The original explosion of media attention around the Norwegian black metal scene occurred and was in full swing around the times of my fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth birthdays. I missed it, really. Being in my mid-teens, having a media that was still largely only one-way, and being in a country where the so-called music industry is basically entirely a suck on the knob of American and Japanese conglomerate music divisions, lent itself to that.
However, as I was making more and more tentative steps towards increasingly hardcore and alternative forms of music that descended directly from Black Sabbath, I frequently caught sight of the visage and name of one Varg Vikernes, or Kristian to his mother. Much of what I read in magazines at the time concerned itself with the murder of one Øystein Aarseth, or Euronymous to his fans. If I remember correctly, the murder occurred around the time that Finnish black metallers Impaled Nazarene released their second and best album, Ugra Karma. I remember this point well because one magazine I was reading at the time had a small piece concerning Impaled Nazarene in which their vocalist, Mika Luttinen, commented that murdering Euronymous had nothing to do with the so-called black metal council that Euronymous was spouting off about, and more to do with Euronymous taking “this Burzum guy’s girl”. If I remember correctly, Mika‘s comment ended with the words “incredibly fucking childish”.
As it turns out, the case and the details leading up to it were far more complex than this. More on this shortly. What I want to make very, very clear first is that whilst I find it difficult, Varg is a very good example of how one can enjoy someone’s art whilst to some degree despising the artist. I have read a number of interviews with him now, during which he has spoken on a variety of subjects. And I will be damned if I can recall any interview with him in which something has not escaped his mouth that makes me think “what a moron”. For instance, in a February 2010 interview, he stated that he was happy to see “true Winter” return, and that for some reason, “nobody is talking about global warming anymore”. Leaving aside the ignorance of science this betrays, and the fact that at least twenty-five of the fifty hottest years since reliable measurements began in the nineteenth century have occurred during my lifetime, the real classic quote that betrays Varg’s ignorance about just about everything comes from an interview hosted on his own website. Quote follows:
I have met Norwegian men who have had girlfriends who didn’t even know how to mix lemonade or boil an egg – and note the past form of the verb, have had girlfriends, as they obviously didn’t bother to stay with them. The beauty of the women lured the men to them, but they had no other qualities, so they didn’t manage to hold onto their men.
Are you fukking serious, Varg? Whilst I will admit that I cannot cook for myself worth a shit, there is a list of criteria that I look for in a woman I will want to regular spend time with. Being able to understand, or learn to understand, the autistic experience and having an intelligence quotient above 120 is at the top of the list. If you travelled down the list to where knowing how to “mix lemonade” or “boil an egg” sits, you would be more likely to reach Proxima Centaurii than complete the journey in spite of the frustration it entails. It would literally be like trying to get to somewhere important in Brisbane from one of its outer suburbs.
And I repeat: every single interview with Kristian Vikernes, without exception, contains at least one quote that will leave an intelligent reader gobsmacked to this degree at his sheer lack of insight. He cannot even make a comment concerning what a destructive force Christianisation has proven to Norway without inducing what the first generation to grow up with an Internet having been in public use during their entire lifetime refer to as a “facepalm”.
Allow me to divert for a second. I know that there are two sides to every story, and whilst I do see a serious lack of insight, I do not believe this man is exclusively a moron. There are basically two camps concerning the murder of Euronymous. One that contends that Euronymous was a brilliant, scene-leading, innovating man who was simply killed because he had a dispute concerning his art and its direction with the wrong person. There is some merit to that position, of course. And it was the position that the prosecution in the subsequent trial took. But the more one knows about Euronymous‘ behaviour during the earlier days of the Norwegian black metal scene, the more one realises that he was to a degree digging his own grave.
I do not believe it to be couth to speak ill of a dead man whose surviving relatives will not have either the time or inclination to speak in his defence, so I will just give a generality here. Many stories concerning the whole black metal scene that Euronymous helped establish have it that he was a very purity-driven type, and would often make threats in context of a fellow member of the scene doing something not entirely to his liking. Several others who were part of the scene at that time have also commented that one simply cannot make threats willy-nilly and expect no consequences. If the stories concerning Euronymous‘ alleged plot to murder Varg have a certain amount of truth to them, and given some of the comments made by third parties, it would be wrong to dismiss them right out of hand, then it hardly surprises me that Varg killed him.
Oh, and one other thing. It is alleged that Varg has told someone in the media that J.R.R. Tolkien‘s bloated classic The Lord Of The Rings stood for separation of the races. I have never been able to track down the interview in which he supposedly said this, but nor would it surprise me, coming out of his mouth. I guess he skipped over the parts of the novel in which Elves, Humans, Hobbits, and Dwarrow all band together in order to overcome immense challenges. In other words, the vast majority of the text. I do not believe I need to explain what I think of this.
