Burzum - Det Som Engang Var
Cymophane Productions
Black Metal
8 songs (40:00)
Release year: 1993
Reviewed by Charles
I remember an old housemate of mine; a jazz musician, whose interest in metal began and ended with Napalm Death, in comparison to whom, so he said, all other metal was stale and pointless. He read Lords of Chaos, and, like anyone who reads that, had his interest in Burzum piqued. I asked him if he liked what he heard. He laughed uproariously, and replied “No. It was the fucking shittest music I’ve ever heard in my life”.

Why start a classic review of Det Som Engang Var like this? Well, because it makes me think of various things that need to be said about Burzum. Firstly, this is an obscure and esoteric corner of the music world that cannot possibly be understood by those not immersed in it. My friend could understand Napalm Death because they have an elemental power that should impress anyone with an interest in cutting-edge music. Or I could play an outsider some Cynic, and if they have any sense they’ll at least be able to pick up on the craftsmanship at work. But Burzum? Good luck with that.

Secondly, therefore, why is this the case? In my view, it’s because Burzum’s music is so dependent on intangible factors to make it work. A substantial part of the time, it’s about atmosphere and aura; things that are as much a part of the listener’s experience and interpretation as the sound of the music itself. So, thirdly, this is why the line of argument that says we should ignore the politics of Varg, the man, and focus purely on the albums themselves, makes me wonder. Because can’t atmosphere, aura, whatever you want to call it, be imposed on music by the listener, and doesn’t their understanding of the musician’s life, his beliefs, his actions, play a big role in shaping the way that process takes place?

Perhaps my dilemma here can be resolved by looking at the less-controversial facts of the matter. Why is Burzum is such an important project to metal? In the space of about three of its best albums, it reached forward through time and drew the contours around which the black metal scene would flourish long into the 21st century. On Filosofem we have the spacey, hypnotic ambience that has become the hallmark of some of today’s most interesting metal musicians. On Hvis…, we have the rich, plaintive folksy side that has inspired so many East European fascist goons to create their epically “nationalist” metal landscapes (a mixed blessing, but we have Blood in our Wells, at least). And then we have this, which is perhaps the first work to perfect black metal’s most staple, and most important innovation: the ability to imbue rough and ready rock music with a sense, not of the exciting or the vitriolic, or of the righteous or profound, but of the aloof, imposing, and otherworldly. Thus, the importance of Det Som Engange Var: neither the tongue-in-cheek rock and roll of Venom, or the grandeur of Bathory. This is a new attitude to black metal.

It can be erratic and perplexing. There are weak moments, that in fact threaten to undermine the whole thing (and perhaps do, if you are intolerant of such signs of musical immaturity). The sound is totally bent out of shape at times, with rudimentary drumming being completely lost on Key to the Gate and awkwardly over-present at points in Lost Wisdom. There are moments that verge on the painful (the ambient nonsense of Han Som Reiste). Snu Mikrokosmos Tegn is perhaps an example of music that seems to define an archetype, but which has probably been surpassed since by its own imitators.

And amply counterbalancing all of this, we seem to have a motley collection of great compositional ideas, which stand out amongst a patchier whole. Key to the Gate, in particular, is probably the most fully realised song here, as well as the one with the best ideas overall. Its opening is truly menacing, with its discordant, angular rumble. The riffing is the scuzziest delight, following weird, jarring melodies, poignant, if awkwardly delivered tunefulness, and blessed with a peculiarly doomy groove. That last factor is an oft-forgotten (at least by me) pleasant surprise on Det Som… as a whole: the resemblance to a certain Candlemass classic, for example, on Naar himmelen klarner is striking (I can’t be the only person that hears Solitude in there?), and En ring til aa herske relies on a similar feel for the force behind its wonderfully ugly main riff.

So, let’s say that whenever I re-listen to this album I am struck by the clutch of truly hypnotic riffs that I seem to always forget are here. But these are individual moments, and to appreciate Det Som Engang Var you have embrace it as a whole. And this is what brings me back to the question I raised a few paragraphs ago. That requires a certain leap of faith that is not for the uninitiated. The importance of extra-musical factors in this is highly debateable, but it’s unlikely that the ugliness surrounding the project doesn’t contribute to its mystique and sense of otherness that many of its devotees see in it. This is probably why Burzum’s music is so very unique; a truly odd synthesis of juvenile stupidity, vicious crime, cultural momentum, and gnarly music.

Killing Songs :
Key to the Gate, Lost Wisdom
Charles quoted CLASSIC
Other albums by Burzum that we have reviewed:
Burzum - The Ways of Yore reviewed by Andy and quoted 69 / 100
Burzum - Sol austan, Mani vestan reviewed by Goat and quoted 40 / 100
Burzum - Umskiptar reviewed by Goat and quoted 68 / 100
Burzum - From The Depths Of Darkness reviewed by Goat and quoted no quote
Burzum - Fallen reviewed by Goat and quoted 85 / 100
To see all 12 reviews click here
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