Monday, February 22, 2010

BURZUM "BELUS" (Byelobog Productions)

At last. The culmination of years of waiting and wondering. I don't know if i can really accurately convey what Burzum means to me and how much Varg Vikernes's music has informed my listening, how much influence i've taken from his albums and overall how much i've learned about the true, honest, pure overwhelming power of music. Half the problem with reviewing this record is staying objective, and the other half is trying to assign it some sort of relevancy in a modern black metal context. I don't know that i can do either; i don't know if the latter is even possible. I suppose some background info is necessary: Burzum was the black metal project of one Varg Vikernes, disciple of Euronymous, guitarist for Mayhem and generally considered the founding force of black metal as a genre. Vikernes and Euronymous were close friends, with Vikernes at one time being a member of Mayhem and living with Euronymous for extended periods of time. For reasons still unknown to this day a falling out took place and Vikernes murdered Euronymous, receiving a prison sentence of 21 years. Much speculation regarding the reason for the attack has arisen in those near two decades since, the stronger theories postulating that Vikernes murdered Eurononymous because he (Vikernes) felt that his friend had "betrayed" the black metal community that he had founded and was becoming nothing more than a posturing mouthpiece without convictions. Before his incarceration Vikernes released four albums under the Burzum moniker, crafting a sonic wonderspace that would culminate with the genre-defining "Filosofem", an album that was as influential to modern black metal as Black Sabbath was to all of metal in general. Whereas before the genre's practitioners had put forth an extremely raw and fast thrash-informed sound, with the only compositional emphasis being placed on pomped up synthesizer overloads disguised as atmosphere, "Filosfem" took the music in an entirely different direction. Here was an album that embraced the true idea of transcendence through music, that repetition and harsh frequencies, as well as intense melodic sensibilities, could be a gateway to leaving consciousness behind. That simplicity could be a psychic pathway to hypnotism. It was an album heavy in psychedelics and possessed of an incredible compositional depth, with Vikernes showcasing a mindbending talent for crafting layers of intertwining guitars that all sounded as part of one buzzing, cacophonous, riotous and entrancing whole. Whilst imprisoned Vikernes released three more albums, but his incarceration meant that the only instruments available to him were synthesizers and computers-thus the triptych of prison albums are wholly ambient exercises, not without their merit, but bearing little resemblance to the furious, otherwordly haunted black metal of before. Varg himself has since stated his unhappiness with these synthesizer exercises, although their very being, and the conditions they were constructed under, speaks volumes about the will and vision of their creator.
For years Burzum devotees have longed for the day of Varg's release, waiting for him to deliver on the promise of new Burzum material free of instrumental constraints. In May of 2009 Varg was granted freedom; he immediately set to work crafting the new Burzum opus and now it is upon us, to be received as we will. Obviously expectations are high; Vikernes has claimed again and again that he feels no connection to the black metal scene whatsoever and that the music he creates is entirely born of him, to be processed as the listener will. This singularity is evident all throughout "Belus"; upon first listening the general feeling is that for Vikernes, the last 15 years have never existed. Their is no evidence of outside influence on this record at all. It picks up right where "Filosofem" left off and expounds upon the ideas presented there, at times referencing the earliest sounds of black metal but mostly sounding as completely alien and removed today as "Aske" must have sounded in 1991. It's astonishing that the concept has remained this clear in Vikernes's mind for so long.
