Monday, July 16, 2012

Burzum- Filosofem (1996)

"In every night there's a different black."

This line encapsulates the essence of Burzum’s fourth full length album, Filosofem (meaning, “Philosopheme”). Filosofem is an expression of Varg’s overarching philosophy. Musically, that philosophy is grounded in the concept of difference and repetition. Progressions slowly, almost without being noticed, differentiate over extended durations of time. The listener is lost in a paradoxical middle ground where sound seems to be simultaneously stagnant and morphing. While Varg plays with difference within repetition on all Burzum recordings, it is here that the technique is employed in its purest form. Each song contains only a small number of progressions that that are repeated for extended periods of time with subtle changes slowly but surely emerging.

The same concept is expressed through the lyrics and accompanying stories (the booklet contains a number of stories in Norwegian; the English versions are only available on the Burzum website). Filosofem is a concept album loosely based on the interplay of light and darkness: two oppositional forces that contrast each other but are also dependent on one another for meaning. Varg explores this interplay at both the literal and metaphorical level. For example, the story “Creeping and Crawling, Rustling and Fluttering” and the lyrics to “Burzum” explore the way in which night and day reveal the world through two oppositional filters; the story “Mouse Town” and the lyrics of “Gebrechlichkeit” describe a decrepit world in which the darkness has been removed and only light remains, an allusion to the Christian God of light.

Filosofem also marks a sharp change in production and execution for Burzum. The production is much cleaner and sharper than on prior recordings. It is the first Burzum album that does not in any way qualify as raw black metal. All the instruments are crystal clear and the performance is tight. While prior albums had a sense of uninhibited fervor, Filosofem is a work of precision. Every note is on point and every tap of the drum is on time. Even Varg's signature howls are replaced with a more reserved, raspy growl. All these changes could hint a gross misstep in Burzum's development, but as a matter of fact, the cleaner style is the perfect medium for the songs of Filosofem.

The album can be divided into two uneven parts. There are the opening three tracks which are lively and vivid; then there are the closing three tracks which are slow and contemplative. Certainly, there are multiple ways to interpret the relation of the two parts of the album, but considering the emphasis on light and darkness, it feels as if the first three songs represent the day and the last three songs represent the night.

The opening half contains a trio of energetic cuts of black metal. “Burzum” (which is actually the first song Varg wrote for Burzum) centers on a hypnotic riff that slowly slithers back and forth while hollow keys release notes like drops of water. Background layers of guitar sneak in and out of the composition. Then, in an absolutely exquisite moment, the notes are rearranged and Varg shifts from growl to spoken word. It’s a subtle but highly effective change that typifies the compositional techniques used throughout the album. "Jesus Tod" is absolutely enthralling. After a wicked guitar intro, the song breaks out into a ravenous pairing of sprinting drums and scathing guitars. Though there is very little change in the progression, the song still manages to build toward cathartic overflows. On “Erblicket die Töchter des Firmaments” a hard rocking riff and a steady drum beat are accompanied by ghostly keys. The sharp and steady percussion provide all three songs with a dynamic, fluid movement that hints at primal drives such as hunger and lust.

The second half of the album is quite a shift. The percussion disappears and the songs become even more repetitive. The centerpiece is the massive, twenty-five minute ambient piece “Rundgang um die Transzendentale Säule der Singularität,” which begins in a curious and playful tone but slowly shifts into a deep and solemn mood. It’s like watching a spiritual epiphany unravel; the melody initially seems simple and banal, but by the end has transformed into a brilliant choir of shimmering keys. Yet, even at its most profound, the music remains gentle and solemn. “Rundgang…” is bookended by “Gebrechlichkeit” parts I and II, which are basically the same song, only the first one has vocals while the second is instrumental. “Gebrechlichkeit” (meaning something along the lines of “frailness”) is a highly depressive song that centers on somber progressions on guitar and keys. The lyrics describe a world in which darkness is gone and only light remains—the world of the Christian God. In lieu of the dynamism of light and dark, all power is drained and one left in a state of absolute frailty. The song effectively depicts the Christian heaven as the most horrific realm fathomable. By blanketing the multifaceted, paganistic “Rundgang…” with the hopeless monotony of “Gebrechlichkeit,” Varg resoundingly depicts the spiritual superiority of paganism over monotheism.

Black metal has always been a genre tightly bound to ideology, but few black metal acts have created an album that is as ideologically complete asFilosofem. Filosofem provides a doorway into a paganistic worldview, in which darkness and light are at constant play with one another. Appropriately, Filosofem is a significant moment not only in the musical development of black metal—the employment trance-inducing repetition has caught on like wildfire—but also in the philosophical development of the genre. Filosofem maintains the critique of Christianity that is so central to black metal, but moves beyond the contrarian obsession with Satanism and into the realm of paganism. While Filosofem is by no means the first black metal album to take up paganistic themes (to one degree or another they’ve always been around, at least in the Norwegian scene), Varg’s use of repetition is the perfect tool through which to express an ideology that is grounded in the cycles and patterns of nature. For achieving a total unity of ideology and sound, it is fair to describe Filosofem as a perfect black metal album.

Overall: 10/10

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