Ten Years #42: Burzum

Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
42. Burzum (756 plays)
Top track (42 plays): Key to the Gate, from Det Som Engang Var (1993)

I remember watching some comedy in the early 90s where a cave man frozen in ice gets thawed out and has to adapt to life in modern Los Angeles. I don’t really remember any details about it, except that it was bad. This has pretty much been Varg Vikernes’s fate since being released from prison in 2009, and no one ought to feel the least bit sorry for him. Varg ultimately made his name known through his crimes, not his music, but he used to deliver a sound to match. There is a tinge of the deranged in classic Burzum. Albums like Det Som Engang Var carry such a lasting appeal because they simultaneously capture the pagan spirit of early 1990s black metal and the air of madness that overtook the scene, landing many of its participants in coffins or jail. Varg’s first new recording after his release, Belus, was sufficiently better than anyone expected to open the door for a potential second chance at a successful musical career. But after more than a decade with no means to record, Varg let his longing for creative expression take him, pumping out five new albums in the four years that followed with little quality control, coupled with an endless sea of writings. The overwhelming majority of this material was ho-hum, and for any other aging artist this would be fine. Plenty of other later-career heavy metallers have earned sufficient respect in their younger years to maintain a fan base as their capacity for greatness dwindled. Plenty of revolutionary thinkers have maintained a right to social commentary extending beyond their original mode of expression. But no one respects Varg Vikernes nor views him as a revolutionary, and no one really should. In spite of the quality of his early albums, he remained rightly subject to criticism, leaving prison to run head first into a sea of high expectations and further demands for proof of talent. He failed to rise to the occasion, and now no one cares. He is busy writing treatises and filming documentaries that no one will ever grant the time of day. He is chugging out album after album that most of us will never bother listening to. Sorry Count Grishnackh. It is too late for your opinions to ever matter.

We can certainly continue to derive enjoyment from select Burzum material while rolling our eyes at any mention of its creator, but for me Varg is a bit of a disappointment. Black metal is something of the thinking man’s sledgehammer–a genre which oddly entangles disgust for intellectualism with ideas which require a great deal of formal dialogue to express in other-than-artistic ways. But if the fault lines of egotism render my favorite forms of music necessarily esoteric, I have always preserved the hope that some musician might have something intelligent to say about it. Varg runs his mouth ceaselessly, and I think it a shame that nothing substantive has ever come out of it. No one has ever been in a greater position to serve as the spokesman for the genre than Varg Vikernes, granted for all of the wrong reasons. The murder of Euronymous and Varg’s outrageous, self-incriminating comments which followed propelled him to a level of stardom that his music alone could have never achieved. Sure, he was entirely at odds with the genre; he could never, unlike artists such as Ihsahn, point to unlawful actions in the early 90s scene as an immature expression of an entirely justifiable state of mind. But he had the one thing no other black metal artist could hope to achieve: extensive public attention beyond his niche genre.

I guess I hoped that more than 15 years in prison would have given him the opportunity to grow up a little. I thought maybe he would fess up to having been a dumb-shit teenager who ruined the Norwegian scene by letting his emo jealousy of Euronymous get in the way of his commitment to its values. I thought he might very carefully and very professionally take his time crafting an outstanding album as proof that he was moving on to bigger and better things. Belus succeeded in buying time, but Fallen and the works that followed proved beyond a doubt that the dumb-shit teenager was nothing more than an educated, bearded, dumb-shit adult. He never acknowledged his debt to metal–and his potential for adding a substantial new flame to a musical movement that has since rapidly left him in the dust. In short, it irks me that a man of so many words, once returned to the spotlight in 2009, had so little to say and show for it. Nevertheless, classic Burzum has stood the test of time and remains a quintessential example of the sound that swept Scandinavia in the early 1990s and continues to influence countless bands today.

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