Made up of mostly lengthy compositions, "Belus" is most similar to "Filosofem" in its approach. The idea and promise of transcendence runs strong throughout the album with all of the songs featuring ultra-hypnotic repeated motifs and many featuring extended instrumental sections as well. Each song is a blur of guitars running in a million different directions, yet all harmonically intertwined and connected, sounding at once pinpointed and glitchily hyperactive and scatterbrained. The melodies and progressions present are straight 1991 black metal, with massive weeping minor chords obliquely played against one another, creating a feeling of medieval counterpoint and woozy unease, like the notes should make sense together but somehow don't. It's a jarring, masterful effect, one that Vikernes pioneered so many years ago, so it's no wonder that he's such a master of it now. Opening track "Belus' Dod" best exemplifies this sound, with its baroque chords and scratchy half-time structure hearkening back to darker days. I can only think of two bands who are currently operating in this mindset, Gorgoroth and Mayhem, both members of the old guard as well (and modern day Mayhem is sadly prone to extended prog/hyper math speed exercises, while Gorgoroth maintains a more neoclassical approach.) After that the album as a whole fords a path of true mesmerization, each song becoming more and more simple riffwise but more and more complex with regard to melody juxtaposition and guitar layering. The eleven and a half minute hypnodirge "Glemselens Elv" runs through several minutes of unfettered, wiry guitars repeated ad infinitum for maximum thrall, while all sorts of counterparts run to and from, weaving a dense blanket of crisscrossing notes. "Keliohosten" opens with a pummeling blast beat/guitar endurance test but soon gives way to open string dirging and chunkier, more precise riffing with melodies soaring over the top, becoming at once dreamy and droning. "Sverddans" represents the one true call to the Burzum of old, a song that must certainly date back to 1991 or before; this track is very much in keeping with Vikernes's thrash metal roots and sounds like some cross breed of Slayer and Celtic Forst-but even in this number Varg can't resist some lightning quick frenetic guitar work, like a black metal version of "Flight of the Bumblebee." "Kaimadalthas' Nedstingning" is to me the most interesting track, bearing an almost Alcest-like pomp and presence, with its wide open, gorgeous melodies and dream-pop structure. It's hard to even view this track in the black metal context, even despite its dissonant thrashy opening riff, because its so damn lovely-about three minutes in and Varg switches everything up, letting myriad vocal pieces do the work that the guitars have been shredding away on for so long-varying spoken word and half sung phrases are played alongside one another to create a tapestry of looping, choral harmony while the guitars chime away on a simple open arpeggio. It's masterfully done and a welcome surprise. "Morgenrode" again rides the dirge for a good eight and a half minutes, a grinding slow paced assault made up of sparse open minor chords played against that ever constant open string, devolving further and further into circular nowhereness until it falls right into the majestic closing track, the near ten minute instrumental "Belus' Tilbakekomst," as glorious an evocation of oceanic narcolepsy as has ever been summoned by the likes of My Bloody Valentine or Mogwai. Here the drone lords over all, with guitars entering left and right, becoming ever more saturated in the mix, leaving sorrowful swells of huge open chords wallowing in their own echoes and reverbs. Over and over and over, and infinity, and listening to it, i really wish it was. I don't think Vikernes has ever conveyed his philosophy better than through this track, a sobbing lament for the times and customs of old, a paean to the forgotten laws of nature and the otherwordly forces that guide them.
I will eschew any discussion of Varg's personal politics-for me they do not matter as far as the music is concerned, and the feelings that i get from listening to "Belus" have nothing to do with hate or pride. It's simple beyond-ness, a levitation and a projection. This is a record that gets inside you and whisks you away. It goes further and further as it presses on. As i said before, there is little to nothing in common with modern black metal on display here. There is only Varg's very singular, self-contained vision. It's an artistic statement of impressive strength in that its so impervious to outside definition. Is it the best black metal album ever written? Will it rewrite the template for today? No. Is it an outstanding, mesmerizing black metal album that towers beyond most anything else being released right now? Yes. Quite simply, there is no one else doing this, and there is really no one else capable of doing this. A lot of nights i'll feel that certain musics were born of a very particular time and mindset and that even though strong genres have arisen as a result, there is nothing than can replicate the feel of those original musics. Burzum is evidence of that. Tons of great artists have followed Varg's path, artists whose work i greatly admire-bands like Xasthur, Leviathan, Shining, Make a Change Kill Yourself, Lifelover, etc-but none of them have, nor ever will, reach the high standard set by "Filosofem." Only Varg himself is capable of reaching that height again, and with "Belus" he comes eerily, frighteningly close. Ave, Burzum. Amen.

No comments: