Hlidskjalf is the title of the final and perhaps most controversial (official) album from Burzum. Written and recorded by Varg Vikernes in a maximum security prison in Norway, it is a strange but fitting swan-song for an even stranger "career," if indeed it could even be called that.
As you may or may not be aware, Varg Vikernes was arrested in 1993 for his part in the stabbing death of Mayhem founder and guitarist Øystein "Euronymous" Aarseth...his part, of course, was actually doing the stabbing. In addition to the charge of murder, Vikernes was also found guilty on somewhat related charges of weapons possession and church arson. Before his arrest and subsequent imprisonment, Vikernes had been the sole member of a one-man black metal band known as Burzum, in addition to being a session bassist for Mayhem. Although Mayhem is not (and was not) the best band in the movement that's referred to as the second wave of black metal (the first being made up of miscellaneous 'ideological' founders like Venom, Bathory, and Mercyful Fate), they were certainly the most visible and the most talked about. Partially because of Mayhem's prominence and popularity, Burzum's works sometimes get overshadowed and other times flatly dismissed. Another reason Vikernes's musical outings are dismissed or otherwise ignored is because he himself has in the course of less than a decade managed to piss off approximately 90% of the planet's population.
Obviously, he existed far removed from the mainstream simply because he made black metal. It goes with the territory, I suppose. But then he started doing things like burning churches and killing people. Well, ok, at least he proves he can walk the walk. Then his racial/political beliefs -- modeled loosely after National Socialism -- come into play. Ok, at least he says what he means. But then he started denigrating whites with dark features (eyes, hair, etc.). After that, he proclaimed metal (including black metal) to be "nigger music" and seemed not to have many polite things to say about metalheads in general. In accordance with this newly-discovered anti-metal sentiment, he decided to make ambient music based on ancient Norse-Germanic mythology. With a cheap Casio. From prison.
Despite this rather, shall we say, strange series of artistic and ideological changes, Vikernes still enjoys a relatively strong following. Burzum's metal albums are today held in higher regard by many -- perhaps even most -- serious black metal fans than those by Mayhem. (And by 'serious,' I mean those who listen to black metal often and discerningly.) Even his detractors in the black metal community begrudgingly acknowledge his contributions and artistic influence on the bands that have cropped up in the last 5 or 6 years. (But then again, this might not necessarily be a good thing as far as Burzum clones like I Shalt Become are concerned, but I digress.)
So it was against this decidedly politically incorrect backdrop that Vikernes began his jailhouse recording career. As his sentence is 21 years -- Norway's maximum -- he has ample time to contemplate artistic endeavors. His first order of business was to secure the release of the Filosofem album. According to what I've been able to read, Filosofem was based on material he had written and recorded right before his sentencing (and, in fact, he has never even heard the album in its mixed/completed form). It marked a distinct departure from his previous albums, in terms of both aesthetics and production values. The whole thing was recorded with very, very heavy distortion. To drive the point home even further, he used as a broken pair of headphones for his microphone. Likewise, the album itself was not entirely black metal...I suppose ambient black metal would be a more appropriate term for it. On that same note (no pun intended, of course) Filosofem also contained his first major ambient keyboard work: an incredibly minimalist song entitled 'Rundgang Um Die Transzendentale Saule Der Singularitat' that runs for more than 23 minutes. Vikernes had flirted with ambient keyboard music on his previous releases, but those experiments were few and far between, and weren't particularly inspired. But if there's one thing Varg Vikernes is good at, it's erratically and rapidly making drastic changes with very little warning.
If you can believe it, there's apparently some stone-age law in Norway that doesn't allow criminals the basic right of having guitars, amplifiers, drumkits, and mixing boards in their prison cells. Intolerable! Personal outrage aside, Vikernes was allowed to use a keyboard with MIDI capabilities, and in 1994 and 1995, he wrote and recorded an album entitled Daudi Baldrs, or in English The Death of Baldur. If you hadn't guessed, it's supposed to serve as a soundtrack to the story of Baldur's death from Norse mythology. Although this album was not very good (in fact, it's my least favorite Burzum album ever), it seemed as if Vikernes was onto something. While he's by no means classically-trained, he does have an ear for sound. In 1999, it would be his next -- and ironically last -- album that would solidify his place as a serious ambient musician.
The first and most notable aspect of this album is the fact that the sound is so much more spacious and well-produced than its immediate predecessor. The reason for this is that Vikernes spent a lot of time studying and cultivating a working knowledge of the full range of the abilities of a sophisticated keyboard rather than MIDI programming (but then again, it's not like he had much else to do). Likewise, he was able to get a better grasp of the keyboard from an aesthetic perspective, the lack of which is something that really crippled the credibility and viability of Daudi Baldrs. The result is that he was album to create an album with a more consistent sound not burdened by mediocre composition via ignorance of a keyboard's abilities.
The four years in-between the writing of Daudi Baldrs and the writing of Hlidskjalf also gave Vikernes time to regain the inspiration that served releases like Det Som Engang Var and Hvis Lyset Tar Oss so well nearly a decade earlier. Although the sound is different, the player and the game are still the same (well, for the most part). It's fairly easy to hear hints of the same style of composition firmly established on Burzum's metal albums, and I think playing most of these songs on a distorted guitar would sound surprisingly familiar to those people -- and there are many of them -- who hate Burzum's new musical direction. Most metalheads listen exclusively to metal, so it should come as no surprise that an album of keyboard music was not well-received. Obviously this was partially intentional, as evidenced by Vikernes considerable amount of scorn and derision for the so-called "metal community." Still, as I said earlier, he has a relatively strong following that will support him no matter what he does. Are they devoted to him on the strength of his musical competency or on the basis of his considerable cult of personality? A little bit of both, I would say, but it depends upon who you ask.
