I would have reviewed Burzum
’s latest album sooner, had it not been for the fact that this release is such a hard bite to swallow. There’s a lot to get used to here; a lot that’s done differently from previous Burzum
releases. From the day my pre-ordered limited edition vinyl copy came in the mail and I put the thing on my turntable, I knew it’d be difficult to review. It took me the better part of a year to ‘get’ Belus
. After a few months of listening to the record I’m still not quite adapted to the album, but I think I’ve managed to understand the better part of it at this point. Running sixty-five minutes with eleven songs ranging from complex and adventurous to mind-numbingly simplistic, there’s a lot to love, and there’s a lot to dislike. Experimentation is usually trial-and-error, hit-and-miss, and Burzum
is no exception. It has material on it which would comfortably have fit onto Burzum
’s earlier works like Aske
or Det Som Engang Var
(except for the dissimilar production), and I daresay some of the more atmospheric works of Burzum
’s post-prison career can be found here as well. Also here are some of the more wishy-washy songs of Burzum
, or songs that painfully remind me of the atrocious Dauði Baldrs due to their mindless plodding. Some songs are transcendent and meditative, tonally similar to Filosofem
, and others reek of lack of inspiration. Let’s break this album down.
One thing Varg’s kept consistent since he got out of prison is his habit of kicking off every album with an unnecessary intro track that does little other than plod. This one is the best, probably, featuring a droning horn over war drums and a quiet chant. This intro unlike the rest actually got me in the mood right off and built my anticipation up even with such a short run-time. Jóln is the next track. Much in the vein of Belus
by its primal black metal sound and hissing guitars, it quickly becomes evident that this album is conceptually and tonally similar to Varg’s previous albums, and naturally works as their predecessor. The riffs here are great and powerful; the guitar production is perfect. It sounds as primal as any black metal fan would want while still maintaining a clean, professional mix sound. Bass work is once again great and perfectly audible, weaving patterns of its own and sticking to the guitars simultaneously. The drums are varied and aggressive (I’ve always really appreciated Varg’s drumming), though the drums fade into non-existence with the latter songs of the album.
is very interesting in terms of the risks it takes and the identity it strives for. Varg tries a lot of things here. He dabbles and experiments. Far
now from black metal but not quite past integrating elements of the genre's style into the music, Varg lays down many twisting, winding riffs that seem to be a cross between some of the material from Det Som Engang Var
, alternating between dense, slow-strummed riffs of brooding emotion and airy tremolo-picked black metal riffs to weave interesting songs that seem to really compliment his Old Norse
mythology addiction, as in Hit Helga Tré. Though he definitely relies on spoken-word vocals more than any musician should, he does not leave out singing and growling. The result is a blend of medieval atmosphere and metal, and it wouldn't surprise me if Varg had lifted music-writing techniques from the ancient Norse
he seems to revere so much. On the other hand, he makes some choices here that leave me scratching my head even after several listens. A schmaltzy, cringe-worthy piano intro shoe-horned onto one of the album's best songs; three songs in a row that all could have worked as the album's closing track in their own right; a song that Sunn O
))) could have written (with the exception of the spoken word vocals fucking with the atmosphere). These things seem to be cracks in the face of the masterpiece Varg wants to create and prevent the album from beating Belus
in terms of quality.
I wonder also whether this album's length is justified. I'm a guy who is fine with long albums if they're done right. Burzum
's '96 effort 'Filosofem
' is a mere minute shorter than this and features a 25-minute minimalistic keyboard riff, but there the nuances of Varg's creeping, unsettling layering came in to play masterfully. Here, I can't say the same thing. Again
, 64 minutes with only 6 songs, comes to mind. Umskiptar
has 11 tracks, at least two of which could have been taken off to bring the album down ten minutes. Unlike some people who loathe this album, I don't feel exactly 'tortured' by the long length of the album but it does begin to wear on me. I am at least thankful that this album DOES in fact seem to have a specific structure and goal, taking the listener from Point A to Point B without recycling similar-sounding tracks. While it's true that some songs don't belong here as they are not much more than filler, each song is at least has its own identity and you do not hear the same song twice. The album seems to start the listener off with mid-tempo, atmosphere-laden songs with searing black metal riffs and occasional bursts of speed and breaks and interludes here and there to supply variance and depth to the tracks, and as it goes on the album seems to mellow out with long, winding riffs that are journeys in and of themselves. The album dips then into a handful of shorter tracks that pull tricks that Burzum
has not tried before (Heiðr being the prime example), before bringing the listener into melancholic hypnotic songs that are repetitive and simple in their execution. In this way the album almost mimics Filosofem
(this is the last time I'm going to bring that album up, I promise), first starting off with the stuff people are more likely to be into and ending with stuff that a lot of people will have to sit around and wonder whether it is juvenile or artistic and bold. I find this late part of the album hit-and-miss. Sometimes the repetition and hypnotic atmosphere works with aplomb for me, such as in Surtr
Sunnan, but in other cases (Galgviðr), I am baffled with Varg's decision to write the songs AND
include them in the final mix of the record. But I'll get more into that song later.
This album's major fundamental issue lies in the way it's written and how it's written. Varg Vikernes has always said that his music was written for himself and was never meant to pander--it reflected his present state of mind and current interests. I never paid that much mind to this as (almost) every Burzum
album to date has impressed me in many ways and are full of things that attract me. But here, Varg's interests are so overblown that they somewhat distract from the actual music. Not one word of the lyrics is of Varg's writing; rather, they are from some really old Norwegian book or something. I think the book is supposed to express some nationalistic ideology, but long story short, this was a crappy idea on Varg's part. It wouldn't be so bad if the lyrics were just another cog in the ultimate result, written for the music as most other bands do. But here, it's the other way around. The music has been written for the lyrics as opposed to the lyrics being written for the music, or so it would seem. This results in Varg using spoken-word vocals almost exclusively. He does not try to sing or growl most of the time. His voice also doesn't match the rhythm of the music on occasion, and this is quite distracting. In the past I've seen musicians take passages of books and use them for lyrics and do it well, but here, Varg seems so hell-bent on referencing that Norwegian tome that some of the musicianship is smeared. On some songs, such as Jóln, Hit Helga Tré, or Valgaldr, one can hardly notice this problem as the music is too enjoyable and works as a whole with the lyrics. However, in the case of Galgviðr (easily the worst track of the album), it is painfully obvious that the song exists for the sole purpose of spewing out more passages of that Norwegian book, as the song is composed of one laughable riff and seven minutes of spoken language bullshit. This song would have been pointless if it were thirty seconds, let alone seven minutes. Varg also seems to be trying much, much too hard to make the lyrics of his precious book match the melody in the song, like a child reading a Dr Seuss book to Metallica
. On top of that (though I can't verify it as I know nothing about the book), I've heard from fans of Burzum
that Varg Vikernes mispronounces much of the book's outdated dialect, so apparently he isn't even being that loyal to the material in the first place.
Now we come down to the part where I sum up what I think of the album, and I must admit I’m hard-pressed for a definitive rating. On the one hand I think Varg’s struck an interesting balance of music, ideology and atmosphere, but there are places where these three things begin to struggle with one another and some of the craftsmanship is buried as a result. There are definitely songs here to impress Burzum
fans, even those of the “tr00 kvlt” early Burzum
fanatics, but it’s hard to ignore the awkward decisions I brought up earlier, and I felt this album could have been very tight if a couple of songs had been left off the bill entirely. However, this album is definitely a complement to a whole work and branches off from where Belus
left off. I feel, in the end, as if the album was worth it, if only for a handful of tracks. It’s definitely worth a few listens. When I first heard the album, I didn’t like it, and a few other listens seemed at first to solidify my opinion, but eventually I started to come around to it. Umskiptar
is an album that is a bit hard to swallow, but there is certainly material here that even an old Burzum
fan will appreciate. I give this album a 15/20. When it’s good, it’s really good, but its dragging points are still a bit hard for me to accept.
Jóln: A song of heavy black metal proportions that packs a punch as the album’s opener. Some of the riffs here sound as evil as any riff from Burzum
’s self-titled album, and here the spoken word vocals work with the music instead of against it. Varg makes use of his ability to vary a song and progress it with finesse and subtlety.
Valgaldr: Bizarre riffs very unorthodox and unexpected for Burzum
are used here amidst a twisted structure whose mix of low and very audible bass riffs, hypnotic, harmonic sustain notes, and chanted vocals create an otherworldly dream for the listener. The song has a depth to it and a variance to it that makes it an easy standout. This is a song of melancholic meditation for those minimalist nuts.
Gulaldr: Coming in right after the beautiful Surtr
Sunnan, this song continues the last stretch of the album in sleepy hypnotic guitar chords and scales. Though written very simplistically, the atmosphere is perfect here, and though the song lasts ten minutes, I feel that it deserves the run time it got, even though it took me a few listens to accept it. The spoken-word verses are perfectly varied by a simple vocalized chant and a haunting melody. Underlying electric guitar tones come and go and crash over the listener like waves. My only complaint here is that the song that follows Gulaldr is completely unnecessary and takes away from the already well-established atmosphere. I wish Gulaldr had been the last track of the record.