For the left-wing black metal lover, no act causes greater discomfort than Burzum. The influence of Varg Vikernes’ one-man band is profound. Burzum’s 1990s albums, particularly 1994’s Filosofem, demonstrated just what was possible in the Norwegian black metal scene. The music of Burzum has in abundance that over-used term ‘atmosphere’, despite its extreme lo-fi production and simplicity. Out of the least promising musical ingredients – harsh screams, trebly guitars fed through tiny amps, cheap keyboards, amateurish drumming – Vikernes produced something cold, sublime and ineffably beautiful.
Yet there’s no way of ignoring the context out of which Burzum emerged – a violent, misanthropic world of church burnings, suicide and murder. Even if the history of early 1990s Norwegian black metal is often romanticised, sensationalised and its extremity exaggerated, you cannot ignore the fact that Vikernes burned down several historic churches and murdered his erstwhile friend Euronymous of the band Mayhem. Nor can you ignore the fact that even before his imprisonment Vikernes embraced pagan neo-Nazism and once even sent a letter bomb to the Israeli band Salem.
During his 16 years of imprisonment, Vikernes produced 2 keyboard-only Burzum albums that, while they showed traces of the old minimal beauty, are now regarded at best as curiosities. Such were his erratic statements from prison and his embrace of cranky fringe far right views, within a black metal scene that embraces esoteric ideas but largely shuns anything that smells vaguely of the political, many scene members and pundits (including myself) dismissed Vikernes and Burzum as part of black metal’s past.
So it was a surprise to many of us that, since his release from prison in 2009, Vikernes has already released two albums: 2010’s Belus and now Fallen. With interviews and front page features throughout the metal media, in which the erudite and amusing Vikernes produces entertaining copy while rarely being pressed on his more unsavoury beliefs and actions, Burzum appears to have come in from the cold.
And there’s no doubting the fact that Vikernes’s post-prison work is a worthy continuation of the Burzum legacy. While production values are higher, with a preference for analogue equipment rather than simply cheap equipment, the simplicity and starkness are still there. There’s less harshness and it’s a more considered approach all round, but post-prison Burzum is unmistakably Burzum.
If last year’s Belus attracted a lot of attention from those curious to see what Vikernes would come up with after 16 years in prison, this years’s Fallen has to stand on its own merits – the novelty value is wearing off. Vikernes remains streets ahead of the majority of black metal acts in his unerring ability to summon a kind of dark lonely silence amidst the guitar noise. Fallen’s 7 tracks continue the familiar Burzum style of lengthy, mantra-like repetitions of uncomplicated but uncannily eerie guitar riffs (some of which, it has to be said, are a little too similar to earlier Burzum riffs). Although there’s plenty of black metal screaming, Vikernes frequently sings or speaks with a strange kind of serenity that at times gives Fallen an air of spiritual solemnity.
But what is Vikernes actually singing? It’s in Norwegian and no English translation appears to be online yet, but an English translation of the song titles reveals little: ‘From The World Tree’, ‘Falling’, ‘Madness’ etc. There’s one entitled ‘Each Man Gets What He Deserves’ but this is little more than standard black metal anarchist misanthropy. Since Burzum lyrics have never been explicitly fascist or racist it’s a safe bet to say that the lyrics on Fallen reflect a kind of pagan volkishness that is too vague to really offend.
So where does Fallen leave the tortured leftist Burzum fan? It’s further proof of what many of us have always known – that Vikernes is simply too good an artist to dismiss. But it’s also disturbing how comfortably he has slotted back into the metal world. The murder and neo-Nazism doesn’t seem to have impeded Vikernes in being accepted into a scene that, while it may not approve of many of his beliefs and actions, appears to see them as indiscretions worth ignoring. So long as he produces decent albums, he has a free pass.
Yet at the same time Vikernes’s apparent desire to record and release albums within the metal scene may also be his undoing in the medium to long-term. Fallen and Belus may be better than 95% of contemporary black metal, but they lack the air of transgression that cling to the pre-prison albums. It may be that the longer Vikernes works purely as an artist, the more his mythic status will erode. Truly legendary characters burn bright rather than fade away and however good his music may continue to be, Vikernes will become ever less notorious the longer he channels his energy into songs rather than violence and outrageous statements.
The acceptance of Burzum within much of the contemporary metal scene provides ample illustration of the ways in which an overriding love of music can cause people to overlook or collude in dangerous politics. The flipside of this though is that Burzum’s music can also undermine Vikernes’ dangerousness. It may be then that leftist Burzum fans should feel no guilt. The more albums Vikernes produces, the less he will be a threat anyone or anything.