1992 is the year that the second wave of black metal began to take shape. While Quorthon had already laid the foundation with the first three Bathory albums and Mayhem had been revving up for a while, it was the trio of Darkthrone’s “A Blaze in the Northern Sky,” Immortal’s “Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism” and Burzum’s self-titled debut that really kick started golden age of black metal. These albums are dark, raw, evil and chilling. Burzum’s debut is no doubt the most extreme of these albums.
Structurally and conceptually ambitious, “Burzum” already gives a peak into the complex artistic vision of Varg Vikernes. At the same time, this is an album that is as raw as they come. Varg takes Bathory’s buzzing guitar sound and sharpens it to an absolutely piercing pitch. Keen as these riffs are, they still fill a lot of space through resonation and humming feedback. The minimalist production does not stop these riffs from sounding big and full. This creates the perfect landscape for Varg’s maddening screams. Varg’s vocals on the first three albums are simply without peer. He sounds like a crow that just returned to its nest to find its eggs missing and is pissed the fuck off.
Conceptually, the album swings high, but it doesn’t always hit the mark. The album is split into two sides: “Side War” and “Side Winter.” Beyond being a fairly asymmetrical pairing, the two sides do not really fit the bill. For example, the dreamy ambient piece “Channeling the Power of Souls into a New God” appears on “Side War” while the thrashy headbanger “War” appears on “Side Winter”. More problematic, the album doesn’t have the greatest flow. Unlike some of the masterfully arranged albums that Varg would produce in the upcoming years, the debut is somewhat of a grab bag. There are three longer, emotionally complex tracks and there are three shorter, visceral tracks. While these differing types of tracks could conceivably be interwoven, Varg doesn’t actually manage to achieve that here.
Varg really shows his brilliance as a songwriter on the two closing epics, “A Lost Forgotten Sad Spirit” and “My Journey to the Stars”. These two songs do feel like side winter with sweeping melodies buzzing around like gusts of ice cold wind. The tracks interweave between fast, pulsating rhythms and slow, tribal beats, constantly bringing new sounds into their web. Actually, the headbangers are damn good too. “War” is a great tribute to the Bathory song of the same name and “Spell of Destruction” is absolutely riveting. Varg’s devastated, retaliatory wails on the later track are some of the most beautiful and horrifying vocals in the history of black metal.
Still, when it’s all said and done “Burzum” mostly feels like a collection of innovative songs from an excited and inspired young artist, but it doesn’t quite feel like an album. The structure is too erratic and the songs sometimes clash. While this doesn’t make the songs themselves any less excellent, it does put Burzum’s debut a notch or two below its sequels.