A few months after recording the impressive but somewhat erratic but nonetheless impressive debut album “Burzum,” a more focused Varg Vikernes returned to the studios to record “Det Som Engang Var.” Taking the positives of the debut and building upon them, Burzum’s sophomore release is an absolute masterwork of black metal.
What is interesting is that the songs for “Burzum,” “Det Som Engang Var” and “Aske” were mostly written within a year—and not in the order that they were released. So some of the material on “Det Som…” is actually older than the material on the debut. However, it does appear as if experience in the studio did Varg some good, as “Det Som…” displays much more craft in arrangement and layering than its predecessor.
The production remains raw, the riffs remain razor sharp and Varg’s screams are still the sound of unbridled madness. However, plenty of new details have been added giving “Det Som…” a much more textured sound. To begin, the production is a little deeper, meaning there is even more room for the riffs to buzz and resonate within the recording. Vocally, Varg supplements his powerful screeches with soft, gentile chants eerie spoken word passages. For a love of melody this album is a treat, as Varg churns out one imperious melody after another.
Compositionally, “Det Som Engang Var” constantly offers the listener something new while maintaining a telos. The album starts from the darkest depths, with haunting and subdued ambient piece followed by the vicious “Key to the Gate,” which bursts onto the stage with venomous hatred. After several waves of terrifying riffs and annihilating vocals, the song sinks down into a slow, doomy middle section. Varg builds the tension with brilliant craft, setting the scene for stunning moment when the song takes a complete 180 and bursts out an absolutely glorious guitar solo and majestic riff.
The next 20 minutes are overloaded with magisterial sounds that summon images of pristine Nordic landscapes. On “En Ring Til Aa Herske” Varg takes his time, slowly developing a trance-inducing tunes toward its ecstatic peak. “Lost Wisdom” is the catchiest song, with a rock-like rhythm and folk leads. The album winds down with the dark, somber and eerie “Snu Mikrokosmos Tegn,” whose longer, interweaving structure recalls “My Journey to the Stars,” but is even more ominous. As if dragged down to the depths from where it came, “Det Som Engang Var” ends as disturbingly as it starts.
“Det Som Engang Var” also contains some of Varg’s first ambient pieces. The closer “Svarte Troner” is extremely disturbing, with soft, off-putting moans hiding behind spooky melodies and waves of white noise. “Han Som Reiste” consists of an excellent medieval melody—the kind of tune Summoning has made a living off of.
“Det Som Engang Var” is the closest one can get to the “other planes” of existence Varg speaks of in “Lost Wisdom.” It’s as if the listener is pulled out of his or her modern life and brought to a mystical, arcane world. Yet, like all dreams, the journey has to end and the listener is drawn back into the bleak reality of modern civilization once again. “No bear, no wolf, no troll. Breathless.” The beautiful dream of “Det Som Engang Var” comes to an end and only an ideal remains—an ideal totally disconnected from the modern world. What once was is lost.