Varg Vikernes founded Burzum and contributed heavily to the black metal movement before being jailed in Norway in 1993 for murder and possible church arson, then on his release in the 2000s began releasing the continuation of his prison-years ambient soundscape albums, most recently with Sôl austan, Mâni vestan and The Ways of Yore. Now he faces additional problems with both French and Russian governments.
Almost a year ago, Vikernes was arrested in France for suspicions of violating anti-discrimination and civil rights law there. His trial came up recently and a French court has convicted him and sentenced him to a six month suspended sentence and $10,000 in fines. In addition, Russian authorities seized his web site from June 18-23 because it found the Russian edition of his book Vargsmalviolated Russian speech law as well.
While I can’t say that I agree with Vikernes — although I am fond of the first three and last two Burzum albums — in my view speech codes and goody-two-shoes laws are about the most un-metal thing there is. In the 1980s, the Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC) tried to prevent us from hearing music with lyrics containing gratuitous sexual or occult content, but now thirty years later, our governments are more worried about political speech. It tells us what threatens these governments that they are now just fine with our gratuitous sex and violence and occultism, but have turned their focus to ideas themselves. It’s an odd turn that I never could have foreseen.
Neoambient gains another stronghold. This genre — constructed of film soundtracks, Dead Can Dance style medievalism, neofolk and dark ambient with some structural ideas from black metal — rose out of the ashes of black metal, with bands like Beherit, Neptune Towers (Darkthrone), Lord Wind (Graveland), Danzig (Black Aria) and Burzum leading. On The Ways of Yore, Burzum integrates organic sounds like vocals and guitar into the cosmic ambient that defined the last album, Sôl austan, Mâni vestan.
The Ways of Yore creates within the same spectrum of music stretching between Dead Can Dance and Tangerine Dream that marked the previous album but with even more of an ambient feel. Songs rely on repetitive patterns with layers of instrumentation and song structures that shift to develop melody or make dramatic contrast enhance the imitation of their subjects. As in ancient Greek drama, poetry and music merge with sole musician Varg Vikernes‘ spoken and sung vocals guiding the progress of keyboard-sample-based music. Melodies refer to each other across the length of the album through similarity and evoke themes from past albums, culminating in “Emptiness” which previously made itself known as “Tomhet” on Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, the album that ended black metal by raising the bar above what others could imitate.
Somber moods prevail throughout this work which mixes melancholy with a sense of reverence for the past. Hearing Varg sing and develop harmonies with his voice shows room for expansion by this creative musician who previously let the guitars do the talking. Guitars show up on later tracks, distorted in the shuddering but mid-tone texture that gave Filosofem its otherworldly sound. Even though songs begin with simple note clusters, they expand to full melodies which match to a cadence and regulate atmosphere. The result demands attention through its conquest of empty space with the barest of sounds but over time reaches an intensity of expectation that resembles a ritual.
What makes people love neoambient is that it obliterates the pace of modernity and replaces it with a reverent, transcendental atmosphere. Burzum takes an approach that aims at a sound older than medieval, a primeval cave-dwelling primitivism that strips away the pretenses of developed culture. Its striking Nordic imagery, including songs to Odinn and Freyja, add to this mystery and the Burzum mythos as a whole. Escaping black metal, while controversial, granted Vikernes a chance to explore the development of melody in silence, and the result serves to expand atmosphere beyond our age to something that is both ancient and futuristic.
The movement that some are calling “neoambient” — a fusion of dark ambient, Conan soundtracks, and neofolk — generally arose out of the metal community. The classics of the genre converge on Lord Wind (Graveland), Burzum and Black Aria (Glenn Danzig). In addition, metal bands contributed to related forms of epic ambient, like Beherit (Electric Doom Synthesis) and Neptune Towers (Darkthrone). Newer entrants like Winglord and Hammemit explore different paths along similar directions.
