Friday, December 19, 2008

Ambient Burzum

Burzum's 1994 album 'Hvis Lyset Tar Oss' contained the band's first Ambient track, 'Tomhet'. Though the track was at the time compared to Aphex Twin's classic 1994 album 'Ambient Works Volume II', actually the track was closer to the music of 1970s 'Berlin School' Kraut Rock Electronica (Klaus Schulze, Kluster, Tangerine Dream). After the 1996 album 'Filosofem', which contained a 25-minute Ambient track, Burzum released two albums containing only similar Ambient music: the 1997 album 'Dauði Baldrs' and the 1999 album 'Hliðskjálf'. The two Ambient-only albums were recorded and released after Christian 'Varg' Vikernes (the mastermind behind Burzum) was imprisoned for murdering Øystein 'Euronymous' Aarseth.

Before he was murdered by Vikernes, Aarseth functioned as something of a mentor for his assassin-to-be. Aarseth was not only a founding member of the legendary Black Metal band 'Mayhem', but he was also an aficionado of Berlin School Electronica. Aarseth sought out Conrad Schnitzler when visiting Berlin, camped outside the German musician's home, and persuaded him to contribute a track to his band Mayhem's debut album, 'Deathcrush'. In fact, Aarseth felt so honored by Schnitzler's contribution that he made it Deathcrush's opening track. Opening one's debut album with the music of another artist: surely that gesture underlines the immense importance the music of Schnitzler and of the Berlin School had for Aarseth. Surely, it is Aarseth's influence which is responsible for Vikernes creating Ambient in the style of the Berlin School.

Burzum's gradual cross-over from Black Metal to Ambient-only music is said to be due to the fact that Vikernes is not allowed to have the instruments and equipment necessary for Black Metal in his prison cell. Nevertheless, today, bicycling through a wintry forest landscape listening to 'Filosofem', I intuited another reason for Burzum's musical transformation. I sensed Euronymous haunting the album's Ambient track, the 25-minute, pompously titled 'Rundgang Um Die Transzendentale Säule Der Singularität'.

After he was imprisoned, Vikernes could have chosen to remain silent. He did not. Instead, he went on to create music in the style so beloved by his victim, 'Berlin School' Ambient. Did Vikernes become possessed by Aarseth after he murdered him, as Raskolnikov was tormented by the memory of the old pawnbroker and her sister, both of whom he murderded with an axe? Does Euronymous, in a sense, live on in the Ambient music of his murderer?

In any case, to my mind the Ambient tracks present the weakest side of Burzum. This is not only because of my personal distaste for 'Berlin School' Ambient. It has rightly been said that all the great works of literature either establish a genre or wind one down - and the same might well be said of music. Burzum's Black Metal certainly did establish a (sub-)genre, and thus can be said to be a 'major work of music'. The same thing however cannot be said of Burzum's Ambient music. Here, Burzum is a follower rather than a leader. And although many Black Metal bands intersperse their guitar noise with Ambient tracks, the latter tracks tend to be of the Industrial Ambient rather than 'Berlin School' Ambient variety. Brian Williams' Lustmord seems to be a bigger influence than Burzum. Why? The answer is simple: Vikernes' Ambient music is dreary, dreary, dreary - it doesn't quite open up to the cosmic dimensions suggested by the music's titles. Vikernes himself is supposed to have explained his move toward Ambient as a move away from Black Metal, which - as it is a 'late style' of Rock is in fact of Afro-American origin. Indeed, Burzum's Ambient is about as mindnumbing as the ideologies Vikernes converted to in the period he murdered Euronymous.

And yet my intuition points towards another possibility: if it would indeed be true that the fact that Vikernes' abandoning Black Metal for Ambient was the exoteric effect of him being haunted by Euronymous, perhaps the weakness of Burzum's Ambient can be said to be Euronymous' ghostly vengeance upon his murderer. Is Aarseth slowly draining Vikernes?

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