By Justin M. Norton
Approaching Burzum from a position of rigid objectivity is impossible. Varg Vikernes left the realm of metal music long ago to inhabit a place of pop culture mythology. Varg’s notoriety as “The Count” in the Norwegian media after a series of church burnings reached an appropriately bizarre conclusion last year when it was announced that a Hollywood picture on the early days of Norwegian black metal was in the works. Tween star Jackson Rathbone, he of Disney and Twilight series fame, was attached to the project before dropping out.
The moral quandary of reviewing Burzum isn’t new. German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who wrote Being and Time, is widely taught in philosophy programs. He was also a member of the Nazi party. Poet Ezra Pound, “the better craftsmen” who helped T.S. Eliot whip the epic modern poem The Waste Land into workable shape, was a rabid anti-Semite. Gifted prison writer Jack Abbott was championed by Norman Mailer, released from prison, and stabbed a man shortly after he was freed. His book In The Belly Of The Beast is still considered a classic of prison literature.
Vikernes has a similar reprehensible background. He killed a man who was once one of his closest friends (Euronymous of Mayhem); he repeatedly identified himself as a Nazi; he has made more racist statements than David Duke and he tried to escape from prison with a mother lode of explosives. That’s just a partial list. Thanks to relaxed Norwegian laws he is free, living on a farm in rural Norway with his family and recording music. Varg’s accomplishments don’t rise to the level of a Pound or a Heidegger but the dilemma remains. How do you approach an artist who is a criminal and a bigot yet has produced material that sometimes rises to the level of art? Our culture generally celebrates artists who have elevated themselves beyond a questionable past and have grown and repented. Vikernes has never apologized and given confusing half-answers when asked about his most offensive statements. His cult following has grown nonetheless; how many kids purchased a Burzum album because the songwriter is a convicted killer? When all forms of rebellion fail, even in the provocative metal scene, one of the few ways to raise eyebrows is to align yourself with a lunatic.
This brings us to Belus, Burzum’s first album in 11 years, released shortly after Varg’s parole. Belus opens with the sound of a clanking chain, perhaps a not-too subtle hint that “The Count” is finally free. The back story deals with the travails of a European god that make as much sense as The Da Vinci Code. Long gone are the ambient experiments of the most recent Burzum albums, Daudi Baldrs and Hliðskjálf, recorded entirely on keyboards in the big house. Both were dismal, the soundtrack of a video game gone to hell. Varg has instead returned to the sound he mastered in the mid-90s before jail; the trance-like, repetitive song structures that lure listeners; a minimalist rhythm section that serves to accentuate the guitar and the often-pained voice that hints at loneliness and madness. Varg has also switched entirely to Norwegian lyrics to tell Belus’ story, which is explained in convoluted language but has something to do with a god journeying through the underworld a la Hermes.
This is Burzum’s best album since Filosofem, rightly considered a cornerstone of Norwegian black metal. Varg capitalizes on his strengths as a songwriter: songs with an elegiac feel, songs that indicate a desperate longing for experiences now impossible because of modernity. Varg’s finest moment was “Jesus Tod” and the material on Belus is directly from that mold; each piece has a strong idea or chorus which is consistently cycled, creating a hypnotic effect. Varg the songwriter is still cribbing lessons learned from Von, the deceptively simple San Francisco black metal act that recorded primitive music based on consistent repetition of a strong musical idea. Like earlier Burzum albums, there are no blastbeats and the aggression, outside of Varg’s voice, is muted. This could get boring but the songs – most notably “Glemselens Elv” — have an almost intangible quality, a feeling of a world that might only exist in Varg’s imagination.
Of course, Belus isn’t without attendant controversies. The original title for the album “The White God” was quickly shit-canned, even if the notes for the album refer to Belus as an “Indo Aryan God.” Earache Records head Digby Pearson posted and later retracted a Tweet criticizing Varg and linking to an illegal download of the album. The debate will continue long after Varg decides to close off the outside world and stay on the farm for good, and you can’t fault anyone who ignores or criticizes Belus because of Varg’s transgressions. Nonetheless, like much of Burzum’s material, Belus is able to transcend the very real flaws of its maker. However unsettling his crimes, however indefensible his comments and views, Vikernes is one of the most creative forces in Norwegian black metal and Belus ample proof of his talent.