But how do we trace the influences and evolution of this genre? Glenn Danzig (Misfits, Samhain, Danzig) launched a partial revolution in 1992 with his Conan-inspired Black Aria. Several years later, Burzum followed this with Daudi Baldrs and Hlidskjalf, both of which used Dead Can Dance-themed ancient world music to frame the epic nature of its compositions, giving it a feel not just of Conan-styled epic conflict, but of a cultural basis.
There’s another influence lurking just a few years before Danzig — affirmed by Rob Darken as an influence on his music in Lord Wind — which was the music of Clannad as used in the BBC series Robin of Sherwood:
Norwegian-French one-man black metal/ambient act Burzum released the cover and tracklist for its 12th album, The Ways of Yore. This album continues in the ambient style of previous Burzum ambient albums, but adds variations in style and vocals. Perhaps this will be closer to the recent Lord Wind, Ales Stenar, or some of the newer early music/neofolk/ambient hybrids from Europe.
Burzum released the following statement: “The Ways of Yore is my first step towards something new, which at the same time is as old as the roots of Europe. With The Ways of Yore I try to transport the listener to the days of yore, to make them feel the past, that is still alive in their own blood.”
Twenty years on, Burzum is still awakening the fantasy of mortals, one step at a time.
01. God from the Machine
02. The Portal
03. Heill Odinn
04. Lady in the Lake
05. The Coming of Ettins
06. The Reckoning of Man
07. Heil Freyja
08. The Ways of Yore
09. Ek Fellr (I am falling)
10. Hall of the Fallen
11. Autumn Leaves
13. To Hel and Back again
Burzum, the sometimes black metal and sometimes ambient project of Norwegian-descended French national Varg Vikernes, announced the release of new album The Ways of Yore on Byelobog Productions/Plastic Head for June 2, 2014. No further information is given about whether the album will continue with the post-modern black metal style of Umskiptar or the folkish dark ambient style of Sôl austan, Mâni vestan, which was one of our “Best of 2013″.
Emerging from the same locus of intensity in Norway that produced Immortal, Mayhem, Emperor and Ildjarn, Burzum began in the early 1990s as a complex riff-narrative style of black metal with unnerving vocals that combines a feral animality with emotional sensitivity. Early works attempted to integrate elements of ambient music and create a sense of ritual designed to “stimulate the fantasy of mortals.” This era ended with Filosofem and composer Varg Vikernes being jailed for the murder of Euronymous of Mayhem.
During the incarceration years, Burzum shifted direction to full ambient with Dauði Baldrs and Hliðskjálf. These albums allowed Vikernes to escape the monolithic sound of guitar/bass/drums and work with multiple instruments, culminating in the lush creative density of Hliðskjálf (which was revisited somewhat in Sôl austan, Mâni vestan).
After prison, Burzum entered a period of post-modern black metal influenced by droning indie-pop variants of NSBM such as Drudkh and other Eastern European bands. This music reflected pop song structures, a shoegaze-style approach to melody but with the longer phrasing — albeit recursive — of black metal like early Ancient, and extensive use of North mythology. It is unclear whether this period continues now with folkish dark ambient album Sôl austan, Mâni vestan in 2013 being a temporary detour, or whether Vikernes will launch Burzum into a fourth period with the more complex instrumentation and hence compositional density of that album and Hliðskjálf.
When Burzum released Hvis Lyset Tar Oss in 1994, underground metal was forever split. This album featured longer songs where concept was closely intertwined with song structure, and riff shape defined by mood. It both made undone past paradigms and raised the bar.
After that point, black metal and death metal deflated. The initial rise of ideas created in reaction to outrage at a dying civilization was gone, and nothing else propelled the genre forward, so it fell into self-imitation based on outward traits. Further, few bands could handle the raised bar, so it was “explained away” in social circles and the music tended toward the more primitive, not less.
Thus is the problem with raising the bar. Once you have done it, people either rise to the challenge and forge ahead in the new language, or have to hide the fact that they’re here for the gravy train which means they want to make the same dumbass music they would make in rock, pop, punk or blues, but use some distortion and call it “black metal.” That leads to high margins: the product is cheap to make because it’s a well-known type, but it has a higher markup due to novelty.
However, unless you’re deaf, you’ve noticed that the output of underground metal has seriously flagged in quality since the mid-1990s. Not so in quantity, of course, where we have more bands than ever before who have better production, are better instrumentalists, and generally more savvy at the music industry. Unfortunately the music they produce is not as good as what a few lonely intelligent outcasts did in the early 1990s.
This leads us back to a question of metal’s growth. Do we keep up with the raised bar? Style is not substance, but the two are related. Without enough substance, style never evolves; without the right style, substance often gets lost. Artists tend to visualize the two at the same time as part of the same articulation of an idea that they are communicating through mood, or the sensation of perceiving something and wanting to engage with it. In theory, metal could continue with what it has, using the same styles but writing new music, and many bands have succeeded in that. But keeping up with the raised bar has some advantages.
First, instrumental metal would be difficult and this would draw a line between metal and the pop, rock, blues and rap and place us closer to ambient and classical in the respect scale. Take for example this quote from educator Liam Malloy:
“In the past, heavy metal has not been taken seriously and is seen as lacking academic credibility when compared with other genres such as jazz and classical music. But that’s just a cultural construction.”
Second, this change would get rid of the vocal problem in metal. We know what death/black metal vocals are, but the shock has worn off as they’ve been appropriated by other genres. They are not extreme anymore, and overused by those who like them because a plausible imitation is easy to pull off. On the other hand, shouting vocals (Pantera) are annoying, most male singing sounds like drunk guys brawling, and the high pitched “operatic” vocals divide an audience. No vocals, no worries.
Third, this would make it easier to tell real metal bands from the weekenders. Real bands can put together long pieces that make sense, where the weekends just want the appearance thereof. Contrast real progressive rock like Yes to the somewhat paltry substitute in Opeth. Opeth have nailed the aesthetic, but not the underlying musical depth or density. When you hear the two together, it’s clear they are from different genres.
Fourth, instrumental metal would enable greater riffiness in metal. Already there’s a storm of protest when “riff salad” songs emerge, even if the riff makes sense. Much of death metal was an end run around using constant verse-chorus vocals, thus liberating guitars to create more interplay between riffs. Without vocals to keep bringing the song back to repetition, riffs could have greater leeway and repetition would exist not out of standard song form, but to emphasize parts of the song that need repeating for the sake of atmosphere.
Many people out there want metal to go instrumental. While it loses the masculine and terrifying aspect of the vocals, it encourages a competition among metal bands to not only preserve that but make it more extreme among their instrumentals. And if anything, that’s closer to the spirit of metal itself.
At least one metal musician has learned that if society attacks, you counter-attack. Varg Vikernes of Burzum, who was arrested several weeks ago and charged with inciting racial hatred, is attempting to sue the French government for an arrest that ultimately led to no new charges because of a lack of evidence.
“We want to sue the authorities for arresting us for no good reason whatsoever, doing so in the most brutal way possible and with children present,” Vikernes wrote on his blog.
During the early 1990s, Vikernes created a one-man band named Burzum which knocked out a series of innovative, multi-riff songs designed to blur the boundaries between metal and ambient, and “awaken the fantasy of mortals.” Some metal historians believe that Burzum’s Hvis Lyset Tar Oss effectively ended black metal’s development by raising the bar above that which others could follow.
Since that time, Vikernes has spent sixteen years in Norwegian jails, written several books, and continues to both produce music and write political texts. His most recent work, Sôl austan, Mâni vestan, is an ambient work that recalls the power of earlier Burzum.
As related in this news report, Varg Vikernes has been arrested on suspicions of terrorism in France.
