There’s an old saying that you have to be happy with what you have to be happy with. Sometimes that’s easier said than done. After his arrest and conviction for the murder of Mayhem guitarist Euronymous, Varg Vikernes attempted to continue the Burzum project from behind bars. The only instrument at his disposal was a low-end Casio keyboard. Varg valiantly—or pitifully, depending on one’s perspective—tried to create an ambitious neoclassical opus on the shoddy machine. The result is pretty torturous. Though the compositions on Dauði Baldrs are stellar, the sound quality is comically bad, resulting in an unforgettable low point in Burzum’s career.
First of all, it should be emphasized that the compositions themselves range from good to great. Dauði Baldrs allows the classical influence on Varg’s compositional techniques to stand front and center. His use of repetition and counterpoints has classical roots, though it’s usually easy to overlook behind the wall of fuzz and maddened screams. Dauði Baldrs gives a fair nod to those roots and can help elucidate the classical influences on other Burzum albums. The arc of the album is also impressive. Dauði Baldrs tells a mythical story and the movement of the album from start of finish succeeds in expressing numerous dramatic shifts.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that regardless of how good these compositions are, the execution is for the most part awful. One can only go so far with Casio. Even Beethoven’s 9th sounds cheesy when played on a Casio, so Dauði Baldrs doesn’t stand much of a chance. Some of the samples are just excruciating to listen to. The oboe sample sounds like a cartoon quacking goose, the cello sample is really nasal and grating and the xylophone sample will pierce your brain. The piano sample is the least offense; sure, it sounds cheap, but at least it is an adequate simulacrum of a real piano. The “string section” sample is also tolerable.
Thus, the relative tolerability of the tracks correlates to their avoidance of the more annoying samples. The final two tracks rely predominately on the piano and string section samples and consequently, are fairly moving. “Illa Tiðandi” is a slow, somber piano dirge that expresses a deep spirit of melancholy. “Móti Ragnarokum” is another somber piece that centers on piano and strings, cultivating a tragic sense of resignation. Though the nasal cello sample pops up a few times, there is enough quality here to overcome it.
However, the first four tracks are damaged beyond repair. The title track opens the album with a series of laughable cello, war drum and oboe samples that raze all semblances of taste and standard to shreds. “Í Heimr Heljar,” with its goofy percussion and bombastic strings, would work well as the background music for a commercial for the local renaissance fair. The other two tracks don’t fare much better.
Dauði Baldrs is a waste; beneath the corny Casio samples are very impressive compositions. Varg affirmed this when he rerecorded the title track—the most unbearable track on Dauði Baldrs—on Belus. Expressed through the power of blazing guitars, bass and drum, the piece took on brilliant new life. Recently Varg rerecorded tracks from the self-titled debut, Det Som Engang Var and Aske. Doing so was a waste of time, since the songs on those albums are already excellent. However, a rerecording of Dauði Baldrs would be a worthy project. If Varg ever decides to complete such a project, the result will be something special. Until that happens, Dauði Baldrs will remain a sad reminder of what could have been.