So now that you know a bit about where I am coming from in terms of what a moron I think the man himself is, the real question is why I listen to any of his music. The majority of his catalogue frequently makes me wonder the same thing. You can find a listing of the recordings that Varg has released under the name Burzum here. With the exceptions of the demos and the latest, Umskiptar, I have listened to all of them at least once. Hvis Lyset Tar Oss has one song worth bothering with called Det Som En Gang Var (trans: What Once Was), but the rest, especially Tomhet (trans: Emptiness), can be ditched with impunity. If you can find Hvis Lyset Tar Oss (trans: If The Light Takes Us) and listen to Det Som En Gang Var cheaply or even for nothing, do so. Det Som En Gang Var is simplistic, repetitive, and lengthy, but it also proves that when simplicity and repetition are in the hands of a man who knows how to make a listener give a shit about what they are hearing, they are very powerful tools.
Released whilst he was in prison, the album Filosofem also contains one or two good songs with an instrument towards the end that can be ditched with impunity. Although I cannot really make a definitive recommendation concerning the good songs on that album, I can tell you that if you find yourself hearing the song Rundtgåing av den transcendentale egenbetens støtte (trans: Tour Around The Transcendental Columns Of Singularity), skip it as fast as you can. It is about a minute or two of instrumental sequencing stretched out to a whopping twenty-five minutes and change. Whilst I do have two other songs in my collection that exceed twenty-five minutes, those ones are made by bands that actually have the chops to pull it off.
Two albums followed during Varg‘s prison time. The details are a bit ambiguous as to whether they were recorded in prison or recorded prior and released during Varg‘s prison time. The main reason I mention them is because the owner of the record store I frequented at the time seemed to value Burzum as an artist more because of them. Make of that what you will. These albums are 1997’s Dauði Baldrs and 1999’s Hliðskjálf. Entirely keyboard-based, these two albums are basically some forty-odd minutes a piece of keyboard noodlings. Each song on them is basically like the overly-long instrumental pieces from the other albums I have mentioned as being skippable, except for the fact that the songs on these two albums are a more manageable length.
Being that Varg was in prison, all went silent more or less in the Burzum camp until 2010, just after he was released on parole. Since then, he has released two albums. In 2010 came Belus. It is the lesser of the two that I have heard thus far. The following year, 2011, saw Varg release what is thus far the most consistently entertaining and skilfully-made Burzum album to date: Fallen.
Fallen, put simply, is why I can listen to the music and divorce it from the shit-spewing man who made it. At slightly less than forty-eight minutes, with seven songs (including one barely-a-minute introduction), it can be seen as mildly epic in nature. But the second song on the album, the slightly less than eight minute Jeg faller (trans: I am falling), had me hooked from the get-go. If Fallen had been the album that gained mainstream media attention in 1993 or so, as opposed to pieces like Det Som En Gang Var, mainstream media’s conception of what black metal is and what it is about would be very different today. Jeg faller seamlessly blends numerous styles of playing and vocals. Hell, the whole album does that to a degree, but Jeg faller is my favourite example.
One moment, Varg is singing in the usual, raspy-standard black metal style. Sort of what Darth Vader would sound like if he were trying to shout at the children on his lawn without the aid of that terrifying-sounding vocal amplifier incorporated into the suit, for those who are not familiar with the style. Then he will out of nowhere break into an “ah-ah-ah-ah” type of vocalisation followed by one of two phrases: either “Jeg faller” or “Helt ned” (the former more frequently than the latter). I do not know what the latter means, and in this case the lyrics sheet on the Burzum website is not obliging to those who do not speak fluent Norwegian. But as an educated guess, I would say it translates into English as “help me”.
A lot of people who are uneducated or flat-out ignorant in the ways of doom and black metal often ask me the most daft questions about the compositions or the manner in which certain elements are used. Fallen exemplifies a fundamental rule of doom metal that was added to the playbook when My DyING BRIDE emerged on the scene. Namely, it is all about contrasts. Whether it is the contrast between the two vocal styles Varg utilises or between the harsh, screechy rhythm section and Varg‘s vocals or the mild dose of harmonics he puts over the top from time to time, it is all about contrasting.
Oh, and if you are one of those shitheels who likes to complain that they cannot understand “the words”, take note of the following. One, even though I can understand the odd word here and there, I like not being able to understand what Varg is singing about for the most part. That enables me to imagine an Elf singing in various levels of anger about the battles he has been through, and why, just for example. Secondly, there are a minimum of four other instruments in the mix at any one time at any given second. I have learned to listen past a voice. My choices in music reflect that.
The upshot of all of this? Varg states in his notes for Fallen that “we” mastered the album as if it were classical music. That reflects how interesting the music is a lot of the time. The sound is, as he says, more dynamic (presumably, than is the case on prior Burzum albums). Even without comparing it to other Burzum albums, it serves as one of the best introductions to black metal I have heard in some time. And I include artists like Bathory, Sigh, or Emperor in that category. It is that damned good that it more or less immediately makes me stop thinking about what a moron composed and recorded it, and thinking about the journey of thought and imagery that the moron in question wants to take me on.
And that, friends and neighbours, is in my view the sign of great musical talent.