of his listener, now primed and open for guidance, and once the mind lets loose its hold upon this world, Vikernes has captured the heart. Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, perhaps more than any other Burzum record, masterfully fulfills the design of creating magic within the heart and mind of the listener.
The record begins comparatively slowly. Det som en gang var, for the first three minutes or so, moves almost despondently, as though the guitars are being stroked aimlessly, mournfully. But Vikernes is establishing a mood, and these first three minutes succeed in doing just that. Setting the tone for this record as one slightly less angered than the subsequent Filosofem, Vikernes lets us know early that this album will be mournful and contemplative. Once Det som en gang var begins to increase its speed, we begin to see, even though the bard relating a tale to us is saddened and wishes us to be so as well in order to best understand him, that there is something which we must hear and understand. When Det som en gang var has completed and Hvis lyset tar oss begins, we see a more urgent side in our storyteller. We empathize with him as his statements come swifter and more imperatively. Inn i slottet fra drømmen increases the urgency even further, almost frantically pleading with us to hearken, and features considerable discordant harmonies that serve to stir us to thought and wonder even further. By the time Tomhet begins, we are completely and totally in the power of the storyteller, and we are ready to receive his magic tale. Tomhet takes us on a journey through two landscapes, two far-away places represented by sound. The first of these is bleak, and, while interesting to us, is an echo of the despondency which we knew originated somewhere mysterious when we first heard it in Det som en gang var. As we travel from the first landscape to the second, we come to know the full measure of despondency, a moment in time of quiet sorrow. The second landscape opens our eyes to the fact that, though valuable in and of itself, despondency, when tempered with fantastic thoughts and realizations we had never conceived, can only make us stronger. As Tomhet ends and the full spell of Hvis Lyset Tar Oss is complete, we finally come to understand that our own world is not that different from the land of magic which we have visited, but that the shadowy things here are not as dark as we have been led to believe.
As far as an analysis of the music itself is concerned, Burzum in general is not a technically proficient, perfect sound, but it was never intended to be. Just as mistakes in life make up the human character, so mistakes in Vikernes’ music define its character and make it personal. But what mistakes there are on this album are negligible. The production is standard for the time and for the black metal to which Vikernes was for the most part adhering. The production is not as low quality as on the album which follows, Filosofem, but neither is it of such a high quality as to make the music sound sterile. There is more distortion during the first three songs than the closing track, of course, but, as Tomhet is digitally produced, this is only to be expected. In any case, it seems appropriate that the “preparation tracks” are more distorted, making them more “difficult to comprehend” and piquing the listener’s interest, while Tomhet is clear and there is no mistaking the intent of the prime words of the Spell. The mood is very well established throughout the album, mainly by the guitar and by the excellent use of keyboards. Guitars are strummed either very slowly and the note held for some time, or are picked tremolo for a continuous sound. Often, the keyboards will take over the main statement of themes from the guitar, the latter fading into the background. The keyboards are not overdone by any means. Quite frequently, especially in this latter day of black metal, keyboards/synthesizers see considerably more use than they should (or at least more elaborate use, or are just plain too loud in the mix), but Vikernes has perfectly mixed them with the guitars on this album. Drums are mainly used for backing, to assist the guitar and the keyboards in the storytelling. There is nothing fancy in the drumming, with hardly any fills to speak of and almost no change throughout an entire song, but the position in the mix of the drum track is perfect, neither overpowering nor too quiet. The drumming, of course, increases pace with the rest of the instruments in the second and third songs, but becomes ever slightly more urgent than it had been previously, even slightly aggressive. Vikernes’ signature vocals, perhaps the most emotive harsh vocals in metal music, combine elements of shrieking, weeping, and angry screams all into one sound. The vocals on this album are particularly clear, the voice and its tone quite distinguishable. We can usually identify quickly our storyteller’s mood. Though still obscured to some extent by the low production, the vocals on Hvis Lyset Tar Oss are quite more distinct that those on Filosofem. The heavily distorted vocals of the latter album fit its mood well, but the clearer treatment of vocals on Hvis compliment the music perfectly. The question of negative comments regarding this album, or things in need of improvement, is a delicate one. Change one aspect of this record, and the music one loves today will not be the same. The drums could be slightly more imaginative - perhaps a few fills to underscore important statements within the music or to signify approaching changes in theme and therefore thought. Guitar solos are not necessarily needed, at least not in the standard idea of a guitar solo, but perhaps in the more mournful sections a lonely guitar playing by itself for a bar or two might have worked well with the overall sound. But even these suggestions are only minor thoughts, and not significant grievances which in any way detract from the experience. It is very challenging to find a legitimate aspect of this album which needs to be changed in order to increase the delight of listening to this record. Hvis Lyset Tar Oss achieves its goal mainly by repetition, in the restatement of a theme with small variations throughout. Guitars state one theme, and then keyboards state another. Drums keep our thoughts continuous, and emphasize the guitar and keys. The vocals let us know that we are not alone on this journey, instructing and guiding us as we fall under the album’s Spell.
Hvis Lyset Tar Oss has been called the greatest black metal album ever released, and its opening track, Det som en gang var, the greatest black metal song ever recorded. The quandary in such a statement is that Hvis Lyset Tar Oss and Det som en gang var are not merely black metal. They are Burzum, and Burzum by definition is Darkness, the shining of a unique light into a shadowy world where seas of sound are all alike. The music of the Darkness lights the way of those who care to listen, and the music of the Darkness is Burzum.