Det Som Engang Var: Significance and Merit


Much like Darkthrone’s Under a Funeral Moon preceding Transilvanian Hunger or Immolation’s Herein After before Failures for Gods and Close to a World Below, Burzum’s Det Som Engang Var(roughly translatable as “What Once Was”) before Hvis Lyset Tar Oss(“If the Light Takes Us) puts on display all of Varg Vikernes’ faculties as a composer in a way that is still relatively easy for a listener to make out the different things he is doing, unlike the next album where a convergence and purification that only a minority are able to grasp in all its excellence and magnificence. As Brett Stevens commented not so long ago in reference to Immolation’s Close to a World Below, some bands make the same album again and again until they are able to solidify their vision in a magnum opus.

Many metalheads who respect this album may do so out of a respect for how influential it is, without truly understanding that even if this album came out today, after all the others they are said to have influenced, it would still be as impressive and worthy of high praise — but perhaps it would not be noticed by the same people who today profess to appreciate it. Contrary to common belief, its worth is musical, not historical only. This is not very different from people who “enjoy” Black Sabbath or Celtic Frost, but fail to see the monument that works like Master of Reality and To Mega Therion are. In great part this error lies in associating or equating technical prowess on the instrument and an apparent “complexity” of notes with  a complexity of thought and excellence in composition. These albums display an astounding clarity resulting from the exquisitely fused elements of music (harmony, melody, rhythm…) in a way that may strike the unaware as “simple”. Confusing intelligibility with limitation/blandness/simplicity is the greatest sin one can commit against masterworks of music, because the greatest works all share this as a common trait.. While this is even more true of Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, it bears bringing into question the undue musical disrespect of which Burzum in general is the victim.

The album contains tracks that make use of abrasive and extremely dissonant intervals, very consonant and relaxed harmonizations of melodies, synths as support and synths as the main instrument in ambient tracks all together and mixed in different ways and given the spotlight in different tracks. It is, perhaps, this up-front “complexity” of having so many distinct colors that at least attracts the attention of and mention by even those who do not understand black metal. The composition itself is technically nuanced but like any proper work of art, comes off as intelligible to the point of being confused with “simplicity” in its negative connotation. The complexity of the works like Burzum lies in the seamless unfolding of a story, a masterfully woven tapestry blending all sorts of disparaged puzzles and meanings within its frames not unlike Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. The importance of discussing Det Som Engang Var is that it is here that his thinking  is most easily and obviously seen. Without understanding this album, monumental works like Hvis Lyset Tar Oss and Burzum’s stepping-into ambient(or as he described it, Anti-Black Metal) territory, Filosofem, can never be truly appreciated.

Regarding its little-mentioned lyrical topics that are actually worth mentioning in any integral metal work, they consist on a mixture of melancholy and longing for a grand and fantastic past that exists more in the mind of a romantic than in historical reality (but which makes the values and traditions it longs for no less meaningful or real), and an existentialist questioning of the self’s position in a world of men that makes little sense and which launches the brave man in search of truth behind, or rather past, human constructions. In addition to that, the tendency towards nature worship and an attraction towards the forest as the archetypal home of homes, a safeguard from the evil of men and their perversions motivated by greed and thirst for power, is ever present in Varg Vikernes’ language and allusions. These have also been the target of cynical contempt by the petty minds of postmodernists who are unable to make a connection with nature and are rather too fond of themselves as creatures of a decadent society, leading them to denounce anyone pointing at obvious truths about its breaking-apart.

Restoring the pride and respect that Det Som Engang Var has never had in truth, just as Burzum hearkens to a grand past that has never existed here on Earth but that through an evocation of opposites rather points to an idealist future, so we attempt here to find a direction for future metal to grow in undreamed of ways that do not diverge from the essence of metal and that stand on the firm example of the greats that did exist but have never been duly studied.

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10 thoughts on “Det Som Engang Var: Significance and Merit”

  1. Daniel says:

    Good article but Varg already started making “anti” black METAL dark ambient with this album. Det Som Engang Var is not as well recognized as the influences and compositional ideas are not as well integrated in the individual songs as his later work; it is the bastard stepchild stepping stone to Hvis Lyset Tar Oss and Filosem.

    Similar is In Battle There is No Law -> Realm of Chaos. On the first album on the crustiness, grind rhythms, and Sacrilege leads are rather disparate before being combined into the grinding death metal whose influence you can hear in the Finnish scene, Asphyx, Incantation, and many “caveman” bands.

    1. I agree with the comparison in abstraction. But I also think it worth our time clarifying that even Det Som Engang Var is musically superior to anything Bolt Thrower ever did. They are, of course, a much more humble band with much more humble goals (waaaaghh~ destruction and brutality!).

      1. Daniel says:

        All Bolt Thrower wanted to do was, in their own words, illustrate how humanity’s continued existence is “a never ending cycle of destruction.” Drunk thought but perhaps Herzog is the absurd midpoint between that nihilist notion and Varg’ romanticism for the natural world we rape.

  2. Felix says:

    Very interesting! but I’m not sure to fully grasp the meaning of “we attempt here to find a direction for future metal to grow”. It seems to me that “grow”, with all the different implications and interpretations this term can have, deserves a more detailed explanation only to make the point clearer in its entirety (for a better holistic understanding). Of course, explained in relationship to the “essence of metal” and what not, as you wrote right after.

  3. Kingdom_Gone says:

    Great article and great album which I have left on a too little attention. Maybe I’ll spin it tonight.

    1. spin it several times :)
      In any case, pay attention to it rather than leave it as background.

  4. Rotten Ralph says:

    “As Brett Stevens commented not so long ago in reference to Immolation’s Close to a World Below, some bands make the same album again and again until they are able to solidify their vision in a magnum opus.”

    I think I saw that comment too but I don’t think he specifically said Close to a World Below was the magnum opus. I’ve been searching in the forum and Brett has mentioned in different posts Here In After, Failures for Gods and Unholy Cult as the peak of Immolation but never Close to a World Below.

    Also, check this review back on on Unholy Cult:
    “As a refined statement of the direction in which Immolation have been going for the last two albums, this album represents a return to their inspirations as well as the highest point yet gained by this band in the craft of songwriting.”

    1. If you remember, what he said was that after they made the album they wanted, they would go on to repeat it a few times. I guess that is Failures for Gods through Unholy Cult.

      The difference in which one is their Magnum Opus between the last two can be a different discussion. Personally, I prefer Unholy Cult, but I feel like it´s the album AFTER the Magnum Opus that veers in a different direction using the methods already employed in the monster. Like Gorguts FWtH after Obscura, or Burzum´s Filosofem after Hvis Lyset Tar Oss.

  5. Dyson says:

    We were given hints of this direction from the EP tracks “Stemmen Fra Tarnet” and the remake of “A Lost Forgotten Sad Spirit”, which were actually recorded later than Det Som Engang Var and released first; but here upon the sophomore it’s embedded directly into quality compositions that don’t soon vacate the attention span. I also noticed a more prominent influence here from Hellhammer and early Celtic Frost, that being processed into the more virile, groove laden riffs scattered about the metal tracks, not unlike what Darkthrone were doing with their amazing sophomore A Blaze in the Northern Sky, but not quite so noisy or prominent.

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