BURZUM: BACK FOR THE FIRST TIME ON BELUS
I can honestly say I’ve never had a more complicated relationship with a band than I’ve had with Burzum. Despite an ongoing fascination and reluctant adoration of black metal, I managed to all-but-avoid the band until a year or two ago (when I got my hands on Filosofem and had to confess that mainman/only-man Varg Vikernes had a good thing going). My main issue was what many of Burzum/black metal-in-general’s detractors also have: Varg’s outspokenly racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic views, and (to a bizarrely lesser extent) his part in the rash of Norwegian church burnings and the murder of Mayhem’s Euronymous in the early ’90s looms larger than the music itself. While being an outspoken proponent of separating the art from the artist, there was something just off about enjoying Burzum: thinking Dave Mustaine was a born-again nutball, Lars Ulrich was a whiny millionaire, and Gene Simmons was a major-league asshole didn’t make me like their music any less. Even non-metal incidents of racism and anti-Semitism (Public Enemy’s Professor Griff referring to Jews as “wicked” in an interview and Elvis Costello drunkenly remarking that Ray Charles was an “ignorant nigger,” for example) didn’t lessen my appreciation for their work (though perhaps that had to do with extensive apologizing on both parts). But Varg’s Aryan-centric beliefs seemed like a line I couldn’t cross, that liking his music would somehow be justifying what he believed (I know there are many that still argue that). Putting a barrier between his music and me seemed like the wise thing to do.
Of course, singling out Burzum as deplorable when enjoying brutal death metal and some strains of grindcore where lyrical implications of horrific violence toward women are so par for course that it’s a cliché is laughably hypocritical at best; I have doubts that all extreme death metallers secretly have progressive feminist views in lieu of deep-seeded issues with women that they let breathe in goregrind and the like. So while saying that Vikernes’ values have nothing to do with anything in terms of his music is incredibly short-sighted, it’s just as ignorant to write off any music he makes — even if it’s not explicitly about racial purity — because his social beliefs are the literal polar opposite of yours. Even when realizing that, it still took me a while to warm up to Burzum. But once I did, I heard what so many of the bands that he inspired — Xasthur, Nachtmystium, Wolves in the Throne Room, and Krallice, to name a (very) few — had heard: long, droning, rambling buzzsaw riffs that almost always went on too long, but often showed flickers of brilliance. By the time he reached Filosofem — Burzum’s most mature outing in its original run — he’d provided a high water mark for both him and the genre. Of course, right after recording it, he brutally murdered a guy and went to prison. After being released last year serving sixteen years of his 21-year sentence (and recording a few ambient albums), he’s returned with his first black metal album since 1996 with Belus, a record that’s at once true to his origins (near-constant tremolo picking, blastbeats, raspy vocals) and a showcase for the artistic strides he’s apparently been internalizing for the last decade. It’s at once a return home and a fresh start, perhaps a fitting metaphor for the man’s journey.
Belus‘ modest leaps forward can’t be stressed enough: though Mayhem, Emperor, Darkthrone, Immortal, and Enslaved all had the opportunity to mature and become arguably better bands over the last fifteen years, Burzum was stuck in a (literal) state of arrested development, restricted by what kinds of music he could make and consume by prison. So what makes Belus interesting is that it’s basically Burzum 2.0, still very much consumed with buzzing, hypnotic riffs but also executed with a degree of focus not previously associated with the band. There aren’t any 25 minute ambient pieces right in the middle of the album, nor more 14 minute long songs that consist of one riff that’s cool for the first 5 then become an endurance test for the back 9: just seven songs (and an intro) of stately and occasionally staggeringly beautiful black metal. It isn’t a jaunt through the forest with spiked gloves and antiquated weaponry, but it’s clearly Burzum.
The album’s first proper song, “Belus’ død,” is a mid-paced black metal-by-numbers affair, though admittedly nice to hear coming from Burzum not separated by a decade and a half and a shitload of infamy. The next track, though, opens things wide up: “Glemselens elv” has a throbbing bass line, a hazy wall of guitars, and Vikernes’ blackened screaming and monotone singing in tandem. It’s familiar in some ways, but new in others: a melancholy lead guitar drives the song like most of what Burzum’s done, but it doesn’t feel as indebted to True Norwegian Black Metal as it has in the past, nor is it bogged down by the almost suffocating bleakness of Filosfem. There’s a lilting beauty that moves in waves over the span of 11 minutes that manages to give sad, nature-loving Ukrainian folk/black metallers Drudkh a run for their money. A reevaluated sense of purpose runs through the album: even when it veers back into black metal territory, as it does on “Kaimadalthas’ nedstigning” and two and a half minute bruiser “Sverddans,” it doesn’t feel as needlessly grouchy. By the time the one-two punch of “Morgenrøde” and “Belus’ tilbakekomst (Konklusjon)” close out the album in a collective 17 minutes of almost-shoegazy soundscapes, it’s not necessarily a surprise. Even in Belus‘ most jagged moments, there’s substance at its core. Varg was an angry man in his twenties when he went to prison; he’s most likely rejoined the world with more perspective after doing some hard living to make up for some stupid mistakes. The latter sounds evident on Belus.
Of course, how much he’s learned is up for debate, even still. Belus will most likely be known to most by its original title, Den Hvite Guden, which translates to “The White God.” Though Varg insists it wasn’t racial in nature, it’s a pretty ballsy move after the decade-plus of worldwide attention and controversy surrounding him (not to mention his casually racist and homophobic put-down of modern black metal that came along with the album’s initial announcement). So even now, liking Burzum can still have you labeled as a Nazi sympathizer. And on the one hand, no, it isn’t fair: Varg Vikernes has been responsible for some of the most important black metal, as well as some of the best, since a bunch of lanky dudes started making it in Norway in the late-80s. But on the other, racism, anti-Semetism, homophobia, and the like are sore subjects for some — this writer included — and immediately raise an ideological wall that, for many, is impossible to surmount. Like the Sex Pistols with punk rock, Burzum helped define black metal while also putting in place its most negative traits and stereotypes. Varg’s name (nor his band’s) doesn’t immediately conjure up abrasive black metal arpeggios or the genre’s atmospheric leanings, but instead the images of charred churches, the Norwegian media clusterfuck of his murder trial, or condemning those whose behavior he disagrees with as “stereotypical Negroes.” And this is completely his fault. But to those of us that can get past his views and past transgressions, there’s some excellent metal to be savored. Like black metal itself, there wouldn’t be such a lasting controversy if there wasn’t music some people found worthwhile alongside it. And Belus — even wrapped in the echoes of the past and the noise of the present — like Burzum’s best, is a considerable diamond in the very vast rough.
(4 out of 5 horns)