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.
I used to loathe end-of-year lists. They struck me as a pointless chance to advertise what should have been obvious before. Over the years they have risen in my estimation as a way not only to mark the year, but to bring up the gold that gets lost in the chaos of everyday life. And yes, they’re also shopping lists for the metalhead in your life.
This year our list is surprising even to hardened cynics. At a time when metal is bragging up and down the Williamsburg alleys about how “innovative” and “ground-breaking” it is, that novelty turns out to be the remnants of the 1980s: emo, pop punk, shoegaze and indie. The real innovation is as always underground, because to get out of the hive mind one must first remove oneself from participation in normalcy.
Thus what you will find here is not what you will see in either (a) the big-label-financed slick magazines and web sites or (b) the majority of small zines and websites out there. That is because the genre as a whole has shifted from creation towards an idea to emulation of the past, or reaction to the past by trying to adulterate it with outside influences. Neither approach succeeds.
When a reviewer chooses an album, he should pick one that will last in your collection. Your time is limited, as is your money. Thus we look only for works that you can purchase and enjoy over the years, and can return to with a sense of wonder and discovery as new angles and nuances emerge. This standard seems high, so they call us elitists. What we really are is people who love metal and want it to be strengthened by its best, not weakened by accepting its worst.
The following albums are those that merit such a standard:
Argus – Beyond The Martyrs
Rejecting the notion of newness in itself, Argus returns to fundamental influences from the 1980s and makes a band that sounds like a fusion between Mercyful Fate, Iron Maiden and Candlemass. Guitar riffery is designed to be inventive and interesting in its own right but is trimmed down to what fits the function of each song. As a result, these songs “sound like” the classics in more ways than one. They are thoughtful and deliberate, purposeful and driven. Classic heavy metal riffs merge with meandering leads that somehow pull it all together, under the mournful voice of a vocalist who clearly enjoys classic Candlemass both in vocal delivery and sense of melody. See full review / interview.
Autopsy – The Headless Ritual
Autopsy are famous for their contributions to death metal which notably peaked in Mental Funeral where their chaotic tendencies got wrapped up in their sense of atmosphere and produced a dark ambling journey into the subconscious. Of their later works, The Headless Ritual gets close to such a balance although it aims for something more everyday. This is an album that wants to deliver classic death metal thrills, and it does so with moderately paced songs that balance melody and savage chromatic riffing. Chris Reifert’s drumming pirouttes and grapples through vicious tempo changes as riffs unlock a Lament Configuration that is equal parts nostalgia and invention.
Birth A.D. – I Blame You
What happened to real thrash, like DRI and Cryptic Slaughter? In much the same vein as hardcore punk before it, thrash was so intense that it burned out after only four years of real presence. Birth A.D. wisely choose not to “bring it back” but rather to pick up as if thrash were a party and the next day, the hung over participants awaken among the ruins. They’ve sharpened its message, which merged the anarchy of punk with the search for societal purpose of metal, and given its riffs the S.O.D. speed metal infusion without unduly modernizing them. As a result, these two-minute songs hit hard and retreat into the jungle, leaving behind their sardonic lyrics mocking society for being so stupid. When the record stops playing, there is a sense of both having received too much information to process, and a sadness that there isn’t more. See full review.
Black Sabbath – 13
Realizing what Black Sabbath meant to fans not just as a named entity but as a phenomenon, Black Sabbath integrate the sounds of vocalist Ozzy Osbourne’s solo years into their later, more refined music, with citations to Master of Reality as well. The result is a powerful album that is more pop than their original works but, in a time when nu-metal rages on the radio, reclaims heavy metal as having a voice of its own. It also pushes controversy, affirming a presence of God in this world for good or ill at a time when most people want to get polemic one way or the other. A supporting cast of sprawling but hard-hitting songs make this a great immersive lesson and transition from regular rock to metal for new listeners. See full review.
Blitzkrieg – Back From Hell
This band shares members with Satan, who also re-entered the fray with an album of strong tunes. Like Satan, Blitzkrieg know how to simultaneously avoid “changing” for change’s sake (inevitably a lateral move to other contemporarily popular genres) and nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, making instead an album that fits into their catalogue but doesn’t deny the older, wiser status of its members. These are mostly straightforward songs with melodic choruses and driving, riff-centric verses, plus nimble-fingered and harmonically-aggressive soloing. See full review.
