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Enthralling...for a little while - 45%

Valfars Ghost, April 12th, 2016

Almost as infamous as Varg Vikernes' murder of Euronymous, Dauði Baldrs has been a polarizing album since its 1997 release. Abandoning (or being forced to abandon, rather) the raging electric guitars and the thundering drums he'd used earlier in his career, Varg dives headfirst into the atmospheric ambitions the last 30 minutes of Burzum's previous album, Filosofem first introduced listeners to. People love to argue about whether this is a masterfully atmospheric journey or a repetitive borefest. I find myself in the latter camp, though I can't outright decry this album. It may be tiresome in its repetition, but there's still some inspired songcraft to be found in certain parts of this journey.

Varg is owed quite a bit of credit for certain aspects of this album that turned out far better than detractors would like to admit. The main thing that is beautifully communicated through most of this album is the emotional tone from each part of the story told in the liner notes. Usually people go into this album expecting it to sound horrible because it was played on a cheap synthesizer but Varg squeezes a lot of value out of the machine's limited capabilities. Sure, the low quality of its tone can be a bit distracting but music is more about the skill of the writers and performers than the instruments they use. With that in mind, slipping into the mythic world that inspired this album, with the narrative liner notes to guide you, is surprisingly easy. Varg crafted some truly evocative melodies that, at least for a time, make you forget that they're being played on a crummy instrument. Some of these numbers sound like menu music from a Super Nintendo-era RPG but a few of them deliver timeless medieval melodies that transport you to Varg's fantasy world. For this reason, the best way to listen to this album is while reading the story. When you do this, the notes and chord progressions take on new meaning. The title track becomes enthralling with its doom-foretelling main motif and 'Hermoðr á Helferð', with its folk-derived ditty conveying a hopeful optimism, is a great audio companion to the retelling of the ride Hermoðr takes to Hel in an attempt to bring Baldr back. Every song here, at the very least, does something to tonally create a mood that fits with the story.

With some genuinely deft, if minimalistic, writing at the heart of Dauði Baldrs, what went so horribly wrong? Well, the minimalism that was welcome as far as composing rhythms was concerned slipped its way into Varg's method of structuring the album. Each song only has a maximum of three ideas, which, when half of these numbers exceed the eight-minute mark, isn't enough. Worse, the songs don't have an interesting way of presenting these ideas. They just places them in a revolving door without allowing one to build or flow naturally into the next. First there's Melody 1, then Melody 2, then maybe Melody 3. Then the cycle starts again. 'Illa tiðandi' isn't even kind enough to give us that. This piece is just one extremely basic pattern played over and over again for 10 minutes, sometimes accompanied by a synth effect that sounds like a mournful choir, sometimes not. Even the title track, the only lengthy number here that satisfies, is just an endless cycle of the same few motifs, wearing out its welcome a couple minutes before it's over.

If the Internet is to be believed, a lot of people don't understand this album, which I assume means they just don't appreciate atmospheric music, especially coming from a black metal innovator like the Vargster. The idea of someone failing to comprehend these songs on their own terms is baffling because, with all the parts on Dauði Baldrs that are practically copied and pasted ad nauseum, I understand it too easily. Without buildup or nuanced interactions between the different elements at play, there's not much to discover. The best albums, regardless of genre, contain elements that are well thought-out and meaningful but not necessarily obvious at first glace. Finding them during a third or fourth listen lends them depth that make them better. This album has little of that. Varg's always been one of the more repititious of the Norwegian black metal composers but his stuff before this had some spark. Here, he sounds bored (which he probably was because he was in prison). While some initial inspiration can be heard in some of this album's stronger and more emotive melodies, that ambition sadly didn't carry over to the way everything was laid out, allowing almost every song to devolve into a bland and lifeless journey through an endlessly repeating hallway in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon.