Controversial Burzum mastermind Varg Vikernes gained a new method of being divisive, which is that his recent tracks “Mythic Dawn” and “Forgotten Realms” are sparser and more circular than his earlier work. This invokes criticism of his ambient music work, specifically his most recent album, The Ways of Yore.
While this album strikes me as a quality work, it also has a feeling that parts of it are rushed, and as a result the full conceptual depth of a Burzum album has some rough edges. I present the following listening guide for those who want to experience his newer work at full intensity:
02. The Portal
06. The Reckoning Of Man
04. The Lady In The Lake
05. The Coming Of Ettins
08. The Ways Of Yore
10. Hall Of The Fallen
13. To Hel And Back Again
11. Autumn Leaves
Arrange the tracks in this order. Some are missing; those can be listened to another time. Prepare yourself with the most silent circumstances you can find, which is usually late at night. Turn off the computer, the lights, the TV, the videogames. Slow your breathing until it is regular and you are relaxed.
Place into your mind the vision of a descent down a large spiral staircase. You will be going into a place that is not dark or light, but a place where what we think of as good and evil have been suspended for something far greater than individual humans. This is a space for epic warfare, battles of the soul and perhaps mystic wisdom.
Then, ignore the spoken lyrics. However this album is meant to be experienced, it is best as a piece of music without worrying about meaning outside of the organization of sounds. Ignore the name Burzum. Clear your mind of everything and listen.
Most of the above is generic advice for any listening, but it allows this album to present itself in a new context, which is that of a lack of the two intrusions that normally cloud human vision, namely the self and the distracting world. Settle down into this one and see where it leads you.
One-man black metal inspired ambient music band Burzum has released its latest track, “Forgotten Realms,” a rough cut from an upcoming album. Using many of the same effects as last year’s The Ways of Yore, the new track shows a slow descent into a reality that more mysterious than dark.
Dreams have swept me away.
Into a long forgotten realm.
Down into the depths of the Earth.
Into a hidden cavern.
Into the world below.
I walk into the forgotten past.
« Do not turn around ! »#
« Never look back ! »
Fathers and mothers from ancient times.
Ghosts from a forgotten world.
With wonder they look upon me ;
« What took you so long ? »
I wander not in darkness.
I am not lost, nor bewildered.
The path is not hidden.
The tracks are not old.
I was here a moment ago.
I am home.
I am home.
I am home.
Burzum mastermind Varg Vikernes demonstrates a long history of crossing over between worlds. With Burzum, he crossed black metal with the cosmic space ambient music (RIP Edgar Froese) that defined the best of the previous decade, and now with his newer folk/ambient work he crosses over between the world of role-playing games, philosophies that get bast the postmodern thought-loop which has stalled humanity for the past century, and the inspiration in warfare, wizardry and medievalism that distinguished the aesthetics of his black metal.
In releasing the new track “Mythic Dawn,” Vikernes shows us a work in progress with a somewhat sparse but distinct track in the style of the second half of The Ways of Yore, specifically “Autumn Leaves” for the shimmery distorted background guitar effect and “The Lady of the Lake” for the plodding slightly offtime loop of neo-tribal drums over a simple bidirectional chord progression. As a work in progress, the new track is naturally sparser, but the chord progression seems very basic and song structure less integrated with its own purpose, which suggests this is a very early conceptualization of this track without the traditional Burzum “magic” being added. As musicians age, they often retreat into the realm of techniques and textures such as specific samples or types of melody, and this can adulterate the material that in their younger years they would have agonized over until all of it had an intensity of its own and none fit within a template, even if of their own making. With some luck and gumption Burzum will not avoid that fate.
As part of the video, Vikernes reveals pages of his Myfarog role-playing game (similar to Dungeons and Dragons, usually abbreviated “D&D”) and in the text on the background image of the video describes its appeal to those who, like Vikernes, have rejected modernity not just as an experience but as a concept entirely and seek alternatives outside of the realm of what modernity can describe. The game looks complex, and the song is promising for its initial stages although it looks like it will require some work, and so the audience looks on with interest at this evolving event and hopes for more.
Burzum mastermind Varg Vikernes has released instructional videos showing those out there in black metal fandom land how to play along with a selection of riffs from classic Burzum songs.
The videos, released via Vikernes’ ThuleanPerspective YouTube account, show him playing each riff and explaining its context and purpose in the corresponding song with an ear for atmosphere and emotion.
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.