Burzum - Filosofem (1996)
The last Burzum masterpiece and one of the finest examples of truly despondent, ambient based, atmospheric black metal.
This is likely to be a long review I’m afraid. It won’t just be lengthy due to my adoration for the music contained within the album in question, but also due to numerous external pieces of information that make this particular album so much more than just another black metal release. The beliefs and actions of the man responsible for it have been mentioned many times over and questions are continually raised regarding the morality of supporting such an individual, even if this support only takes the form of praise for his art rather than his personal philosophies. I’ll leave those discussions for another time (there’s one in the forums right now) and assume that anyone reading this is sensible enough to in turn assume that all the superlatives below are to be associated with Varg’s music alone and in no way suggest that I admire his racist existence, nor his morbid habits that include arson and murder. The fact is that there is no doubt in my mind that the man is a genius musician. It’s yet to be seen whether he still has what it takes to be relevant since his release from prison on May the 24th last year, but from what I’ve heard of the new album Belus, he may struggle to recapture the passion and skill of his youth.
If you asked me to name one singular black metal album that I consider to be the very best that the genre has to offer, Burzum’s 1994 offering Hvis Lyset Tar Oss would probably be the first release that comes to mind. There’d be a few others in the running, in particular Ulver’s Bergtatt, Mayhem’s De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas and Emperor’s In the Nightside Eclipse, but the opening track Det Som Engang Var alone would probably convince me to select Burzum’s masterpiece above all. I only mention this to give you some idea how high my expectations were for this follow-up after a couple of years assuming that Burzum was no longer. Varg had been in prison for close to three years before Filosofem appeared on the scene, but the mere fact that it was recorded in March 1993 prior to his imprisonment (unlike Dauði Baldrs and Hliðskjálf which were recorded from within his cell using only a synthesizer and a tape recorder), was enough to get me very excited indeed. Varg would murder Euronymous on August the 10th 1993, just five months after creating Filosofem, so there was no doubt that this would be the last black metal album by Burzum for at least another 21 years (well, 16 as it turned out).
The title Filosofem is Norwegian for philosopheme, which is a philosophical proposition, doctrine, or principle of reasoning. It’s unsurprising to find Varg choosing a title such as this, given his tendency to “philosophize” about all things political and religious. The artwork, as with the fantastic cover that adorns Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, can all be attributed to Theodor Kittlesen, one of the most popular Norwegian artists from the 1800s. It may seem a bit odd to find a woman playing a birch trumpet on the cover of a black metal album, but Op Under Fjeldet Toner en Lur’s (Up in the Hills a Clarion Call Rings Out) natural surroundings, colour scheme and even subject matter, capture Burzum’s melancholic tone perfectly. The Misanthropy A5 digibook pressing in particular shows off this artwork superbly, along with the numerous other Kittelsen works found within, such as Det Rusler og Tusler Rasler og Tasler (Creepy, Crawly, Rustling, Bustling). Varg was clearly very fond of the artists work as it pops up throughout his black metal releases. One can assume that Kittelsen himself may have been a bit perturbed to become a muse for such a disturbed individual, but one can’t argue when you passed away around eighty years prior to the relationship being formed.
The first thing to notice when listening to Filosofem is the rather lo-fi production. It’s safe to say that this was no accident. In fact, Varg didn’t even use a guitar amplifier for the recording, choosing to plug his guitar into his brother’s stereo and to use an old fuzz pedal for distortion. He then found the worst microphone he could and used it through a headset. It’s testament to his genius that he even tried this, but the resulting sound is so unique and so despondent, without ever distracting from the music itself, it can only be described as revolutionary. When combined with the contrasting clarity of the keyboards, the outcome is moving beyond words, and I’m convinced that no other production would work as well for the tracks found on Filosofem as the one he discovered. Speaking of tracks, there are only six on offer, with a running time of just under sixty-five minutes. As is the case with all classic Burzum albums, these tracks are a mixture of instrumentals and “songs”, and combine atmospheric black metal with ambient electronics. It should not be assumed that these two styles are utilized in tandem for mere diversity purposes, as both epitomize the Burzum sound and contain similar characteristics despite differing techniques and technologies.
The first track is Dunkelheit. At least that’s the way it appears on the majority of printings. Varg has stated that the definitive tracklisting can be found on the Norwegian version, as it has the original song titles and lyrics. It makes sense too as the titles on this version match the lyrics of the tracks, rather than all being listed in German as is the case on all other versions. In this instance, Dunkelheit is the German translation of Burzum (which means Darkness in English). Interestingly, when Varg originally created the track Burzum back in 1991, he decided to use the word as the name of the band, rather than Uruk-Hai as it had been known up to that point. He originally wanted to include Burzum on the Hvis Lyset Tar Oss album, but was unhappy with the recording, so re-recorded it for Filosofem. It was the right decision as the new sound suits the track perfectly with the minimal keyboards and distant, more refrained vocals shifting the atmosphere up to stupendous levels. Its classic Burzum though with simple and repetitive riffs keeping the listener entranced while the vocals repeat simple and repetitive lyrics, although they now switch between black metal shrieks and despondent spoken word.
Once that classic has run its course, there’s a large momentum shift as Jesu død (Jesus' Tod in German which translates to Jesus’ Death in English) takes a more straight-forward and brutal black metal approach. The new production doesn’t take any power away from the style that worked so well on previous albums such as the title track on Hvis Lyset Tar Oss. If I listen to the albums back to back it’s amazing how different they sound while still capturing the spirit that is Burzum. The riffs are completely audible despite the wall of sound approach, with tremolo picking overlaying the traditional distorted riffs. The pummelling percussion manages to use its non technical repetition as a strong point, adding to the hypnotic effect of the end result. It’s the only time on the album where Varg lets loose with unbridled aggression and it certainly stands out for this reason. In fact, apart from the last track being a slightly reworked version of an earlier one, all the tracks on Filosofem take a really different approach, and this variety gives each track memorable characteristics that make the whole thing so captivating. Always experimenting and letting his creative juices flow, Varg never attempts to please anyone but himself.
Next up is the wonderful Beholding the Daughters of the Firmament (or Erblicket die Töchter des Firmaments as the German translation would have it). After the blistering speed of Jesu død, this doomy work of art brings things back down into more brooding realms with a slow rock-like beat. Unlike the opening track, Daughters of the Firmament doesn’t inject much in the way of electronics, giving the discordant riffs plenty of room to thrive. The vocals are entirely decipherable and the lyrics filled with passionate longing for a time long past. Whenever I listen to this track I think of Varg in his prison cell, longing to go back to a time when he had freedom. With lyrics such as “I wonder how winter will be, with a spring that I shall never see. I wonder how night will be, with a day that I shall never see”, it’s hard not to be reminded that these luxuries would be taken away from Varg (with good reason I’ll add) very shortly after this recording. I remember thinking many times that perhaps he might actually be filled with regret and sorrow for his actions, but from the recent musings on his website it appears that nothing much has changed when it comes to his views on life.
Fourth track is the aptly titled Decrepitude I (Gebrechlichkeit I in German), which shifts the emphasis once again, dropping the drums entirely. In fact, even though we’re not even halfway through Filosofem, there will not be a single drum beat for its remainder. Yet despite barely clinging to the realm of black metal, this track has one of the most despondent and gut-wrenchingly hopeless moods imaginable. As if the desperate, almost manic vocals and the continuously swaying distorted feedback of a riff were not enough, the tender keyboard notes over the top are enough to make you reach for the razor. This is ambient black metal at its finest and really showcases how confident Varg is that he can fulfil his goals any which way he pleases. The lyrics are repeated several times until they become latched onto your subconscious. “Beware of the light, it may take you away, to where no evil dwells. It will take you away, for all eternity.” This may not exactly be the type of message one would teach to their children, but by the end of Decrepitude I, I’m convinced that the light is not somewhere I want to be. I definitely don’t want an eternity without the glorious darkness of Burzum, that’s for sure!
Track five brings us to undoubtedly the most discussed aspect of Filosofem. There’s nothing like a twenty-five minute ambient piece to divide black metal fans down the middle. It’s true that purely symphonic ambient music is likely to put many listeners to sleep, rather than create the sort of pumped up aggression and rebellion that goes hand in hand with a large amount of black metal albums. But Varg had been tinkering with the electronic aspects throughout each album until he was confident enough to reproduce the same sort of melancholy that encompasses his black metal in ambient form. This experimentation came to fruition on Hvis Lyset Tar Oss with closing track Tomhet and he took it one step further with Rundtgåing av Den Transcendentale Egenhetens Støtte (Rundgang um die transzendentale Säule der Singularität in German and Tour Around the Transcendental Pillar of Singularity in English). This twenty-five minute track is seamlessly broken into two halves. The first eleven minutes slowly build up, adding new sounds gradually, before it breaks down and begins a new journey for the remainder, with only one continuous melody taken for the entire ride. It’s not, as many would have you believe, a boring piece of music that detracts from the album. It’s a beautiful, masterfully created piece of ambient music.
