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Expressive gloom despite its production pratfalls - 77%

autothrall, March 18th, 2011

Dauði Baldrs ('Death of Balder') is yet another anomaly in the long string of anomalies that have festooned the career of Varg Vikernes. Recorded entirely during his prison sentence, and without the benefit of musical instruments, it certainly had its work cut out for it, and yet, fascinatingly, it succeeds despite this. Was it too costly a risk to take? We can each answer this only for ourselves. I personally know several people who despise this recording with a passion, thinking it some blasphemy upon the damnable Earth, or a mere grab at cash during his incarceration, sold upon the name Burzum alone. But certainly, anyone who sits through the entire 40 minutes can hear that there is in fact a stout effort placed into its haunting drought. All atmospherics. Somnolent compositions of a folk saga being played out as puppets on a dimly lit stage.

This is a MIDI album. Not a metal album. It's got more in common with cryptic Super Nintendo role playing games than Hvis Lyset Tar Oss or Det Som Engang Var, as if Tchaikovsky had penned some lost Final Fantasy score. Yet, the aesthetic choices made through the compositions are theatrical, ritual and maintain a persistent gravitas. Part of this is the packaging, which is, like Filosofem, brilliantly conceived. In fact, it's the best looking Burzum CD period, including artwork by Tanya Stene; the lyrics and poetry incorporated to guide the listener through the imagery being evoked in the music, despite the lack of vocals on the album. I might have liked having English translations in the booklet, but they are provided on the official website for any who want to read them. Certainly for something this minimalist, Varg and the label have gone all out. There was no stopping his vision, confinement or not.

Musically, the material ranges from a martial, Medieval framework to a more lush, melodic folk landscape, all of which captivate the desperation of Balder's saga. The quality is a bit lopsided, and I can say I enjoy four of the songs greatly and the other two not so much. "Dauði Baldrs" itself is the opener, and the nearly 9 minutes portray an ominous descent, a conflagration of dour dreamstuff that is carried through a number of melodic, eerie lines and a rather stout contrast in the percussive use of the horn. "Hermoðr Á Helferð (Hermodr on a Journey to Hel)" is far shorter, clocking in under 3 minutes, and features a flighty repetition of pianos with a flute-like narrative. "Bálferð Baldrs (Balder's Burning)" returns to the vibes of the first track, only it runs dry within the first few minutes, and it's not a favorite here.

"I Heimr Heliar (In Hel's Home)" is steady and bombastic, like a march, but all too brief, and then the album curves into the dire eaves of "Illa Tiðandi (Ill Tidings)", which is incredibly drawn out to over 10 minutes, ultimately a bit too repetitive even for a man who on his prior album included a 25 minute ambient track. "Móti Ragnarokum (Towards Ragnarok)", on the other hand, is beautiful, perhaps my favorite tune on the whole disc, with a powerful sense of melancholy evoked through the piano and the sweeping symphonic discourse, then the stalking violin string segues that morph into pianos and back again to the creepy melodies. When I say it feels very Metroid, I mean no insult whatsoever. There are likely only a handful of folks who will understand what I'm getting at, but this piece creates a similar, isolated vibe to that game's old score, which I worship.

In the end, this is an enjoyable departure, an enduring experiment, but it does suffer a few flaws. For one, this is the one of the only cases where some of the repetition that has proven crucial to Vikernes' compositions in the past creeps out and bites the album on the ass. It's hardly crippling, but at least two of the central tracks ("Bálferð Baldrs" and "Illa Tiðandi") needed something more to them to round out their considerable, 16 minute chunk of the ritual. Also, this is intensely crude, even for MIDI, it was basically shunted over to a tape recorder. The format is pretty damn charming, but I'd honestly love to hear a few of these pieces worked out with an actual orchestra. That said, Dauði Baldrs is what it is, a musician's perseverance through a near depletion of any and all musical resources. One can envision its creator coming up with these bits in confinement, how much more haunting they must have felt within the folds of that imagination. I wouldn't mind hearing more in this style, but that doesn't seem likely.