Burzum – Sôl Austan, Mâni Vestan
People said they wanted old Burzum back. The spirit of old Burzum comes back in this ambient album. It’s a bit more hasty and less refined by fanatical attention to detail than his previous works, but it creates the same world, only zoomed forward in time. It is both a practical and imaginative album. In style, it resembles a cross between Tangerine Dream, William Orbit and the Scandinavian folk music of Grieg, Hedningarna or Wardruna. Strongly ritualized, it unfolds like a descent through mythical worlds and finds its own balance. One of the best offerings in this field. See full review / interview.
Centurian – Contra Rationem
For years many of us have wanted this Dutch band to catch a break. They have written several albums of relentlessly pounding, rhythmically intense riffing that somehow doesn’t add up. First, writing the whole album at high speed means that soon it backgrounds itself; second, there was always a lack of melody or song structure to hold it together. Centurian have improved on the latter two and toned down the former to a great degree, such that this is no longer trying to be Krisiun but more like a more Angelcorpse/Fallen Christ approach to Consuming Impulse. The result showcases this band’s dexterity with riffcraft and creates an intense atmosphere of violence. See full review.
Cóndor – Nadia
This entry album by a new band shows a lot of promise in tackling the power metal format and trying to give it the balls of death metal and funeral doom metal. This contemplative, mostly mid-paced album shows a sense of atmosphere as manipulated by riff, in the death metal sense, given a somewhat upward curve and heroic spin in the best tradition of power metal. Although it’s a new act, and still organizing itself, Cóndor shows that life remains in true metal that can be explored by revisiting its motivations. See full review / interview.
Derogatory – Above All Else
In the tradition of Vader, Mortuary and other fast phrasal death metal bands, Derogatory invoke the classic death metal form with an album of nicely interlocking riffs that reveal a basic but distinctive structure beneath each song. This album is not self-consciously “retro” so much as it is using the voice of the older style, and while it doesn’t expand stylistically, it has found a voice of its own. See full review/interview.
Empyrium – Into the Pantheon
Combining funeral doom metal with European folk music creates for Empyrium a fertile style that is showcased here in a retrospective of the best of their career presented in a rare live setting. Expect plenty of use of silence and resonance to build up these songs, which start slowly and then become engaging before evaporating into more esoteric conclusions. While most funeral doom aims to be dark, Empyrium creates an emotional contrast like a Gothic band, with beauty arising from chaos only to be strangled by inevitability and fall again. See full review / interview.
Graveland – Thunderbolts of the Gods
Following up on 2012’s Lord Wind release, Polish/Italian artist Rob Darken unleashes a new work under his black metal brand Graveland. Like the band’s second career-defining Memory and Destiny, this release features Bathory Hammerheart-style guitars which mix speed metal and black metal to produce rhythmic riffing as a backdrop for keyboards and vocals, now featuring also human female vocals and violin. The result is a collision between heavy metal, neofolk and epic movie soundtracks that evokes the glory of the ancient past.
Master – The Witchhunt
Paul Speckmann is a metal institution who has stayed with death metal from its genesis in the early 1980s through the presence. His latest, The Witchhunt, showcases the stable lineup he has used for recent releases but tones down the overall intensity to focus on songwriting. Fast riffs blend together with touches of melody and the classic Speckmann vocal patterns which resemble the struggles of daily life turned up to eleven. Where previous Master works of recent vintage tended to blend together, on this one each song is distinct. See full review / interview.
Profanatica – Thy Kingdom Cum
Taking a hint from Necrovore and intensifying it through technical prowess, Profanatica step back from the longer melodic riffs of Profanatitas de Domonatia and instead write short, cyclic phrases within compact rhythms in the style of the ancient Texas death metal cult. The result is like a primitive album with complexity embedded in it as melodies expand within fixed riff forms, uniting savagery and beauty in the service of blasphemy. As with all Profanatica works, this is experimental to the extreme, but Thy Kingdom Cum ranks among their most listenable releases. See full review /interview.
Rudra – RTA
The Singaporean maniacs return with an album that uses more traditional melodic death metal riffing but retains its rhythmic structure based on speed metal and possibly the Hindu rituals described in its lyrics. As with most Rudra releases, RTA does not aim for the pop song idea of hitting a sweet spot and luring in your ears. It is the construction of an experience, in this case a dark descent that forges a resolve to continue through warfare and a martial stilling of the reckless personality through militant silence of the soul.
