posted on 5/2008 By:
This is the first review I’ve written that required absolutely zero listening on my part of the source material. Impossible, you say? Not quite, as it just so happens that I already know all of the Burzum albums like the back of my hand, and as such leaped on the opportunity to finally voice my opinion on this band in the format of a review for....a fucking best-of?! Hmmm...
I’m a little surprised that Candlelight has chosen to put out a Burzum compilation when they could have just as easily re-released one of the project's classic full-lengths, which are only available as expensive imports to most. Plus, Burzum’s music is meant to be digested in the context of an album, and stacking together a bunch of unrelated songs is unlikely to give unfamiliar listeners a real understanding of the full scope of the work. Whateva. Seeing as this is an anthology, I feel an overview of Burzum’s history is in order for those not in the know, as this project was instrumental in laying the foundations for what we think of as black metal today. Recognized just as widely for his various crimes and extremist political beliefs as for the impact his music made on the metal scene, Burzum mastermind and sole member Varg Vikernes is undoubtedly one of the most controversial figures in metal’s history. All of Vikernes’s extra-curricular activities have been well-documented in other media, so there’s no reason to detail those here, but suffice to say that the man’s “accomplishments” outside of his musical endeavors have distracted many from what really makes Burzum legendary: the music itself. Influential far beyond anyone’s initial expectations, the first four Burzum LPs were unquestionably groundbreaking albums in their field. While his Norwegian and Swedish peers were busying themselves with faux-Satanic imagery and under produced Bathory knock-off riffs, Vikernes’s project holds the important distinction of being the first to focus on channeling black metal's primitive energy into atmosphere rather than raw extremity, utilizing simplistic instrumentation, repetitive song structures, and prominent dark ambient contributions. While the lineage of the more raw, "old-school" style of black metal can be traced to the likes of Darkthrone and Bathory, it was Burzum who opened the door for many of today’s most luminous BM projects, from Negura Bunget to Wolves In The Throne Room and many more.
What a lot of people may not realize about Burzum’s discography is that while their release dates were seperated, all four of the outfit’s black metal releases were written and recorded in the span of little more than a year, and the progression from each is noticeable in some areas and more subtle in others. The debut Burzum, while somewhat similar in style to its contemporaries of the time, showcased folk-influences and experiments with ambience in an era where such elements were still totally alien to black metal; the sophomore effort Det Som Engang Var upped the production and musicianship levels while creating an even more palpable atmosphere of sadness and gloom, giving forth such classic songs like “Key To The Gate” and “Lost Wisdom” in the process. The next two LPs were when the project really hit its stride in my eyes; the legendary Hvis Lyset Tar Oss saw Vikerness crafting his most epic and sorrowful material yet, with the monster fourteen-minute opener “Det Som En Gang Var” standing as one of black metal’s defining compositions. Filosofem followed in 1996, by which time Vikernes had already been imprisoned for his crimes for over a year; in spite of the controversy surrounding the band (or perhaps because of it), Filosofem drew much attention to the outfit even from outside the metal underground, somehow managing to reach the independent charts in Europe and even being featured in the cult film Gummo. Filosofem saw Varg mix his trademark melodies with a harsh distortion to the guitars and vocals, and over half of the album’s length was relegated to ambient tracks. Once in jail Varg attempted to sustain his band from behind bars, releasing two ambient full-lengths (1997’s Dauði Baldrs and 1998’s Hliðskjálf, recorded using MIDI samples and a Casio keyboard respectively), but ultimately ceased Burzum activity for the remainder of his sentence, bringing us to the present day.
Now that the history lesson's out of the way, lets move on to Anthology itself. This is not the same compilation that was released allegedly as a way to raise funds for Varg’s political pursuits in 2002; it shares some of the tracks but the listing on this release is much stronger than on the 2002 edition, and the cover art is changed as well. From the debut we get the classic “Feeble Screams From Forests Unknown”, a definitive early Burzum number, though if I had to pick one cut from the debut it would have definitely been “My Journey To The Stars.” Following this is the solid “Stemmen Fra Tårnet” from the three-song Aske EP, a long, mid-paced song that hints at the future ingenuity with which Vikernes would layer melodic guitars and haunting keyboards. Det Som Engang Var is represented by “Lost Wisdom” and the ambient outro “Svarte Troner.” Both are great tracks, but I consider the absence of “Key To The Gate” from that album to be a glaring omission, as that’s easily one of the best and most memorable songs from the first two albums. From Hvis Lyset Tar Oss is the aforementioned brilliance that is “Det Som En Gang Var”, which is easily the best song written by Burzum and arguably one of the best black metal songs to ever come out of Norway. If you can’t track down a copy Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, this anthology is worth the price of admission for that song alone. The blazing “Jesus Tod” and the depressing instrumental “Gebrechlichkeit II” usher in the Filosofem material, which is probably my favorite Burzum album from start to finish. This brings us to glaring omission number two; where the hell is Filosofem-opener “Dunkelheit”? Not only was this the first song Vikernes ever wrote for the project, but its also one of the best, with its unforgettable keyboard melodies and morose, distorted strumming. The compilation is brought to a close by a song each from Varg’s two prison-made ambient albums. Anyone who’s heard these releases knows about the laughable quality of Dauði Baldrs (made on a computer with MIDI sampling, blech), and while Hliðskjálf sounds much more professional, it's still nothing I’d listen to more than once in a blue moon.
Burzum has played a huge role in forging my current love for black metal, and being the fan that I am, I hesitant to recommend this compilation to newbies--these songs, while great in their own right, should be fully experienced as part of an album as they were intended to, not as a hodge-podge of different stages of the band’s lifespan. However, I realize that the Burzum full-lengths may be difficult to track down for many of you (I managed to score original pressings of the first four albums from eBay, hell yeah), and as such Anthology would definitely be a good way for those unfamiliar with the band to get their feet wet. The song selection is great for the most part and there are some tracks on here that are simply mandatory listening for anyone with even a casual interest in black metal. My first recommendation is obviously to pick up the first four albums themselves (the ambient releases are far from necessary), but for those without the means and those who want a crash-course in Burzum's style and enormous influence, this compilation is a solid purchase.
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From The Depths of Darkness