The evidence against him appears to be that Anders Breivik wrote to Vikernes some time ago, and while Vikernes then called Breivik a “Christian loser” on his blog (for killing Norwegians), Varg’s wife had recently purchased four rifles legally in France. Somehow these two events add up to a possible massacre.
This is unfortunate because Vikernes has just released the excellent Sôl austan, Mâni vestan, which is like a cross between classic Burzumic ambient and the music of William Orbit. We’re hoping he’ll be freed to make more floaty ambient albums.
We also tend to think the whole thing is dumb and overblown. He went to prison; he served his time. Now he’s living a normal life for the first time in two decades. He should be encouraged to do this! Not only for society at large, but for metal, which now permanently has Burzum in its blood.
Among metal’s legions are many for whom society is not a fit. Society tries to find rules to make everyone get along; metalheads, who “think outside of the box,” tend to look toward what they see as right, not socially compatible. As a result there are many in metal who stand above the crowd and are impossibly iconic for their unique worldviews. One such man is Burzum’s Varg Vikernes.
After creating in the course of four early albums an impressive body of art that essentially ended black metal as it was by raising the bar beyond what others could easily participate in, Vikernes was imprisoned for sixteen years for his alleged role in church arson and murder. During the time he was in prison, he put out two more impressive keyboard-based albums and several books’ worth of writings before falling silent around the turn of the millennium.
Upon his release, he didn’t slack off, either, but pushed out two new albums influenced by the rising drone-NSBM trend from Eastern Europe, and has released a film, is currently working on a role-playing game, and continues to produce numerous writings and a new theory of history. Since he is an object of interest as well as such a strong personality that he cannot escape notice, he has continued to use interviews and other public talking points to advance his ideas.
Whether we agree or disagree with the man, it’s hard to argue that his back catalog is anything but on the whole impressive, or that he isn’t articulate and forceful about his beliefs. Recently, he released his first post-prison ambient album, Sôl austan, Mâni vestan, which in the words of our review is a “vivid journey from start to finish…Vikernes has returned, and has found his natural voice.”
Deathmetal.org was fortunate to catch Mr. Vikernes in a rare un-busy moment between his many projects, where he answered a few of our questions.
With Sôl austan, Mâni vestan you have left metal behind, and yet this work has as much identifiable personality as your earliest works. What do you think makes this style so adapted to where you are now, and what you want to express?
This type of music has always been a part of Burzum, from the very first album and all the way to Umskiptar, so I think those who appreciated the old non-metal music will perfectly well be able to appreciate this non-metal music as well. In a sense I keep making music in the same style, only I have left out the metal parts.
Can you tell us a little bit about the influences on this album? Were these influences instrumental to achieving this new sound?
I know where you want to go, but the truth is that I didn’t listen to any other music whilst making this whatsoever; I didn’t seek inspiration in any other music and I did not even think of any particular music whilst making this. However, upon completion I did think it reminded me a bit of a calm version of Tangerine Dream.
This album is made for the ForeBears film, and I guess it is correct to say that I was inspired by the concept of that film.
In your writing on Thulean Perspective called “Shadows of the Mind,” you mention how black metal can be a gateway to the Divine Light. What is the Divine Light?
Your work seems to have been guided since its earliest forms by a sense of the “poetry” of existence, and a purpose to the human experience, while others were busy disclaiming this. What shaped your thoughts in this regard?
I think it is simply due to the fact that I knew instinctively that it was better before. I missed what once was. I longed for the past that I felt was better. I dreamt of things that had been but were no longer.
After Sôl austan, Mâni vestan, where do you see yourself going artistically? Will you continue to make albums in this ambient style, or re-invent music in another form?
I can dream of the past, but I never make artistic plans for the future. I just follow where my spirits takes me, so to speak.
What is the purpose of art? What habits or activities do you find most crucial to the spirit that drives your art?
It’s the spirit of the past trying to break free and influence the world we live in today. That’s the purpose and driving force too.
What do you think black metal had to contribute? Do you think your earlier aggressive work, and your newer more mellow work, come from the same place?
