Saturday, February 18, 2012

Burzum- Hvis Lyset Tar Oss (1994)

Often the albums that are most immanent to a genre’s development are the same albums that transcend that genre. With the possible exception of Darkthone's Transylvanian Hunger, no album has been as integral to the development of the modern black metal sound as Burzum’s Hvis Lyset Tar Oss. Entire sub-genres (i.e. ambient black metal, DSBM) have used this album as a template. At the same time, Hvis Lyset Tar Oss is recognized, referenced and praised outside of the realm of metal (by shoegaze and post rock acts, for example) to a degree few (if any) other black metal albums can claim.

It is easy to chalk up the popularity and notoriety of Hvis Lyset Tar Oss to Varg Vikernes criminal activities. Yes, many people know the name Burzum, and consequently this album, because Varg is the most shocking man in metal. Let’s face it, its risqué to listen to a four track, forty minute album composed by a murderer and church burner with an extreme right ideology. It gives you edge. Yet, I think the success of Hvis Lyset Tar Oss ultimately lies in far more noble grounds.

Thematically, Hvis Lyset Tar Oss is an incredibly dynamic album. On the one hand its theme is specific: it is the sound of the Nordic way of life at the edge of collapse. It is the tortured cries of a bitter, relentless yet powerless spirit releasing its last bits of energy as its world is transformed by foreigners; this is the soundtrack to colonization. It is the sound of the forceful conversion from one way of life into another. Ironically, in spite of the truly Norwiegian spirit of the album, this is ultimately a composition that transcends its locale insofar as it depicts a basic phenomenon of modernity—the homogenization of culture, thought and lifestyle. Norway is just one of many shady spaces on the globe that has been consumed by the monolithic light of “Western” culture and Christianity.
At the same time, the emotions of Hvis Lyset Tar Oss convey the even more basic human phenomenon of coming to grips with the end. At these moments, when what we love is dying, when what is integral to our very being is taken away, there is nothing left to do but wail and snarl in the bittersweet melodies of the tragic. No word could describe Hvis Lyset Tar Oss better than “tragedy.” The album cover captures this perfectly: a tattered man cast to the edge of the path, with neither the end nor the beginning of the road in sight. Chaos interrupts his seemingly determinate trip and all of a sudden, everything is lost.
Musically, Hvis Lyset Tar Oss is not too dissimilar from prior Burzum recordings. Once again, Varg creates a primal spirit through thin, biting guitar, unbridled wails and primitive percussion, all of which is doused in exquisite layers of synth. The production is raw, but all the instruments are audible and well balanced. The major change lies in the composition. The songs are longer, ranging from 8-14 minutes and use repetition to create a beautifully ambiguous feeling that lies somewhere between stasis and development. Patterns repeat, changing ever so slightly, creating a sonic paradox of simultaneous movement and stillness. This union of movement and stillness has become Varg’s signature and it here that he perfects the technique.
The album opens with what is one of the greatest metal tracks of all time: “Det Som En Gang Var.” From the opening moment the listener is engulfed in a gorgeous, mournful sea of harmonies. Eerie keys harmonize with distorted guitars in a song of loss. The atmosphere is consuming. This is music so strong that you not only hear it, but also smell and feel it. It takes you deep into the Nordic forest. The mourning hums give way to an attacking war march as sharp riffs and wild, primitive percussion interweave with weeping synths. Fury and sorrow walk hand in hand. Varg's howling screams merge the two into one cathartic sound. The fiery percussion drives home the urgency of the situation while the keys hint at inevitable resignation. As the song ebbs and flows between these two dimensions the sense of loss is palpable. Yet, the spirit remains resilient, overcoming every wave of desolation with determined vitriol.

In “Hvis Lyset Tar Oss” urgency and retaliation take over. Relentless blast beats create a visceral sensation like the pounding heartbeat of a sprinter. The keys swell like an overpowering rush of adrenaline shooting through one’s body. This song is physical; you can almost feel the sweat on your brow and the mist hugging to your skin as you run through the forest. The riffs scatter about in a frenzied manner and the tempo never lets up.

If “Hvis Lyset Tar Oss” is the chase, then “Inn I Slottet Fra Droemmen” is the attack. The drums hammer away with malice and the riffs and vocals slash the soundscape like a sharpened sword; a bona fide black metal blitzkrieg. However, at the midway point, “Inn I Slottet Fra Droemmen” morphs from raw vengeance into a lamenting dirge, shifting into a reflective middle passage and then bursting out into gorgeous waves of weeping synths and a wailing guitar solo. The hope for victory fades and the tragic reality of defeat takes hold.

