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Much like I've narrowed down the nexus of superior thrash metal to largely dwell within the realm of 1986-88, it really felt like black metal's time had come in 1994. Granted, since that time, there has never been a shortage of the stuff, and quite a lot of it supreme, but as for the second wave, 1994 was the spot. Many of my favorite albums of the genre arrived this year, and yes, most of them were Norwegian. Emperor cornered the market on symphonic black early with their brilliant In the Nightside Eclipse. Darkthrone put out the one-track minded, anomalously awesome Transilvanian Hunger. Enslaved and Satyricon each released a pair of cult faves. Mayhem finally arrived in full-length form. Bands like Gorgoroth, Ancient, Hades, Forgotten Woods and Gehenna were also making their debuts, and the scene was expanding in bounds of impressive expression.
Then, of course, there was Hvis Lyset Tar Oss ('If the Light Takes Us'), Burzum's third album, which served as an antithesis to everything I just listed. While many Norse bands were off exploring the heights of savagery and complexity, Varg Vikernes was concentrating inward, to an even more minimal approach than he had taken on the past works. This is not a short album, necessarily, being around 45 minutes in length, but it focuses in on but four lengthy tracks, two of which eclipse the 14 minute mark, and yet, they never quite succumb to the dull pallor such ambition usually wrests from the author. Gone are the shorter, curving compositions found on Det Som Engang Var. Each individual in this quartet is drawn out to painstaking lengths, fully saturating the witness to worlds of obscurity and antiquity. In today's climate, this is not such an uncommon practice. Unless you're living out in the sticks, you probably couldn't stroll four blocks without encountering a handful of bedroom/desktop black or post-black metal artists who drone their swollen dreams on for far too long, offering next to nothing in the interior.
Back in 1994, it was still pretty unusual to run across such a work. It would have been an act of commercial suicide outside of genres like this one, which were already suicide to begin with. But Varg Vikernes has never been one to dwell on such folly, and so Hvis Lyset Tar Oss stood as his least accessible, but most impressive display of carnage to its day. Thematically, the riffs here are a blend of what we experienced on Burzum and Det Som Engang Var. They're not as dark or groove-thick as several of the tracks on the sophomore, but they bring back some of the piercing cold environment of Burzum. During several segments of this album, I felt like I was actually experienced a spiritual successor to Bathory's Blood Fire Death. Not in the savage semblance of its Viking motif, but just the way the guitars are channeled through a raw, repetitive glory that feels like a people, a nation, or a glacier moving slowly towards some conquest that was once unattainable. A forward motion, if you will, that never ceases through the metallic components of this CD, a wave that escalates until finally breaking at about 30 minutes into the track list.
It begins with a soothing calm. Scintillating keyboard lines with a flute-like tone are measured off against ringing, emotionally charged chords. This is "Det Som En Gang Var". The fact that did not appear on the album of the same name creates a startling continuity. Around 3:00, you hear the war drums erupt and a Bathory like procession of vision, not unlike "A Fine Day To Die", but steadier and longer. There is little else to occur here for minutes, just a repeating of the drum fills, the sauntering in and out of the synthesizer, and at last, 5 minutes deep, the tortured tones of Vikernes' vocals arrive like a strangulated hag. Rinse, repeat until about 8 minutes where an arching guitar melody arrives to mimic the keyboard, with a deviating tail that feels like a blood caked knife being dragged across the solid ice of a forgotten pond in which someone drowned, their preserved corpse staring through the glass miasma at the returned murderer. In its waking moments, the rhythm and ambiance shifts to an even slower pace, and then in closure a final variation on the central guitar riff arrives to carry it out to oblivion.
"Hvis Lyset Tar Oss" itself follows, increasing the pace of the album to a blast, perhaps the most intense and level blast Burzum had yet managed, the drums kept very low in the mix so the minimal variation in the guitar can create a fuzzed out clarity alongside another of the beautiful but effortless synth lines. The vocals here sound even more forceful than the first track, as if the strangling victim had freed itself, to mock and chastise a gathering of onlookers, to curse them for their passive fascination for its own suffering. Slight shifts are carved into this mountain of atrocity beyond the 2 minute mark, minimal but effective guitar lines that maintain the hypnosis Vikernes is striving for, and then around 6 minutes there is a final, desperate rush, before the torch is passed over to "Inn I Slottet Fra Droemmen (Into the Castle from the Dream)" and its deceptively jarring monotony. Through this track, Varg weaves Voivod-like dissonance and a gleaming, methodic force until a graceful breakdown half-way in, guitars taking all the weight here until the drums return around 5:30 and slowly gather speed until the lamenting melody of its final act.
Lastly, there is "Tomhet (Emptiness)", which was wisely placed so as not to erupt the rest of the ritual. With good reason: this is not a metal song. No, this is more akin to something Tangerine Dream would have written during their peak of 80s soundtracks and studio albums, a highly saturated, dreaming atmosphere conjured through three primary synth lines. One of them is mere resonance, surviving for several minutes, while the second repeats a vague, spacelike pattern, and the third crowns it all with benevolent, but cold bliss. Before the 7 minute period, these fade into a more somber tone, as if submerged in an arctic sea, the plump and plucky little melodies of the depths queued by the diver's exposure to the wildlife found therein, calm and strewn towards its destiny of predator and prey. Later, around 10 minutes, flute-like sounds and tinny, recessed percussion arrive that seem to leech the listener from that depth and create a glade-like incandescence, as if the diver had drowned and was seeing some arboreal Elysium. It's quite strange, but it's also my favorite track on this album...
As usual, with any Burzum release, you simply cannot expect to experience the same emotions you've found on previous releases. For all its subtle similarities, there are just as many if not more differences found throughout Hvis Lyset Tar Oss. Here, Vikernes has mastered the ambient half of his equation for the first time in memory. "Tomhet" is the most rapturous voyage he had yet penned outside his metal material, but its stunningly simple. Just about anyone with an inkling of how to hit a synthesizer chord and press a 'record' button could have performed this. And that's the beauty. The return to earth. To elements. The rustic, puerile charm. It's an enormous contrast to the charge of the first three tracks, and yet ironically the perfect post-script, as if all rising tension and glory led to its necessary calms.
Because of moments like this, Burzum is very often equated with being one of the few 'artists' within the metal sphere. I'm going to tell you that this is utter bullshit. Projected elitism. Bleary eyed snobby smearing. Virtual reality. If someone tells you this, hit them with a stick. Then hit them a second time, for me. Almost all metal through the ages, like other forms of the medium, have been art, just of varying strengths, purpose and size, of which we can argue until we're blue in the face. But that Vikernes is more 'artsy' than some would be hard to dispute. He conjures minimal aesthetics with a clear purpose. He's a masterful composer with few tools. A divisive engineer of aural frustrations. Hvis Lyset Tar Oss is with ease one of his most potent statements, surpassed marginally by its successor in my reckoning, and only by a mere elbow's breadth. Armed with lyrics of loss and wrath, this album forms a unique bridge to the more historically, folk driven themes Vikernes would use on further efforts. It's not entirely flawless. There are a few minutes in the first two tracks that often cause some drift (not in the right direction), but on the whole this remains a desperate, delicate, intricate and destructive pleasure to experience.