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A unique rendering of Balder. - 86%

hells_unicorn, May 15th, 2009

At the most basic level of categorization there are two kinds of music; the kind that shows what its intentions are and the kind that challenges the listener to find the intention or attribute something to it which may or may not be the correct interpretation. Most music that attempts to do the latter and gets any sort of mass attention are ones that do this through lyrical metaphors or abstract themes laced within the storyline of a concept album, such as is the case with artists like Dio and Fates Warning. Within the underground world of death metal and other extreme music that utilizes atonal practices, the lyrics tend to be straight forward but the disjointedness of the music itself creates a distorting effect that tends to challenge the listener to find reason in the extremity of what is being experienced. But finding music that is without words and also, either intentionally or by sheer circumstance, challenges the ears to put aside what it is used to with easier forms of music.

It was much more by circumstance than by intention that “Dauði Baldrs” is so difficult for most ears to accept, as it essentially comes in an entirely midi generated sound package, not all that far away from what would comprise a Nintendo Entertainment System game soundtrack. There isn’t really any atmospheric differentiation to speak of within this musical medium, except those created by the synthesized timbres of each instrument that wanders in and out of the mix, an affect of switching from a soft to a full sound instantaneously known as terraced dynamics, which was common in Baroque music. This medium, contrary to what might be assumed, is actually perfect for bringing out the usage of this means of dynamic contrast by presenting the listener with an auspiciously different sound than what he/she is probably used to and also plays off the minimalist model that Varg has utilized for his many past ambient works.

This album is, in every way, a soundtrack. It is rigidly programmatic, in much the same way that an opera or a symphonic work based on some preexisting story would be. The low fidelity technology employed gives it the feel of a dated NES role-playing game version of the tale (my own tolerance for these sounds may lie partly in that I worked with midi extensively while taking music composition courses in college and still do), but its intention is fairly clear from a formal standpoint since not only are the title’s of each song revealing of the emotions they portray, but each song comes with a description of which event in the story of the Norse god Balder. The challenge comes into play by attempting to visualize these events happening within your own mind while the music is on, rather than listening to it while doing something else such as working on your computer or trying to go to sleep, although the serene piano ambience of “Illa Tiðandi” are a pleasant though somber way to walk through the gilded gate of dreams. Although this requires an effort that many would not wish to give or spend money on trying, for some reason it came rather quickly for me, probably because it was my first Burzum album and I didn’t approach it with any expectations. Nonetheless, I had to listen to it 6 or 7 times before I could fully visualize what I believe is the imagery behind the simple, droning lines that interweave with each other at elongated intervals.

The strength of this album, by virtue of the format it comes in, relies completely on quality of ideas because there are not many of them and there is no elaborate production to make lesser ideas appear great. The lead off and title song “Dauði Baldrs” presents a singular theme of 16 notes, all in a singular flowing rhythm, that goes from one instrumentation to another and embodies both a sense of tragedy and of impending drama. There are two countering themes that come and go while the principle one almost always present, creating a series of differing sections out of a very limited set of ideas, creating the image of the most beloved of gods lying dead at the hands of treachery. “Hermoðr Á Helferð” has a much simpler model and gives off feelings of both peace and determination, as a lone traveler sets out on a grand mission. Things start to get a bit more complex afterwards as the plot thickens and the revelations of the future of all characters within the realm of Norse myths come to fruition. “Bálferð Baldrs” mostly drones, but utilizes a short ending section with a lone piano that disrupts what has been a very strictly formatted minimal approach.

“Í Heimr Heljar” is the most intense of the lot in terms of passion, loaded with a lot of percussive sounds, almost like the stomping of giants during a battle charge, and accompanied by slightly more complex themes. Things pull back significantly with “Illa Tiðandi”, which is basically a soft piano drone that slowly adds a solemn voice accompaniment. It flows in much the same way as “Tomhet” and “Rundtgåing Av Den Transcendentale Egenhetens Støtte”, the two ambient works from the previous albums did, and lingers a long time with little change. The closing work “Móti Ragnarokum”, which depicts the coming of the end time prophecy of Northern myths, sees the return of a more complex approach that exploits the extremely limited arrangement to its fullest. The themes at work here are not just memorable and effective, they become absolutely spellbinding once they’ve fully set in, particularly once the full string orchestra sound and percussion comes in. This one also makes use of both an intro and an outro where a single instrument plays a fairly involved them compared to the rhythmically rudimentary ones that dominate the early songs, but still stays within the confines of standard metric timing.

While this album is quite an experience, it is not perfect and actually is among the weaker of Varg’s offerings. Although he put together a lot of really good ideas here, there is a lot that could have been expanded upon or even varied a bit, while maintaining the same time lengths. This music is meant to develop slowly and give the listener time to fully comprehend each theme, but this moves just a little too slow and relies a bit too much on repetition rather than variation and contrast. It is difficult to really recommend because it is purposefully set up to have a limited audience, made up mostly by those who fully understand the egoistic nature of great songwriting and don’t feel the need to be pandered to. But there is definitely a purpose to this, and it might not be the same for you as it was for me, but if you are curious then definitely give this a chance.