The album closes with Varg's best ambient piece "Tomhet" (meaning “emptiness”). The first half loops a series of meditative tunes that are as ambiguous as the title. They could create a powerful sensation of cleansing or they can be the fateful sound of resignation. While “Tomhet” does have a sense of alien detachment to it, it also ends in a series of almost upbeat flute tones that hint at a new beginning.

The ending of “Tomhet” encapsulates one of the reasons Hvis Lyset Tar Oss maintains such staying power. It's an open and emotionally complex album that can affect you in many different ways. This is an album to live with. Listen to it at dawn and at dusk, in winter and summer, at 20, 30 and 40—it will always give you something more.

Hvis Lyset Tar Oss is one of the quintessential albums of black metal. It captures all the aspects that make the genre so unique—the raw and uninhibited spirit, the peculiar fusion of power and powerlessness and the consuming atmosphere. Yet, in defining the genre Hvis Lyset Tar Oss is already beyond it. In spirit, it is closer to masterpieces from other genres, such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor's F#A# Infinity and Dead Can Dance’s Spleen and Ideal—two albums that also capture the alienation and loss of modern society in a truly profound way—than it is to its countless apes (i.e. Wigrid or post-Herbstleyd Nargaroth). In this respect, Hvis Lyset Tar Oss is not only one of the greatest black metal albums, but also one of the all time great underground recordings. Essential listening for one and all.

Overall: 10/10

Friday, February 3, 2012

Burzum - Aske

Aske (which is Nordic for "ashes") probably has the most iconic album cover in all of black metal. Fantoft Stave Church torched down to its bare frame. The cover is a declaration of war on Christianity; a propaganda tool for the recruitment of new comrades in the war against the foreign faith. However, the album doesn’t live up to the cover. Musically Aske is the weakest recording (spare the demos) in the entire Burzum cannon. It is unclear what Varg was trying to achieve with this EP, but on the whole it would have to be deemed unsuccessful. 

For whatever reason—probably either due to Varg’s arrest or his financial disputes with Euronymous—Aske was released prior to “Det Som Engang Var,” in spite of the fact that it was recorded after. Musically, the EP does not sway too far away from the sound of the first two full lengths. Varg brought in Samoth (Emperor, Zyklon-B) to play bass, making Aske the only Burzum recording with a guest musician. The effect is negligible. While the bass is slightly more audible than on the prior two albums, Samoth is not required to do anything out of the ordinary. It’s unclear why Varg recruited Samoth for this EP.

Aske consists of three tracks; two originals and one rerecording. “Stemmen Fra Taarnet” is a fast paced, bouncy attacking piece in the vein of “Feeble Screams from the Forest Unknown.” It shifts back and forth between firing verses and dizzying choruses all bathed in Varg’s scathing howls. However, the track randomly cuts off at the six minute mark. What happened here is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the producer screwed up on the final cut. Maybe the physical recording got damaged. Maybe Varg couldn’t afford more recording time. Whatever the case may be, “Stemmen…” is like reading a 2/3 of a novel only to realize that the final few chapters fell out of the book; a very frustrating experience.

“Dominus Sathanas” is the highlight of the album; a slow, doomy piece with symphonic layering. Melodious lead guitars swing back and forth, backed up by a thicket of fuzz. Eerie chants sneak into the backdrop and a single vile scream tears through the entire landscape. This is the sort of sound I expect Dauði Baldrs album would have had if it had been recorded properly. 

The closer is a rerecording of “A Lost Forgotten Sad Spirit,” which originally appeared on the debut. This rerecording is inferior. The dynamic of the song was presented brilliantly on the debut. The composition shifts between faster, feverish passages and slower, haunting passages. The original version is played at a faster pace, which allows the quicker sections to slash the listener like a Nordic midwinter breeze. Consequently, the slower stretches mark a true contrast and the melancholia is palpable. On the rerecording, everything is slowed down. This means the difference between the passages is not sufficiently accentuated. Thus, the rerecording lacks some of the dynamism of the original. 

Ultimately, Aske will draw you in with its controversial cover, its historic mystique and perhaps its obscurity. (If you ever see it at a record store pick it up because it is damn rare and you will probably never see it again). However, as a musical document it basically a footnote in the otherwise stellar Burzum catalogue. 

Overall: 6/10