Tuesday, November 29, 2011

True Black Metal Part III: The Background to Burzum

Since Noktorn and I have just done several lengthy posts on the spirit of black metal and where it needs to go as a genre, I thought it was high time for another installment in my old "True Black Metal" series. The goal of these posts is to highlight undeservedly forgotten strains of sound from the classic period of the Second Wave, favorite bands of mine that represent what the genre should be all about. In Part I and Part II I focused on what I loosely call the "sturm und drang" school of black metal, bands like Kvist, Sorhin, and Sacramentum that blended Romantic aesthetics with ferocious, high-speed aggression. Now, I'd like to direct your attention to another really cool side of the early Scandinavian underground.

In the pantheon of major Norwegian bands from the early 90s, Burzum stands on its own. While you can trace some of Varg's guitar style to the demos by Thorns, none of the other big names were doing anything similar--Varg emphasized atmosphere over pure power, dense harmonic texture over straight-ahead riffage, steady mid-tempos over charging punk beats and blasting. Over the years Burzum has become synonymous with this "sylvan" approach to black metal, which supplies the soundtrack to solitary wanderings through the woods (and, sometimes, bloody primal warfare).

But while Burzum was the first band working in this style, it was only the best-known of a small family of bands with similar musical and thematic interests. And these other bands were also really cool! Most interesting, none of them really sound like Burzum in the way that legions of pagan, depressive, and NS bands do today. They didn't have the same "sound," but they were certainly on the same brooding, pagan trip. Here are three of them.

Perhaps you've heard of Hades, but you've probably never heard them. They were part of the Inner Circle, so "inner" that songwriter Jorn even joined Varg for at least one of his church-burning raids, but they've largely been written out of the history books. Everything they released is awesome, but this one track sums it up. "Alone Walkyng" may be the definitive mid-tempo black metal song, churning along with uncanny momentum and grim intent. After a brilliant intro, shit gets real at 00:50. Janto's vocals roar in over the drums with animal ferocity. This is the kind of performance that was unique to the early Second Wave--a guy whose every breath is filled with burning hatred, and who really doesn't give a shit what happens to his vocal chords.

But the track's ominous power depends equally on Jorn's songwriting underneath. Hades' mastery of repetition is on par with Burzum's. The song's core riff is the kind of long, elegant, fully-developed musical "sentence" that most bands don't even attempt writing, and everything else springs forth from it with absolute necessity, whether expanding on it or offering a contrast. What else would you put in this song? Pay attention to the inspired lead playing starting at 2:42, which reminds me a lot of early Cure, and to the awesome variation on a classic "epic" riff that they drop at 3:57.

Forgotten Woods were clearly influenced by Burzum, especially in the drawn-out shrieking vocals, but totally did their own thing. Their first album, As The Wolves Gather, is awesome, but I'm even more into the following EP, Sjel Av Natten, where their idiosyncratic sound is more fully realized. "Hvor Winteren Rar" is brilliantly sequenced, a real musical journey to its snarling climax. Just listen to the first three riffs--a majestic melody formed by picked arpeggios, a blasting section featuring their signature descending tremolo riffs, and then a stomping, triumphant mid-tempo groove that sets the pace for most of the rest of the track. In this last riff, especially, it's obvious that Forgotten Woods are really into goth rock and Oi! punk, but instead of wearing those influences on their sleeves for novelty they've completely translated them into somber, savage black metal.

Aeternus are a massive band who are massively underrated, and also stupidly misclassified as black/death or "dark metal." In my book, their early stuff stands alongside the very best black metal ever released. Aeternus rapidly developed a perfect synthesis of ghostly pagan atmosphere and skull-crushing fury, but their Dark Sorcery demo definitely belongs more on the ambient side of things. This track, "Victory," will loom over your consciousness like a solid wall of black clouds. It flows by like a dream, propelled by fuzzed-out guitar harmonics that suggest a pretty strong link to Burzum.

But what's really cool is that it's still heavy as hell. For one thing, the drummer lays down some seriously martial beats, and absolutely slays with those double-bass fills. For another thing, the guitars are downtuned, kind of like early Emperor. I've always wondered why scooped and spiky has become the norm--I find this kind of thing more powerful, and a lot easier to listen to. Ares' growls are the howling of the Lord of The Wind himself, and the backing gang vocals are the wild hunting cries of warrior souls following him through the sky. Hail!


  1. I absolutely love FORGOTTEN WOODS. "As the Wolves Gather," "Sjel Av Natten," and "The Curse of Mankind" are brilliant albums. One of my very favorite bands. Pure dark moonlit night cold winds of isolation and sadness. Stalked by feral shape-shifters.

  2. Fuck yeah. It's definitely sorrowful, but I also think songs like "Sjel Av Natten" have a kind of ecstasy to them! The full-length is more uniformly bleak, I guess. I actually downloaded that one from your blog, on your recommendation. So cheers!