Byelobog Productions, 2010
Belus, the latest album from one man black metal machine Burzum, carries with it a great deal of baggage before even the first note is heard. The most infamous detail surrounding Burzum (aka Varg Vikernes; formerly Count Grishnakh) is the fact that he recently spent a decade and a half behind bars after murdering one-time collaborator and Mayhem member Øystein Aarseth, also known as Euronymous. Combine that with multiple counts of church-burning and a behind-bars transformation into a neo-nazi, and we have on our hands quite the jolly fellow.
Before he went to jail in the mid-90s, though, he released some incredibly impressive albums, most notably Hvis Lyset Tar Oss and Filosofem (1994, 1996; both Misanthropy Records). These were epic, bleak, wildly individual pieces that set Burzum aside in the black metal world from what was otherwise tinny symphonic thrash metal. This combination of quality artistic output and disgusting personal behaviour has led, in his absence from society, to Vikernes enjoying a rather misguided cult of personality. His music has been proudly revered in direct proportion to the lowlife scumminess of the man: thanks to the infinite word of mouth that is the Internet, and the perverse interest in the dark side of humanity, Burzum has become a legend. ‘But, you know, I don’t agree with what he did…’
His alleged brilliance has been blown out of all proportion, as evinced by a couple of dire spooky-synth albums he recorded while doing porridge, and now by Belus. Fans of dark music may well display demand characteristics upon hearing this album: ostensibly making all the right noises, it’d be easy to look at the nature-fetishising cover, listen to the long BM songs, and declare the KVLT leader well and truly back.
The shame is that Belus presents to the listener a washed out, cliché, concept of black metal. That thin production from the early 90s is present and correct: what was presumably a side-effect of the scene’s recording equipment eventually became an emulated aesthetic; tinnier than thou. Amusingly enough, posh boy BM act Cradle Of Filth started out with a great sound (‘Nocturnal Supremacy’ was actually a right tune), but as they got bigger, they got tinnier. Rarely does a band buy in, rather than sell out, as success beckons, but such is the world of black metal. So, having trapised around the Bergen woods in his sweatpants and stroked his beard, Varg decided his new album – that grand statement of freedom regained – would be as tinny as in the good old days. So everything here is low in the mix, and not in a cool, Burial, ‘ghosts in the radio’ way. It’s just quiet for an ostensibly heavy album.
The music itself is also lacking. I wouldn’t expect Vikernes to have stayed in touch with the movers and shakers in the scene (he likely hates what black metal has become), but one could be forgiven for thinking such a misunderstood genius would have at least developed his art individually, removed from the possibly restricting context of genre. Scott Walker disappears for years at a time (without killing, say, Tom Jones or Lulu) and re-emerges a transformed, inimitable, artist. Burzum has simply shambled into view with all the aplomb of a Resident Evil zombie, flailing about and making spooky noises. After the album’s yawntroduction (surely that 30 seconds isn’t deserving of its very own track), the black metal stereotype machine clunks into action with some washed out, speed-picked, slo-mo melodies and disembodied shrieking. It’s as though the last decade and a half never happened.
‘Belus’ Doed’ and ‘Glemselens Elv’ could be anyone, which is what is really gutting. Had Burzum returned with an album even close to the quality of Filosofem, we’d all be happy. But this could be anyone. That is not to say this is a bad record: the last couple of tracks do trad-BM rather well. It’s just disappointing and generic. Frustratingly, when Vikernes does move away from the cold drizzle that makes up the majority of the album, as on the two centre tracks, things pick up massively.
A real grower is ‘Kaimadalthas’ Nedstigning’ (‘Kaimadalthas’ Descent’ – answers on a postcard as to who he is, Norse mythology fans). Initially a bizarre mishmash of speed metal riffs, spoken work chorus and slightly embarrassed singing, the myriad loose ends of this song eventually intertwine into a triumph of dynamics, vocal arrangement and proper fantastic seediness. The melodic segments sound almost like 80s northern indie, eerie in their calm delivery and juxtaposition with the mania of the rest of the song. That goes straight into ‘Sverddans’ (‘Sword Dance’) which is refreshing in that it actually brings the riffage for once. It’s a spiralling descent of a melody; just don’t let on that you think it sounds like Apollo 440’s ‘Lost in Space’ theme. The corpsepaint brigade round your end probably won’t take kindly to that one. Part of its charm is the contrast with the wetness of all the other metal on the album: it shreds in its context, but not compared to, say, any Black Breath song ever.
Belus, then, is just a bit sad. And that’s worse than being a morally repugnant work of horror. When you strip away the new clothes of murder and arson, you’re left with an emperor who’s just a bit mediocre. Not a conquering return, nor a reclamation of past glory. This might sate the Burzum faithful, but if they’ve sat through Dauði Baldrs, they can probably handle tedium well. If you want a decent idea of modern black metal, then go for some Watain, Leviathan or Drudkh. If you fancy listening to a song that’s a nice break from the norm, check out ‘Kaimadalthas’ Nedstigning’. Overall, though, Burzum is about as relevant in 2010 as Iron Maiden were in the 1990s.