Finally, the album closes with Decrepitude II (Gebrechlichkeit II in German), which is the reworking of track four. Basically, Varg took the intro effects of the original version and repeated them for the entire running time, changed the guitar riff so that it slowly faded in, and removed the vocals entirely. It’s still an effective piece of music, but I have to admit that it doesn’t add an awful lot that the original didn’t already contain, and the removal of the frantic vocals takes away from it a bit for me. Given the running time of the album, I’d have to conclude that Decrepitude II is just a bit unnecessary and likely to test the patience of many. But that can’t come remotely close to stopping me from giving Filosofem the full rating that it deserves. It’s the last remnant of genius that I cling to, while I perhaps a bit too optimistically, hope that Burzum can one day recapture the glory of the past. Somehow I doubt I’ll be writing such a lengthy and praise-riddled review for future Burzum releases, but at least albums like Filosofem can always be experienced again and again. In the words of the man himself, “In every night there's a different black, in every night I wish that I was back, to the time when I rode, through the forests of old”.
Repetition Induces Fortune
Burzum's follow-up to the frozen wasteland of Hvis Iyset tar oss is without a doubt one of the most important and influential releases any subgenre of Metal has ever seen. It's a one-of-a-kind product created under unique circumstances that may never be rivaled in its objectively rich history of darkness and malice. Originally recorded in 1993 but released during front man Varg Vikernes' imprisonment for murder and other charges it can act as a portal into the manic and twisted mind of a man who committed some seriously heinous crimes. For a lot of Metal junkies Filosofem was their first delve into a different kind of evil sound that not many bands or musicians have been able to replicate. Metalheads tend to live for the dark and twisted so the fact that this album has been hoisted up into into the tier of the true classics is no real surprise.
Personally, though, I checked out Filosofem much later in my Black Metal excursions. Starting out with Nokturnal Mortem, Saor, and Moonsorrow really started me off on the more folky side of Black Metal and made me wary of the classic and raw sound of bands like Burzum, Bathory, and Darkthrone. Eventually the echoes praising this album to Hell and back again got to be too much and at the time it wasn't exactly what I was expecting. I remember having a confused scowl on my face as I somewhat suffered through the lo-fi guitar and drums and the shrieks of a man sounding like he was being mauled by wolves. I've obviously learned to appreciate the grime and fuzz that Black Metal tends to have, but the atmosphere and structure of Filosofem goes a bit deeper than that.
Much like Hvis Iyset tar oss repetition is the main feature that Burzum employs to create the frigid and dark aura that blankets this album. Thanks to the lo-fi production the straight up Black Metal tracks are a noisy mess but somehow produce crystal clear and gripping chord progressions. While I wouldn't go as far to say that "Dunkelheit" and "Jesus' Tod" are the best Black Metal riffs ever written, there's something different about them. The way that the grinding metallic guitars play off of the clear and sinister sounding synth as Vikernes howls like a man possessed creates a different kind of evil atmosphere than Hvis Iyset tar oss or any other Black Metal that had come out at that time. The vocals are pushed back farther in the mix and act more as a violent break in the repetitiveness of the riffs across the 7+ minute tracks. The repetition is what drives this album, with each riff, chaotic or plodding, being repeated into oblivion to attempt to trance the listener into the wicked atmosphere. "Jesus' Tod" is probably the most varied of all the tracks with interesting tremolo picking chord progressions that actually, well, progress alongside driving double bass.
The second half, starting with "Decrepitude I", is where Filosofem shows it's true colors. After an 8 minute soundscape of grinding guitar, ragged vocals, and ominous echoing synth notes the true experience begins with the start of "Rundgang um die transzendentale Säule der Singularität". This 25 minute slog of two separate synth melodies uses the same repetition concepts showcased in the Black Metal front half and simply forces the listener to sit through a song with almost no variation, progression, or payoff. This concept of repetition is what makes Filosofem what it is, plain and simple. It challenges the listener much like Hvis Iyset tar oss does, but it cranks up the difficulty with longer and even more haunting tones. When I listen to this album I want something different to happen, but it never comes. After a while the dullness of the same riff or the same synthesizer note starts to really get under the skin, creating different experiences for each person. I'd imagine everyone handles sitting through the 25 minute slog of "Rundgang" differently, which is why this album is something special at the end of the day. Even "Decrepitude II" is just a strange collection of what sounds like water drops, the swinging of pickaxes, or rocks being thrown inside of a cave with some background guitar musings and a slow synth melody. The main point here is that Filosofem accomplishes a truly unique atmosphere in a truly unique way that could have easily failed, which is where this review is going to conclude.
