Burzum - Burzum (1992)
The first enthralling steps of a man destined for both greatness and immense controversy.
Kristian Vikernes was born on the 11th of February 1973 at 21:58 in Bergen, Norway. This now infamous individual, who seems to cause controversy through mere presence alone, appears to have lived a fairly average life, at least up until his later teenage years. In fact, when you look at the things that Kristian was passionate about in the time prior to the formation of Burzum, it becomes apparent that the man would generally be considered a geek. He had an obsession with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, played various role playing games and had pretend fights with fake swords in the forest with his friends. Yet there’s no doubt that even during these fantasy filled days of adventure and escapism, there was something very different about Kristian. Simply put, the boy, and eventually the man, took things very seriously indeed and refused to adhere to standard social viewpoints. His view on Tolkien’s work is a case in point, with Kristian not content to side with our underdog fellowship of hobbits, dwarves, elves and humans. The young Norwegian instead saw parallels between the races of Middle-Earth and those in the real world, as well as between the trilogy’s storyline and that of his own pagan ancestry. The dwarves were “greedy capitalist pigs”, the hobbits were “boring little children” and the elves were cool but “fought for the wrong side”. Kristian felt no affiliation with any of the good guys and instead found a deep connection with Sauron and his legion of evil baddies.
In his opinion, not only did the bad guys give Middle-Earth much needed adventure and adversity, but he also picked up on the possibility that Tolkien had based the darker side of his story on Kristian’s forefathers and their Óðinnic mythology. “His One Eye, the One Ring and the tower of Barad-Dur are all attributes similar to those of Óðinn. The One Eye was like Óðinn's eye, the One Ring was like Óðinn's ring, Draupnir ("Dripper"), and Barad-Dur was like the tower or throne of Óðinn, called Hliðskjálf ("Secret Ritual-Site"). His Uruk-Hai and Olog-Hai ("Troll-Race") were like Viking berserkers, the Warges were like Óðinnic werewolves, and so forth.” In his eyes, Sauron and his forces attacking the cities of Middle-Earth had distinct similarities to the Vikings attacking Christian Europe, and even the Orcish and Black Speech that Tolkien developed were based on the language of his forefathers. He couldn’t help but get behind Sauron’s push for domination and despite their inevitable loss (just as the Vikings had eventually been defeated), Kristian believed from an early age that he would rather perish fighting for what he believed in, rather than living in falsity and obedience to offensive authority. Given the above thought processes, it’s not surprising that he named his second band Uruk-Hai (his first was called Kalashnikov after his favourite assault rifle), which means Orc-Race in Black Speech, his self-associated Vikings of Middle-Earth.
Originally a three piece band, containing a separate drummer and bassist, Uruk-Hai didn’t last very long before falling apart due to internal conflicts in 1990. Kristian then spent a year playing for a thrash metal band called Old Funeral, followed by Satanel which he formed with Abbath from Immortal, before finally reviving Uruk-Hai in 1991. This time around he felt his own musicianship skills had improved enough to go it alone and decided to change the name of the band to signify this transformation. Sticking with the Tolkien theme, the name Burzum was chosen, which means darkness in Black Speech. The word can be found inscribed on the One Ring of Sauron, the greatest of the rings of power. It says “Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul” which means “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.” This wasn’t the only change however, nor was it the only link to Lord of the Rings. Kristian decided that he wanted to remain anonymous, as that would increase the mystery and power of Burzum. He gave himself the pseudonym Count Grishnackh, which is inspired by a character called Grishnákh, an Orc captain in a group of Mordor Orcs that joined Saruman’s Uruk-Hai troops on the plains of Rohan. A strange choice given the characters unheroic demise at the end of a rider’s spear, but somehow suitable for one so anti-authoritarian.
The purpose of Burzum was “to create something new; darkness in a far too light, safe and boring world”. Kristian intended to do this through the use of magic. His ideas were not, as is often suggested, based on occultism or Satanism, but instead based on the fantasy magic from his role playing games (such as Advanced Dungeons and Dragons) with links to the Pagan past that fascinated him to such a large extent. The songs on Burzum albums are actually meant to be spells, with each album very specifically designed so that each spell can achieve its desired result. Some tracks were positioned to prepare the listener for magic, others to make them susceptible to it, others to put them into a trancelike state, and finally others to transition them into the world of fantasy. They were also intended to be listened to at night, “when the sunbeams couldn’t vaporize the power of the magic”. This all sounds laughable of course to anyone grounded in reality, yet the hypnotic quality of Burzum’s work and the fantastical landscapes that it builds in the imagination of the listener suggest that in some way his objectives were successful. Kristian thought these magical spells were needed in a world otherwise devoid of all things adventurous and mystical. He created them as much for himself as for others that may wish to escape this unsatisfactory world even if temporarily.