Like Daudi Baldrs, this is a concept album. Unlike Daudi Baldrs, its concept is not linear. Although there are obviously no words to be sung on an album recorded entirely digitally, a lyric sheet is included anyway that tells the meaning of each track. The story to each track is based on a loosely related set of events from ancient Germanic heathen myths, the basis of which Vikernes sometimes professes as his own religion (Odinism). In the second half of the album, the story from Daudi Baldrs continues from where it left off. For whatever reason, Vikernes has chosen to use a lot of truly archaic German words and names on this album, and as such, names like 'Odin' become 'Wuotan,' 'Balder' becomes 'Beldegir' and so on. Similarly, the concept doesn't strictly follow the ancient folklore and myths, so there aren't always any absolute equivalencies to be made. The album's 'story' also reveals quite a lot about his own worldview in some not-so subtle allegories. You should be able to figure out what the hidden meanings are. I'll try to sum each bit up as best I can.
The first track deals with Tuisto, the mythological creator and proto-deity of the ancient Germanic peoples. The sound reminds me a bit of Kintaro, which would probably piss Vikernes off. The track sounds rather arcane and I guess that fits, given that it is supposed to be the musical accompaniment to Tuisto looking down on his sons and seeing in them hope for their future descendants.
The second track is the best on the album; according to the lyric sheet, two groups are engaged in a fierce battle (represented by warlike drum and horn samples) but suddenly the entire scene stops and "it is as if the universe holds its breath." Wuotan has just been slain, and the music takes on a very mournful and solemn tone.
In the next track, it is the Jul season and Wuotan's immortal Ansuzgarda have come to protect the living for 12 days and to make sure they abide by the ancient traditions of their folk. Fittingly, the sound of this track is very harsh and almost abrasive. Not one of my favorites, but it's decent.
Afterwards, in a relatively upbeat and short song, men and women sing and dance as they are strangled and drowned, happily sacrificing themselves for the good of nature and of their people.
The next song returns to the solemnity of the second track, in which Frijo mourns the loss of her son, Beldegir as her husband sets out to avenge his murder.
In the sixth song, after the gods have defeated Fanjariho, the beast responsible for felling Wuotan earlier. During the struggle, the god Tiw had his hand bitten off and after the others leave, he sees Fanjariho suffering. He feels real empathy for the first time in his life and leaves. He goes to see Eron, who heals his wound, but thinks back to Fanjariho, who will receive no such healing and contemplates what he has learned. The song is forboding but contemplative, with heavy and slow percussion matched by a very deliberate background drone.
In the penultimate song, Frijo again weeps as she remembers her husband and the love for life they both had up until the death of their beloved son. She looks forward to being reunited with him again in the afterlife. This song is much sadder than the other like it, and is my second favorite on the album. It has a very pleasant and wistful sound to it, but sounds somewhat optimistic underneath it all.
In the final track to this album, Hadnur the Blind sits and waits for the arrival of Frijo's husband and the subsequent vengenace that will be exacted against him when he appears. It was Hadnur who was tricked into shooting and killing Beldegir, who is then revealed to be his own brother. He sighs and accepts what is coming to him, thinking it is better to accept responsibility for his actions and die rather than to be hated by all those around him. He remembers the death of his own father, Wuotan, and hopes to meet his father and brother again after "the new world rises from the ashes of the old." This track is actually one of the oldest Burzum songs ever written. It appeared on Vikernes's self-titled debut on Deathlike Silence Productions under the name The Crying Orc. The similarity between the two titles -- the Crying Orc vs. the Crying Hadnur -- is one hint. The original version was played on two guitar tracks and was less than a minute in length. This version is a bit longer and, obviously, it was played on a MIDI-capable keyboard. For my money, I prefer the original version since it sounds more forlorn and more mournful (which is the point), but that's hardly a damning indictment against this one.
Overall, it's a good album, but it's not for everybody. Then again, I guess that much was obvious right from the start. I can't really imagine anyone who is not familiar with Burzum or anyone who doesn't like ambient music appreciating this album. However, I think those particular two demographics would enjoy this album immensely, especially since it's the last one we're likely to see from this musician in this lifetime.
After the release of this album, Vikernes supposedly showed some interest in being part of the soundtrack for the Lord Of The Rings film series. This would be rather appropriate, given that "Burzum" is taken from the Orcish word "burz-" which means "dark," and that his old pseudonym, Count Grishnackh, refers to a character in the books. He even wrote a song entitled En Ring Til Å Herske, which translates to "One Ring to Rule." His mother, Lene Børe, thought it would be a good idea to start distributing Burzum albums on a massive scale across the planet to get her son's name (even more) out in the open in furtherance of his wish. Vikernes vetoed this idea for a number of reasons, and in 2000 declared Burzum to be dead. He then proceeded to lay low for the next four years until earlier this year when he tried to flee Norway after not returning from a day-release program. There are conflicting stories as to why he did this, especially since he was going to be getting a reduction in his sentence for good behavior (if you can believe it). In one version, he wanted to go to Russia and fight against Chechan Muslims. In another, he wrote a letter to his mother in which he claimed he feared for his safety following an attempt on his life in jail. And then there's the idea that he was just plain old sick of being in prison. Make of it what you will.
Hlidskjalf 1999, Misanthropy Records
- Tuistos Herz
- Der Tod Wuotans
- Die Liebe Nerþus'
- Frijôs Einsames Trauern
- Frijôs Goldene Tränen
- Der Weinende Hadnur
These are the translations provided by Vikernes:
- Tuisto's Heart
- The Death of Wuotan
- Nerthus's Love
- The Lonesome Mourning Of Frijo
- The Power Of Empathy
- Frijo's Golden Tears
- The Crying Hadnur