Satan – Life Sentence
The rougher edge of NWOBHM that was a kissing cousin to speed metal emerges again in this highly musical album from Satan. Like their groundbreaking early 1980s works which presaged the debut of Metallica and birth of speed metal, Life Sentence features inventive riffs in classic song format in which melodic development in the vocals harmonizes riffs to bring songs to a conclusion. Shy of speed metal mostly because it relies on relatively fixed song format which emphasizes verse-chorus riff pairs, this album nonetheless reveals both the greatness of NWOBHM and its continuing relevance in a time of tuneless songs and random song structure. See full review / interview.
Summoning – Old Mornings Dawn
After black metal fully constituted itself in the early 1990s in Scandinavia, people looked for the next development along these lines. Some went to dark ambient, but others like Summoning and Graveland instead explored longer melodies and more drawn-out, atmospheric songs. Summoning take a medieval and Tolkien-inspired approach in contrast to the more martial outlook of other bands, and produce as a result immersive waves of melody that evoke a more organic society. With Old Mornings Dawn, these Austrian metal maniacs build on the emotion of Oath Bound but exploit it in more compact and separable songs, making one of the more intense metal statements of the year. See full review.
Von – Dark Gods, Seven Billion Slaves
Following up on Von’s early career material like Satanic Blood is not easy; in fact, it’s impossible. A band would either have to re-create that minimalist style and risk irrelevance, or embark on a campaign to dress it up as something it is not. Von has opted for something else entirely which is to create a minimalistic core within a rock opera style of black metal, producing one of the more puzzling but satisfying releases in the underground metal world this year. See full review.
Wardruna – Runaljod – Yggdrasil
Combining folk music, world music, droning found noises and the type of ritualistic dark ambient that emerged from the end days of black metal, Wardruna is a black metal side project that offers a different vision of music. While earlier works seemed detached from the end listener, Runaljod – Yggdrasil embeds the listener within a wave of ceremonial sound that aims not to be forebrain listening as Western rock is, but a mentally ambient experience that overwhelms by addressing all of the senses and channeling that experience toward a realization.
War Master – Blood Dawn
Underground death metal continuation act War Master released a four-track EP, Blood Dawn, amidst personnel changes and other upheavals this year. Like the previous Pyramid of the Necropolis, Blood Dawn focuses on futuristic and yet ancient concepts, almost like Voivod taking on Robert E. Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. From this vast concept come songs that both grind their way to nihilism and implement the death metal method of matching riffs into an internal dialogue from which a conclusion emerges, creating a pocket of mystery which is filled with wonder and violence.
Album of the year:
Imprecation – Satanae Tenebris Infinita
There is no completely fair way to pick an album of the year from a list with this many strong contenders, but Imprecation win this one on both substance and situation. For substance, this is a solid album that combines a black metal sense of ritualistic song development with the death metal tendency to make abstract riffs into an organic whole. For situation, Satanae Tenebris Infinita sees a band that started in 1991 and is famous for releasing its discography of demos in 1995 finally reach a stage where it can release a full-length album independent of any past influences. In addition, Satanae Tenebris Infinita hits hard and does not relent. Each element serves a purpose toward creating a transition in moods, like a perpetual parallax as continents shift. If death metal was waiting for a direction forward, Imprecation have opened that gate to a new occult science and art of subversive metal. See full review / interview.
The following were considered, and then not so much considered:
Morbosidad – Muerte De Cristo En Golgota. This is like Krisiun or Impiety rendered in the style of Mystifier, or like any of the war metal bands that imitated Blasphemy but with a dose of downtuned Sarcofago. It’s not bad, but aside from high intensity rhythm, it doesn’t have much to offer. Thus think of it as Satanic death techno performed on muddy guitars.
Fates Warning – Darkness in a Different Light. Bands: don’t try to roll with the trends. You were good at something else for a reason. This album has strong smary indie rock influences on its vocals and the result is embarrassing to be caught listening to. Riffs are reasonable, but don’t particularly develop, and emphasize space and consistency more than something with a personality.
Grave Upheaval – Untitled. Not bad; mostly rumbling noises, very true to form. Unfortunately, also doesn’t go anywhere. It’s an atmosphere piece of one dimension.
Warlord – The Holy Empire. Some sort of rock-metal hybrid from back in the day, this form of power metal uses mostly lead riffing anchored by static open chording. The dominant instrument is the voice, more like Rush or Asia than most metal. It’s pleasant but lullabye and too close to rock music.
