I remember it like it was yesterday. I was twelve years old, sitting at the kitchen table eating lunch. My mom was watching an episode of A&E’s Cold Case Files. This particular episode was about a church burning that occurred some time ago. The arsonist had filmed his handiwork, and the producers of the show had gotten a hold of it. Quite frankly, the video scared the shi
t out of me. The sight of an out of control fire decimating a church, coupled with the arsonist’s eerie voice saying “This is hell…my hell” is something that I will never forget. In the ensuing weeks, I had many a nightmare about what I saw. I can’t really explain it, but that video is one of my most powerful, albeit terrifying, memories.
It may seem strange then that I hold Varg Vikernes (born Kristian Vikernes, stage name Count Grishnackh) in such high regards. You see, Vikernes is a notorious church burner, which is one of the reasons why he’s been in jail since 1993. He was found guilty for the burning of three Norwegian churches and the attempted arson of another. He was also tried for the burning of the Fantoft stave church, but he was found not guilty (the cover to his EP Aske is a picture of the church after the burning). His most notorious crime was the murder of Mayhem member Euronymous. It’s hard to believe that someone like Varg Vikernes could record something as amazing as his third album Hvis Lyset Tar Oss.
Considered by many to be a black metal classic, Hvis Lyset Tar Oss (English translation: If the Light Takes Us) displays the genre in its purest, rawest form. While bands like Ulver brought a lighter, folk-influenced sound into the music, such as acoustic passages and chanted clean vocals, Vikernes chose to go down a heavier path. The first three tracks on this album are some of the most brutal, unrelenting songs I have ever heard. Vikernes doesn’t give you a chance to catch your breath as he pummels you with an atmospherically raw wall of sound. The first three songs are the ones that kick your a
ss into space, and “Tomhet” is the one that brings you back down to earth. It’s amazing that the same man who can write a song like “Det Som En Gang Var,” with its extreme heaviness and frantic vocals, can write the instrumental “Tomhet,” filled with droning ambience and soothing keyboards. Vikernes is truly the genius of black metal.
Varg surpasses any other vocalist I have heard in the genre. While his sheer technical ability isn’t too impressive, he is one of the most emotional vocalists I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to. To envision his voice, try to think of a damp, dirty torture chamber in some old castle. Try to imagine the sort of sounds that would come from within that room – screams, shrieks, and other noises. This is what Vikernes’ voice sounds like. I have yet to come across anyone who can pull of what Varg does. His tortured voice embodies all that black metal is, every emotion and every feeling. I can get into just about anyone’s voice, but Varg can do something that no one else has accomplished yet: he has the ability to scare the shi
t out of me with his voice, something that not even Lord Worm can do. Some of the sounds he can make are unbelievable. Everything from a shriek to a growl to a grunt is heard on this album. The vocal brutality never lets up for a second; there is no clean singing to be heard on this record. Some might view this as a turn-off but Vikernes’ consistency is surely something to be praised. It’s not every day that you hear someone who uses virtually the same elements in every heavy song yet makes it sound interesting every time.
If you haven’t guessed yet, Burzum is a one-man project. Vikernes does everything himself, from producing to recording to playing every instrument. While Varg is certainly no instrumental virtuoso, he gets the job done well enough. Reverb-laden guitars give the album a cold, dark atmosphere, strings give it an epic feel, and the drums contribute a strong backbone to it all. The first song “Det Som En Gang Var” is the standout track. It’s probably the most blatantly black metal song on the record, with a five minute atmospheric buildup before Vikernes’ vocals come in for the first time. This is also the track that features strings most prominently. While it may be a little slower paced than black metal usually is, it is certainly a great representation of the album and genre as a whole. The title track and “Inn I Slottet Fra Drǿmmen” are both faster paced songs in the vein of traditional black metal. Instrumental tracks are common in the genre, and Varg does not disappoint. “Tomhet” is a fourteen minute spacey, ambient track. It contrasts nicely with the heaviness of the other tracks, but it does tend to get boring, which takes away from the overall greatness of the album. That is honestly the only gripe I have with this record.
The word burzum
comes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Black Speech, and it means “darkness.” However, some consider the word to mean “light” instead. A better analogy for Burzum’s music cannot be found. It embodies darkness and light, joy and sorrow all at once. Vikernes’ ability to convey so many emotions in his music never ceases to amaze me. It is truly unbelievable that a convicted arsonist and murderer such as he could craft music that is so epic and beautiful. This is one of the pinnacles of black metal. This is Burzum. This is real. And you’d better fu
cking listen up.