Sunday, September 13, 2009

Burzum - "Filosofem"

More than enough has been said about the Norwegian church-burnings of the '90's – and of Varg Vikernes' part in the events back then. His band Burzum (of which he is both the founder and only member) is much more interesting in the context of this blog.

Put on Burzum's '96 release “Filosofem”, and it's immediately clear that Vikernes knew what he wanted this album to sound like. A surprisingly brash, trebly, abrasive, distorted sounding guitar launches the opening track “Dunkelheit”, and you have to wonder if there is space for anything else in the mix at all. But then of course the screaming black metal-style vocals are themselves deeply immersed in distortion – though still magically audible through the barb-wire, carpet-bombing wall of guitar. The drumming is simple (for a metal record), and less prominent in the mix than you would expect. The bass is little more than a drone somewhere in the background.

Clearly, there were certain priorities in the making of this album – and it works. The guitar work consists of simple chord progressions, and rather than chugging powerchords out, Vikernes much of the time goes for the strumming technique – the way you would an acoustic guitar. The result is a smear of harmonics, rather than distinct notes, that really enhances the feeling of melancholy and sorrow evident in the chords themselves. On track 4, “Gebrechlichkeit I”, the use of this recipe steers the music into a form of ambient-noise guitar music, abandoning drums and bass altogether, a leaving the scene entirely to the guitar and vocals. To this point, the music has had more in common with noise-rock and punk, than the metal music it originated from. But this doesn't seem to be unusual in black metal circles.
It is somewhat a surprise then, when track 5 suddenly goes ambient electronic. Granted, little synth melodies did sneak in on the opening track, but here is over 25 minutes of very ambient-sounding, and very repetitive synth-scapes, under the equally long-winded title “Rundgang um die transzendentale Säule der Singularität”. The sixth and final track “Gebrechlichkeit II” is sort of an epilog to track 4, blending the ambient synth stuff and the distorted guitar about 50/50, but no vocals. Rounds off the album in a fitting way, I think.
By the way – what is it with those song-titles in German?
There has been lots of talk of Vikernes and his nazi-tendencies, but perhaps he just really liked the way it the titles sounded – and looked? After all, the lyrics are sung in English...

Anyway, the feeling you get from listening to “Filosofem”, isn't the adrenalin rush you usually get listening to metal. It's not that kind of music. More like a one-hour long, slightly hypnotic lament, intended to put you deep in thought and self-reflection. Guitars that sound like wind howling, or perhaps waves crashing ashore, and vocals that sound like shrieks of grief against that background of violent “nature”. It all works toward conjuring up images of the cold, dark north – and of minds that think too much and too darkly, when there is nothing else to do.

Check it out:
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