By Count Alucalb

Recently I re-established contact with an old friend whom I hadn’t talked to in nearly twenty years.  As often happens, music became a topic of conversation, with my friend both surprised and curious about my relatively recent interest in extreme metal. His curiosity has led us to an exchange of knowledge, with him sending me avant-garde jazz recommendations while I've introduced him to black, doom and other harsh sounds. One of his strongest reactions came when I played himFallen, the new opus from Varg Vikernes’s notorious solo project Burzum.

“Well, this was really surprising,” said my friend after listening to several cuts, “from what I was reading about this guy's past, I was expecting music that would make me want to punch a kitten in the fucking face.”  “But what I got on first listen was rock'n'roll, basically.  I mean those guitars wouldn't be too out of place on an old Gang of Four album or what not, right? Maybe I’m missing out on the evil by not understanding the Norwegian lyrics?” This reaction might seem surprising to the die-hard metal audience, but when I listened to Fallen again, I understood what my friend was hearing. The baggage and mythology surrounding Varg’s past fueled the genesis of black metal but this has obscured both his fans and detractors ability to see the man’s imagination and skill as musician.

Fallen is both more melodic and more stripped-down than his first post incarceration offering Belus. Vikernes has not been shy in expressing his disinterest in the state of contemporary black metal and today is far more likely to reference gothy post-punk acts like The Cure and Dead Can Dance than Bathory or Celtic Frost. The Gang of Four/Killing Joke-style guitars my friend heard are certainly there but put to sophisticated and idiosyncratic song structures.  Varg has no desire to repeat himself or to create black metal by the numbers.

 Thus, the risks he takes pay off; even the cleaner vocal style used on the track Valen works. Vikernes has stressed the importance of the production on Fallen, saying that he mixed the album as though it was classical music instead of nasty lo-fi blackness. The sound is by the far the most expressive and dynamic yet, creating a breed of “symphonic black metal” that dispenses with cheesy synthetic strings while retaining the aggressiveness that all good metal requires.

Anyone who thinks that Burzum’s reputation is more hype and image than substance clearly hasn’t been listening.