I think what I learned most about critically revisiting this album is that while it is very fun and rewarding to pick apart, the entire idea of this album hangs on by a singular and thin piece of thread. This album is the true definition of "lightning in a bottle", with Vikernes being very lucky that the few ideas he decided to showcase are engrossing and thought provoking. As I collected my thoughts on each track I realized that there honestly isn't a lot going on within this album. There may be more in terms of atmosphere, texture, and sound choice, but when it comes to the riffs, melodies, and overall musical passages there just isn't a whole lot there. "Dunkelheit", "Erblicket die Tochter des Firmaments", and "Decrepitude I" all have one riff with a few minor changes, but these singular riffs just happened to encapsulate a certain sound and feeling that keeps the listener invested in that next small change that they may or may not even hear. Vikernes was somehow able to choose the correct lo-fi guitar tone with the correct balance on the drums with the correct amount of emotional vocal barking and the correct synth sounds that will forever be etched into my brain as the "Burzum synth sound". All of these things had to come together to create an album that could have failed so easily if anything was out of place, but look where it ended up. This repetitive and drudging album was somehow able to establish what can be done with the lo-fi Black Metal sound in a somewhat irreplaceable way, creating a smothering but intriguing experience that feels dull and boring in all the right ways. I personally think that this album works better as an essay topic than as one of the best Black Metal albums ever made due to its inherent nature, but maybe I just haven't looked deep enough and Filosofem's relentless repetition will eventually break me. Until then, I'm just going to keep reminding it how close it was to being another monotonous and lifeless Black Metal album.
Seperating the Man From The Music
Burzum. This is a difficult review to start, as an album untainted it is a necessary experience. I would have loved to go into this album entirely blind knowing nothing about what I was getting into. However I've seen various documentaries on Black Metal, the scene, and Varg (Burzum himself) and I wonder how that affected my listening experience. I can push certain political and criminal affiliations aside to a point. However, when you know how much effort he and the rest of the early Norwegian Black Metal scene put into their art you have to take notice and really dive into what they were trying to do and how they accomplished it with the way they record, live their lives, and just be black metal.
I could tip-toe around the controversy of this man and the music that came from it but I have to say for me it gives me more of an appreciation of the music. The Norwegian Black Metal scene including Varg is a Youtube/documentary rabbit hole that is fascinating to go into. I really don't know if I would listen to any black metal at all if I didn't get gripped into these stories. I have found no other genre of music to have such a definitive interesting story as the black metal scene has and can really be experienced by listening to specific albums that uniquely created a sound. Burzum - Filosofem is the last of that uniquely definitive sound in my opinion. It feels like a closing statement of a generation that lends itself to so many others.
Experience this first, unlike I did, then do yourself a favor and learn your history on this scene. This is an emotional ride, and for me I have a really hard time separating myself from the haunting slow fuzzy sounds of this album from the story. I have listened to this album many times and I am truly closing my eyes and trying to decipher every note, every screech, every emotion that fills this record. I don't understand it, nor will I try to, but I have my personal connection toward this album that works for me. 4 long tracks that just fly by but halfway through the 25 minute run time of 5th Rundgang Um Die Transzendetale Saule Der Singularitat I definitely notice it. The other songs are around 8 minutes long and I never even notice the time, but once I get half way through this one it does start to take you out of it. It's not a bad song, but after about the half-way mark you really do start to notice the repetition it it.
I can't even do a track by track review, because by doing so does not give the cohesion of this album justice including the 25 minute epic that would unfortunately be skipped midway through. It is a very particular naturally intended low-fi sound throughout. With very simple, possibly cryptic lyrics screeched through a bad microphone with fuzz. It's dirty sounding, there's nothing clean about this record. It has not been over-produced to clean out any imperfections. When you hear this and know that every instrument was delicately played and placed exactly when and where he wanted it you just let that take over. It is beautiful, and disturbing. It is warm, and freezing. A must hear experience for any music lover.
Varg's last recording before imprisonment is an unrivalled success in an at times patchy and inconsistent discography (during and post-imprisonment most definitely). By no means an easy listen, the album is as vast as it is inaccessible, as raw as it is mechanised and as simplistic as it is emotionally intense. The album strikes a very dark chord in me that sort of lures me in and captivates my full attention from the off. There's no half measures here in my experience, I am either in it for the full duration of the record or I needn't bother. The almost trance-like state that it induces demands my whole attention, craves it almost.
The minimalism of the delivery is striking. The rawness of the sound, although abrasive, feels ritualistic and shrouded in some mythical practice that is centuries old. Oddly the overarching memory I have of Filosofem is that the record chimes to me, each chime being the point in time whereby I was dragged deeper into the bleak and denuded soundscape, stripped of all my wares and left to drown in the misery that floats thick in the air.
I find the mechanical character of the guitar equally as captivating. More immediate than the rest of the component parts around it, there's a perfect juxtapose to the raw energy it exudes that absorbs into the more ambient atmospheres that form around around it. The riffs drive the intensity of the album whilst the other instrumentation measures it and blends peril and outright threat into the mix to produce an almost anxiety inducing level of consistency. The repetition almost acts to soothe over time.
There's no low point for me on here, hence the full marks the record gets. As I mention earlier on in my review, it is not an album that makes for good background or driving music. You need a dark room and an open mind so you can just sit there and let it unfold the madness in you.