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Highs and lows, weapons and woes - 67%

autothrall, March 21st, 2011

Normally I'd engage in some sort of preamble for an album as hyped up and important as Belus, but instead I'll dispense with all the cliche formalities and (unrelated) historical notes and discuss why I found it to be an inconsistent, often frustrating experience with a few gem like nodes gleaming from its barren fields. You see, back in the early through mid 90s, Vikernes' brand of minimalist black metal with forays into ambiance was a novel concept that he and few others were exploring, and with each new record he released, he adopted subtle means of reinvention that articulated a high level of distinction among the masses of extremity obsessed blast mavens and Gothic freaks who were using it to climb new commercial heights. It was refreshing, and inspired countless followers.

Belus does not entirely dispose of such a strategy, but it is rarely compelling in its delivery. The content could be placed somewhere between Filosofem and Hvis Lyset Tar Oss in overall tone, but it lacks in the razor spun atmosphere of the former, or the hypnotic balance of the latter. Once again, Burzum journeys to the well of repetitive, primitive black metal to create a lulling, dark and obscure window into European myth-history, but it feels somehow drier than his past full-lengths. Granted, I was actually pretty happy that he returned to his metallic roots post incarceration, but by this point in time the aesthetics of his 90s work have been beaten to death. Very often this has been the work of monotonous pretenders who embark on their sonic journey with nothing more than a handful of derivative guitar riffs, rasped voice and drum machine, but occasionally the execution has come close to classic Burzum standards of curious antiquity, and I dare say even surpassing them. In short, Belus is not a dishonest effort, but it sounds too humble, too dialed in, almost a follower of itself.

It doesn't help that the album starts off so poorly, with its stark, brief introduction "Leukes Renkespill (The Intrigues of Leuke") which sounds like nothing more than a bottle cap being snapped or rolled about for 30 seconds before the immensely generic "Belus' Død (The Death of Belus)". Varg's fascination with the multi-named European deity life-death-rebirth entity is enduring here (we've already had a 'Death of Baldr', Norse deity associated with the same portfolio of principles), but the music itself is incredibly vapid of memorable notation, its central riff losing all its haunting luster after a mere 20-30 seconds, all too typical of just about anything snagged at random from the 90s pantheon of Norse or Swedish bands. Don't get me wrong, it's the primitive black metal many were praying for, but I found it wholly ineffectual.

"Glemselens Elv (The River of Forgetfulness)" is every bit as repetitive. Considering that it's 12 minutes in length, it had the potential for disaster, but at least for a few minutes it had me lost in its waters, especially the duet of clean and rasped vocals (which Vikernes' will use to greater effect on the next album, Fallen). His heavier vocals are pretty null and indistinct throughout this album, but with the added singing it creates a stronger, ebbing depression in tune with the backing guitar. Unfortunately, 11:35 is just too much of this, and despite a few minor, majestic transitions, its too much of a broken record for even Varg. Then we come upon "Kaimadalthas' Nedstigning (The Descent of Kaimadalthas)", a stronger experience with a nice counter chord thrown against the blast riff, and the clean vocal refrain which creates an unusual, percussive calm to the surging environment about it. In my opinion, its probably the best track on the album, but again the central guitar is treacherously dull of its own accord.

"Sverddans (Sword Dance)" is true to its title, a sort of black/thrashing speed metal riff being wound through two patterns before a lead melody, but it disappears almost as quickly as it arrives, and does not leave much of an appropriate stab or slash behind it. "Keliohesten (The Horse of Kelio)" and "Morgenrøde (Dawn)" both have their moments; the former's in the way the roiling charge is offset by the backing guitar melody, the latter for the pomp and swell of the bass in the into and the return to the cleaner, narrative vocals. If the entire album had been at least as interesting as these, then I'd have more cause for concern over it, but then, I wouldn't consider either to number among his better tracks. The conclusion is a 9+ minute instrumental "Belus' Tilbakekomst (The Return of Belus)", not at all the first of such guitar driven pieces to emanate from the gray matter of Varg, but despite some shining heights, it wears out its welcome about as quickly as a Nadja record. Decent background thriving, nothing more.

Belus is not a great record, nor even a good one, because in over 50 minutes of content, there are about 15-20 that are mesmerizing enough to listen through repeatedly, and no singular track is ultimately that convincing when compared to his past material. At the same time, it's not a bad listen, just average. I can understand and forgive a few flakes of rust on the creative joints, seeing that he spent such a long time without access to musical instruments, and at least he'd written something more substantial than Hliðskjálf, which showed only the vaguest hints of effort. But even the cover to this is all too soon forgotten. Thankfully, it would not take Burzum very long to recover, because Fallen channels a number of the ideas here into an appealing, logical succession.