DB HOF NO. 75
The making of Burzum’s “Filosofem”
In 1993, Burzum mastermind and sole member Varg “Count Grishnackh” Vikernes both embodied Norwegian black metal’s violent strain of pagan nihilism and sought to defy the genre’s increasingly stultifying conventions. In March of that year, he recorded Filosofem, one of the most captivating and influential black metal albums ever committed to tape. Unlike much of the black metal that was being created at the time, Burzum’s fourth full-length and fifth overall release wasn’t so much a feral outcropping of youthful rebellion as it was an ultra-hypnotic meditation on what Vikernes says was his own inner despair. How this despair played out may or may not have been a factor in Vikernes’ subsequent murder of his former friend, Mayhem bandmate and label boss Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth, but that’s exactly what happened less than five months after Filosofem’s completion. As a result, the album wasn’t released until early 1996, when Vikernes had already been incarcerated for nearly two years. For fans on the outside, it was worth the wait.
Opener “Burzum,” generally known by its German title, “Dunkelheit” (“Darkness” in English), follows in an excellent tradition of eponymous metal songs—Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath,” Angel Witch’s “Angel Witch,” Iron Maiden’s “Iron Maiden”—in that it has become emblematic of the respective band’s sound, an unintentional mission statement of sorts. But while both Sabbath and Maiden have certainly produced more popular songs and better albums than the self-titled debuts on which their eponymous tracks appear, “Burzum”/ “Dunkelheit” is arguably the definitive Burzum track, and Filosofem is the ultimate Burzum album. Filosofem also came to define black metal while sounding almost nothing like the work of fellow Norwegian progenitors Mayhem, Darkthrone, Emperor and Immortal.
Purposely recorded with some of the shittiest equipment available, the album’s six songs exude a deeply narcotic effect. Hypnotic, mesmerizing, trance-inducing—all such adjectives apply to Filosofem’s pinging synth, humming bass and buzzing guitar tones. Even Vikernes’ otherworldly vocals seem to emanate from the thick barbiturate ether of a primordial Scandinavian landscape. While “Dunkelheit,” “Jesus’ Tod” (“Jesus’ Death”) and “Beholding the Daughters of the Firmament” inculcated hordes of corpsepaint commandos and laid much of the foundation for the isolationist black metal movement that followed (Leviathan, Xasthur, etc.), songs like “Rundtgåing av den Transcendentale Egenhetensstøtte” and “Decrepitude II” invoked the electronic astral-traveling of Tangerine Dream or Vangelis, and even foreshadowed some of the more minimalist work of Scottish electronic duo Boards of Canada.
Conducted during a lengthy series of email exchanges with Vikernes that partly resulted in our May 2010 Burzum cover story, what follows is the latest induction into Decibel’s Hall of Fame.
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