They do, and I think black metal is just a expression and (for fans) appreciation of the despair most men feel from living in a world that is not built for them. When you grow up, so to speak, or perhaps just grow wiser (many young men are wise too), you move on and instead of whining about the world we live in you do something about it instead. Black metal has woken up many good anti-Jewish Pagan Europeans and has thus lead them on the right course.
The lyrics to “Dunkelheit” suggest a natural mysticism to your work. Do you see this in the ancients as well? Do you think this knowledge changes people in such a way that they cannot be part of modern society? How do you see this as different from the Christian spirituality?
Christian spirituality? They have none.
I think the natural mysticism will wake up Europeans; the Pagan spirit is like embers waiting under the ashes. All it needs is some dry wood and it will turn into a flaming fire again, burning, warming and lighting up. Natural mysticism is, amongst other things, that dry wood.
Do you think history is cyclic, meaning that similar events lead to similar outcomes and thus, people eventually return to the same eternal truths? What do you imagine those would be? Is there a way to express such truths in art?
Yes, similar events lead to similar outcomes, and truth prevails in the end, always, so when they are blurred, distorted, hidden or spat upon they will always return to glory. There is no unversal truth in this context, becuase man is not universal, just like animals are not. I am part of the European species, and the eternal truth to us is Honour, and we will return to that for sure.
After a hiatus of some years, Burzum returns to the path that is intuitive and natural for composer Varg Vikernes, who drifted through a triplet of droning black metal albums before discarding the genre. Sôl austan, Mâni vestan picks up where Hlidskjalf left off, except that this new album uses a wider range of sounds and also covers a wider range of emotions.
The title, meaning “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” encompasses the cosmic music nature of this album. While the sounds are thoroughly contemporary, the spirit of this album is in the stargazing music of the 1970s that attempted to find divinity even as the world around it seemed in a state of total doubt. Having explored the darkness and alienation of the past, Vikernes increases his palette here to include the playful, mystical, mysterious and placid, and works them in contrast to one another so that no one dominates and becomes background noise, but he pushes right to that limit with not only direct repetition but allusion to very similar themes across songs. The result is like a hypnosis into which the listener slides, unaware that through this mundane noise a vision of great beauty and even metaphysical significance will be found.
As Vikernes said in a blog post, “We are all lost souls in a dying world, so to speak, stripped of all spiritual life and energy by the societies we live in, and left to find new spiritual life and energy on our own. We stumble, we fall and we get up again, as we progress, and black metal, although empty and hollow like most other things in this world, is actually a good gateway to the Divine Light. If nothing else black metal has been a way to find true meaning, a positive direction and new life for many.” This attitude pervades through Sôl austan, Mâni vestan which consistently uses simple and catchy sounds to introduce themes which gradually develop into something revelatory of the sublime, like a flower opening from a bud hidden under dirt.
Burzum showed its affinity for 1970s relaxing and New Age style music with classics like “Tomhet,” “Rundgang” and the cheerier parts of Hlidskjalf. This new album picks up from that influence and goes further, fusing the classic Burzum sound with a full range of moods as one might find on a professional ambient album from the heart of that genre. Unexpected technique, including duets with guitar and bass through which keyboards and sampled tones dive like seabirds in flight, and flair borrowed from rock, ambient and jazz, offset these fundamentally simple tunes and embed them in the kind of texture and nuance you might expect from an Autechre or Aphex Twin album.
In the meantime, although not only the black metal aesthetics but also the black metal voice have been cast aside, the uncanny sense of pacing remains which Vikernes uses to engage us, lull us, excite us and finally bring all of these things into collision. In many ways, this music is more black metal than his post-prison guitar albums because it has such a range of emotions, and such a vivid journey from start to finish. In that sense, Vikernes has returned, and has found his natural voice after many intervening years. It’s not black metal, but who cares? It’s excellent and relentlessly intriguing.