While Kristian listened to bands such as Kreator, Paradise Lost, Destruction and of course Bathory (he never listened to Venom which makes claims that they were a huge influence incorrect), the majority of his musical inspiration came between the years 1989 and 1992, in which he and other likeminded individuals (including band members from Old Funeral and Immortal) would spend their days fighting each other with clubs, swords and spears in the Norwegian countryside. Taking place in ancient ruins and dark forests, it was not intended that these mock battles would cause serious injury, but most would end with some form of bloodletting or bruising, giving them all a taste of the dangers of medieval warfare. The feelings generated by this activity along with the highly atmospheric locations would inspire Kristian’s musical output and he would habitually create music on arriving home, filthy and bleeding. Pretty much all of the music for the first six releases, even the ambient Dauði Baldrs and Hliðskjálf releases he later produced from prison (they were basically keyboard versions of riffs he wrote on guitar), were created in this battle-fuelled state of towering inspiration. Ironically, it was Øystein Aarseth (aka Euronymous from the band Mayhem) that would give Kristian the chance to put his unique vision into a form others could experience, and it was the formation of this relationship that would result his eventual incarceration.
Øystein came across a couple of Burzum demo tapes and having recently formed his own label called Deathlike Silence, was impressed enough to offer Kristian a recording contract. He accepted and immediately began preparing to record a self titled debut. Recorded in January 1992, Burzum is the first of four albums he would record in a hugely productive fourteen month period, although it would take over four years for the last of them (Filosofem) to be released. Grieghallen Sound Studio was chosen for the album due to an earlier positive experience recording an EP with Old Funeral in 1990. More specifically, Kristian had thought very highly of the sound technician at Grieghallen, whom he says was “a very positive, skilled and great guy from Bergen”. Using extremely cheap equipment, Burzum took a total of nineteen hours to record and master, with every instrument for every track captured in one take. Kristian cared nothing for the small mistakes that are apparent throughout and has always believed that these variances add character to music in general. He also chose to leave these minor flaws as part of his rebellion against what was considered standard, as was his wish to sound like no other band and his purposeful use of shitty equipment. Øystein and Harald Nævdal (aka Demonaz from Immortal) assisted with carrying and setting up equipment and were present for the majority of the recording, with Øystein even contributing a lead for the track War and helped bash a large gong as part of the background sounds of Dungeons of Darkness.
As mentioned earlier, the early Burzum albums were intended as spells, however the first two albums were also designed with the LP format in mind. Each was split into two distinct halves to fit the format, with the debut albums first half labelled Side Hate and second Side Winter. As always with Burzum’s classic albums, the music is unquestionably black metal, with similarly dark instrumentals (often ambient in style) used to good effect. Heavily distorted, tremolo picked guitar riffs, fast drumming with heavy use of double bass kicking and exceedingly harsh shrieked vocals, all given an intentionally raw production make up the backbone of the Burzum sound. It’s the hypnotic aspect and the intense feelings of melancholy and despair however that give albums like Burzum its emotional hold, and while there’s no doubt that the formula would be improved upon with each subsequent album (peaking with Hvis Lyset Tar Oss), the features that make Burzum so captivating were already in place at this early stage. One thing that would lessen over time was the inclusion of thrashier elements and they were never more prevalent than on this debut. Unfortunately this facet of the album does negate from the overall experience and occasionally breaks the “spell” that Kristian hoped to generate. War is the most obvious example but this shift in tone makes its way into a few otherwise beautiful tracks to degrade their overall effect.
The musicianship is certainly not amazing from a technical point of view, but nor does it need to be with the end result far surpassing its individual parts. Repetition and simplicity work in Burzum’s favour, allowing the music to easily break into the listener’s subconscious before working its “magic”. As planned, both Side Hate and Side Winter start with aggressive tracks (Feeble Screams from Forests Unknown and War) to open the listener up, which are followed by more hypnotic, trance inducing pieces (Ea, Lord of the Depths and A Lost Forgotten Sad Spirit) to prepare the listener for the magic to come. Then the true spells arrive (Spell of Destruction and My Journey to the Stars) which are intended to shift the listener to fantastic worlds far from reality, before soothing instrumentals (Channelling the Power of Souls Into a New God and Dungeons of Darkness) help calm them down and return them to reality in gentle fashion. Whether all this has the desired effect on a listener probably has more to do with them personally rather than the work of Kristian, as there’s no doubt that this atmospheric black metal touches those who accept it on a deep emotional level. The next few Burzum releases would grow in consistency and would therefore be more successful than this first effort, but there’s no denying how important this album was to the black metal scene at large, and tracks like Spell of Destruction and in particular A Lost Forgotten Sad Spirit are still thoroughly impressive nearly twenty years on.
This is some alright 1st wave black metal. I'm a little picky about the first wave and the throwback first wave stuff. This isn't awful, but it ultimately never really blew me away on repeat listens. One of my first black metal experiences though, so I'll give it that.
Varg Vikernes is one of the most controversial characters in metal, but he most definitely produced one of the two best black metal albums ever made (ironically, the other being De Mysteriis) with the most anguished-sounding vocal performance you will ever hear. Even if you consider Burzum the artist seperately from Vikernes the man, the question that then remains is, could anyone else have released such an angst-filled, desperate sounding record that reaches right into the darkest, bleakest reaches of the human soul? Probably not, after all, if you want an insight into what it is to live in hell, then you don't ask someone who lives in heaven, do you?