Hell – Curse and Chapter. Do you know how far I would have run to get away from this back in the 1980s? It’s NWOBHM/early power metal without much melodic movement in the riff, so there’s a lot of chugging and shifting but not much actual motion. Nor will you have much actual motion as you listen to this… in fact, you might find yourself immobile and snoring.
Battlecross – War of Will. This is traditional metal affected by metalcore aesthetics. The vocals follow the surge pattern of later hardcore, and the melodic riffs use rhythmic “chasing” to accelerate patterns older than Chuck Berry. The result is so distracting the band can’t compose a song, but instead write a riff pair and then leap into a blast beat to transition.
Enforcer – Death by Fire. Here we have another band from Scandinavia creating highly musically-literate, catchy and otherwise perfect music. The problems are twofold: (1) it is a clone of 1970s styles that are liked for their innocent pop cheeze (2) while it is emotive, and aesthetically appealing, it is also empty.
Queensryche – Queensryche. Since the band went legal on each other, there’s now two Queensryches… this one sounds like Coldplay. The same posi-pop vibe and expansive chorus feel drives this work, and it has a similar outlook on the world, which is a sort of pathological compulsion to make things beautiful instead of finding beauty where it is rare. Unsettling.
Leprous – Coal. If this Queen-slash-bad-indie band gets anywhere in metal, it’s time to bury the genre under warm ruminant feces. Power metal mixed with dramatic English pop. The result is bracingly twee with metal riffs batting about in the background.
Iggy and the Stooges – Ready to Die. Almost all reviews of this album will waffle, because it is good, but it’s not distinctive. It all kind of flows together, as if the band paid more attention to the aesthetics of sounding like themselves than whatever’s driving them. But how do you “be punk” when you have a paid up retirement plan and health insurance?
Abyssal – Novit Enim Dominus Qui Sunt Eius. This was the hip thing for a few weeks, but shows you that you cannot revive a genre by imitating it through outward form. These songs use all the right pieces, but in a random order, and thus create no mood except nostalgia. And I piss on nostalgia’s grave.
Tyrant’s Blood – Into the Kingdom of Graves. Great title, has a Blasphemy ex-member, can’t go wrong… right? There’s a lot to like about this, but it doesn’t hold together. It embraces the “hotel buffet” style of offering many different riff types in a single song that ends up distorting any coherence. Storming Perdition Temple-style fast metal explodes into melodic mid-paced riffs and then ends up chugging deathgrind, lost and adrift on the seas of making a point.
Cultes des Ghoules – Henbane. It’s ludicrous that so many in the underground were fooled by this comical album. It’s a lot of bad heavy metal riffs interrupted by “avantgarde” noise, samples, etc. — the usual cliches — so that you don’t notice it’s bog-standard. This is hipster incarnate.
Acerus – The Unreachable Salvation. Galloping uptempo yet mid-paced heavy metal with a lot of Iron Maiden and Mercyful Fate. Not bad, but not particularly expansive to anything more than that aesthetic role.
Aosoth – IV: Arrow in Heart. This album, like Immolation, got credit because people expected it should. Its strong point is listenable songs with some technicality; its weakness is that they express nothing strong. It is Participation with an A+ for method and a B- for content.
Sodom – Epitome of Torture. This rather sentimental, somewhat modern-metal influenced take on a speed metal album is very catchy and represents Sodom’s most professional work, but also loses the unique perspective this band offered on the world around it. This is more like the heavy metal albums of their youths, heavy on emotion which makes their repetitive, chorus-heavy approach almost too saccharine.
Grave Miasma – Odori Sepulcorum. I have wallpaper. It’s named “It’s 1991 again and you can rediscover things you believed in once again.” It sounds like a mishmash of 1990s era death metal and yet, because it’s wallpaper, it never comes to a point. It just creates an atmosphere.
Týr – Valkyrja. Power metal of the newer stype seems to me it has a mystery ingredient, and that is devotional music. This sounds like church music, with sweeping choruses and whole-note cadences, and it has an admitted power, but it also loses much of what makes metal powerful: it’s not protest music, nor is it music that tries to cover ugliness with beauty, but music that finds beauty in what is considered ugly.
Onslaught – VI. Eager to effect a return to the music business, Onslaught speed up their punk/metal hybrid but adopt the vocal styles and constant driving mechanical rhythm of modern metal. The result is unrelenting but also disconnected and monolithic. The catchy choruses don’t help and seem almost to mock the rest of the music, which sounds like a pilotless threshing machine gone amok in a pumpkin patch…
Death Angel – The Dream Calls for Blood. In the 1980s, speed metal bands had a certain annoying rhythm where they tried to be as obnoxiously bouncy as possible while ranting as intensely as possible. With modern metal much of the internal rhythmic interplay has been eliminated, resulting in something that sounds like chanting Stalinist propaganda with guitars strobing in the background.
Bölzer – Aura. Like Oranssi Pazuzu, Bölzer experiment in disorganized slowed black/death/heavy metal with mixed-in weirdo alternative rock. Weirdo alternative rock has existed since early rock bands made a name for themselves by being odd. The problem is that it doesn’t connect to form an impression, only a sense of instrumentalism.
Coffins – The Fleshland. Doom-death with some quality riffing, Coffins nonetheless manage to inevitably get lost in each of their songs and fill the void with noodly pentatonic leads, distracted tributaries of non-essential riffs, and “atmospheric” repetition.
Metal Church – Generation Nothing. This shrill metal band has always struck me as more in the heavy metal camp than speed metal camp, and here it’s borne out. The riffs don’t have form like speed metal riffs do but are mostly static based on rhythmic repetition. Focus is on the voice, which wails. Not bad but annoying and kind of empty. Also, older guys trying to bond with the new generation is awkward when done this way.
Malthusian – MMXIII. Like many sonic experiments, this band relies on style to shape content because style is the substance of the experiment. The idea here is to combine the Incantation-clone death metal that is trendy with melodic progressive touches, including some sneakster modern metal influences. The result loses what could have been and fails to transition to what it wants to be.
Stratovarius – Nemesis. When did this band get so bad? The first track sounds like a rip of Heart’s “On My Own,” and the rest of the album proceeds in this fashion: combine classic metal riff archetype with classic 1980s vocal melody, add some flourishes and hope it’s good enough. I liked it better when this band was more speed metally and less pop.
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.
Burzum composer Varg Vikernes has posted a “goodbye” to his old self as a metal composer and in a sentimental posting, announced his retirement from metal and his intent to pursue ambient music alone.
Burzum appeared from nowhere in 1991 with a demo tape made up of a dozen guitars-and-bass-only tracks in rehearsal quality. I made a few more or less successful metal albums, but they all always included at least some ambient music. With time I moved further and further away from metal, and today only the ambient music remains. Today (2013) I think I am done playing metal music for good.
Many of you followed Burzum through the years, some even from the beginning, and I think metal-Burzum deserves a proper “good bye”. So, just like I started out I will finish metal-Burzum with a guitars-and-bass-only track in rehearsal quality. “Back to the Shadows” is made up of the last metal riffs I ever made (in 2012). It was never released in any way, or recorded (beyond what you hear here), and it will not either — beyond this short “video”.
Take it for what it is; a sentimental good bye to metal-Burzum.
The music is playing with an image of the 17 year-old me, taken from the time when some of the first Burzum tracks were made. You can see this track as a good bye to that fellow too.
For those of us who have been watching Burzum and Vikernes over the years, this is a welcome development. Heavy metal is beautiful but it will always be attached to popular conceptions of entertainment. Ambient music, especially complex material, gets treated as culture.
While we hope to change that perception of metal and to have it be studied as art and part of culture, that’s an uphill battle when the fans routinely rush to gimmick bands and depthless clones in a hope to be part of the next popular trend.
Either way, this bodes well for more interesting compositions in Burzum’s future.
The semi-reclusive Varg Vikernes, sole composer of Burzum, has announced his plans to release a film and a new role-playing game (RPG). As part of the film project, he has revealed a new track designed to act as part of a soundtrack for the film.
As if influenced by some of the non-black-metal soundtrack material from the film Until the Light Takes Us in which Vikernes, as in Lords of Chaos, the most in-depth story of black metal before it, Vikernes opts for a down-tempo single guitar track with no distortion.
The result utilizes a slow and gentle sweeping arpeggio behind which lower notes direct the evolution of the track, much as happened with the countertheme in “Rundgang um die transzendentale Säule Der Singularität” from Filosofem. As the song goes on, these layers interact to push change into the main theme, not in the electronica method of circular layers, but the metal one of a narrative expanding from within itself.
It is hard to tell if this is the type of material that will be on the forthcoming Burzum album Sôl austan, Mâni vestan. While many consider the “keyboard albums” among the band’s best output, a mixed-medium album could be interesting. While this new track has one foot in that world, it also has one foot in the more audience-geared world of the last few Burzum black metal albums.
In the mainstream press, black metal has a reputation for being solely misanthropic, heavily distorted anthems of aggression and despair that are defined by their primitive minimalism.
While this may hold true for the majority of contemporary bands, this view overlooks the foundational bands of the genre, who possessed a deft sense of melody and the focus to create longer compositions that allowed for more introspection.
Just as black metal musicians created a more minimalistic form of death metal, some were able to apply the same approach to the ambient and neoclassical genres, crafting tracks that through the use of repetition, stirring melodies, and tonal variation reveal the genre’s primal elegance without need of layers of distortion.
Favoring simple but expansive compositions, contemplative melodies soar over mild arpeggios; in addition to a few tracks of industrial nihilistic deconstruction. Through the utilization of modern technology, Burzum makes narrative and meditative music that like its inspiration Tolkien, takes the participant on an internal journey to another realm.
A side project of Darkthrone‘s Fenriz, in Neptune Towers haunting melodies glide over dark drones while otherworldly noises color the backdrop. Evocative tracks signal the coming to Earth of a yet-unknown alien species or perhaps the future evolution of humanity, the soundtrack to the future.
This band fuses its earlier black metal style with the industrial, pop, and ambient genres, featuring melodies that would not be out of place on a metal album, but pairs them with repetitive trance-like drums, synths, and found sounds that coalesce into epic moments before fading away like the rays of a burned out sun. Fans of multiple genres should appreciate this one.
Elegant and skillfully composed tracks celebrating the beauty of nature in their simplicity reveal a greater depth of expression than would be possible with over-produced tracks. Just as he did with black metal, Ildjarn with compatriot Nidhogg reduces neoclassical music to its most basic form and builds from it an enchanting structure.
A side project of Graveland, with Lord Wind martial drumming and heroic melodies bring to mind the battles of old, while synths and choruses expand the project’s horizons, providing reach to contrast with the grounded and earthy rhythms. Well-crafted neoclassic folk music, this is the further continuation of Graveland‘s second stage.
The good news is that it’s more clearly Vikernes writing this record. His previous voice, like his previous actions, seemed to get swallowed up by the notions of his “advisors.” As a result, previous albums did not sound at all like something he touched at all with his personality. This album re-engages his soul a bit more but remains a deliberate use of his talent to produce something cut to form, and the form is what is dictated by the audience. The result is to repeat the error of modern society over again: the people are led by economics or politics, instead of the other way around. While song structures vary somewhat, Umskiptar is designed around the verse-chorus model with melodic choruses and rhythmic, upbeat verses. Like many pasted-together projects, these are united with chromatic fills or conventional devices borrowed out of classic metal. While this album is not as cynically manipulative as the new Napalm Death, for example, it falls short of what made Burzum great, which was an innovative thinker opening up his mind and creativity to the audience. Like his mentor Tolkien, he took people on an adventure with what was and might be again. With Umpskiptar, the listener feels as if he is in one of those Disney-ride type “folk metal” bands that is mostly rock music with folk touches. Bands have been doing this since the 1970s… it has never succeeded, because people regress to the mean and in this case, it’s the archetype of rock and not folk. Vikernes’ early influences come out here, with muffled-chord riffs that sound straight off the first Destruction LP and what sounds like Iron Maiden influences. Musically, it’s adept enough that no part is offensive, and his use of three-part riff clusters as in traditional music is much appreciated, but it doesn’t add up. The whole is not greater than the parts and no atmosphere is created, thus the whole time we are aware that we are modern consumers listening to a modern musical product. Further, the riffs, tempi, themes and transitions are very similar, which in the absence of prior atmosphere does not cause a deepening but a sensation of floating on the surface. Many of the vocal tracks are entirely chanted in the death metal voice, which creates a ludicrous sensation of being yelled at by a drunk guy on the subway. By the time we get to “Valgaldr,” which sounds like an outtake from a bad stoner doom metal album, the lack of energy going into this album is evident. It’s ridiculous to expect an older musician to recapture his younger days. However, it’s equally ridiculous to sabotage a good musical brand by turning it from something rare and brilliant into something pedestrian with interesting “touches” and “accents.” That cuts to the real problem with this album and all post-jail Burzum: they’re boring. Not unmusical, but sparse in density with songs obviously patched-together “to be a song” and not to have any voice of its own. The new crop of teenagers he wants to sell albums to may enjoy this but it’s not distinctly better than its competition enough that it will endure as anything other than an SKU#.