BURZUM — Filosofem (review)

BURZUM — Filosofem album cover Album · 1996 · Atmospheric Black Metal Buy this album from MMA partners
4.5/5 ·
Conor Fynes
'Filosofem' - Burzum (91/100)

"Do you think Filosofem and Hvis lyset tar oss would be considered masterpieces if they were released this year?" I asked a friend of mine a month or so ago. My experience with Burzum up until that point had been remarkably shallow, and the single-serving listens I'd given some of Vikernes' best-known songs had not done a lot to convince me the music had earned its status without the help of some over-discussed arsons and/or stabbing party that happened in Norway some years ago.

"Yeah I do," he replied; "The music has a timeless quality to it." Another friend noted Filosofem as the perfect embodiment of 'cold' atmosphere. I'm glad I've known folk who could interpret and experience this music outside the bounds of sensationalism; experiencing Filosofem has been a long time coming for me, and it's with self-admitted regret that I've let a monument like this pass me by for so long.

First off; it has been a nagging pet peeve to read review after review of Burzum's music that tries to separate an appreciation of the music with the ideas behind its making, much less the man himself. You see this kind of pussyfooting whenever someone's talking about an unfashionably right-wing group but it's never so pronounced as it is with Burzum. The appeal of mystically-inclined ambient black metal is arguably wider than Varg's politik, but a willingness to explore the music without opening oneself to the ideas behind the work is to miss an essential part of the point. Filosofem wears its intention in the very title; this album is a manifest philosophy, and though the music and lyrics don't touch upon the political specifics of his Odalist pro-racial agenda, that intent seeps through every minute of Filosofem.

Possibly moreso than any black metal album I've heard, Filosofem truly evokes a longing for an ancient past. For music crafted with the most minimalist, simple and repeated ingredients, the atmosphere is richly evocative; it is as if the music was robbed from another time, real or imagined. I do not believe Filosofem would be felt so powerfully, did Varg not feel so powerfully about his vision for a pure(r) Norway. Atmosphere in music is often intangible; it is as hard to replicate as it is to properly write about. In Burzum's case, Varg Vikernes managed to create an incredible (and, indeed, timeless) palette of sound with the seemingly laziest elements at his disposal. Foregoing the use of proper microphones or even a proper amplifier (the guitar tone was brought about using distortion pedals plugged into his brother's stereo) he created a sound that's all too easy to become lost in. Compare that to the tens-of-thousands of hours of mindless bedroom demos that have spawned forth since. Some of them might be decently imagined, but it's not likely any manage to spurn a session of contemplating your own philosophies in life. Filosofem manages to do this, and more.

Though it's easy to confuse his musical priorities with laziness, his tactical use of keyboards in his music enforces the notion of Varg as a brilliant composer. For one of the simplest motifs you'll ever hear in music, the brooding three/four note keyboard overlay on "Dunkelheit (Burzum)" is instantly and greatly memorable. Varg has a penchant for these hook-bearing 'earworms' that you almost never hear in an atmospheric or ambient context. "Jesu død" is just as impactful a track as the first without help of keys at all, with little more than a few repetitive guitar riffs to see it through. How Burzum's best work manages to do so much with so little is virtually indecipherable on an academic, objective level. It is music that can, must, and will be felt by whomever listens to it.

The sense of Filosofem doing intense things to the psyche with so few concrete ideas is best represented in "Rundtgåing av den transcendentale egenhetens støtte", the album's twenty-five minute centrepiece, and apparently still the thing most listeners (outside of the PC whiners) have the toughest time grappling with. As a fan of progressive music long before I came into black metal, I instantly loved how Vikernes' ambient music sounds so close to the Berlin School of electronic music, in the minimalist vein of Klaus Schulze or Tangerine Dream. The first half builds up a single motif; the second half is spent dwindling it down.

Of course, that brief description tells little of the way it affects the spirit while listening to it. "Rundtgåing av den transcendentale egenhetens støtte" feels both like a denouement to the 'metal' side of the album and climax in its own right. As a composer and musician, Vikernes' work on Filosofem is defined by how he economizes the use of ideas, and this 25 minute sprawl stands as a definitive realization of that intent. Bookended by parts one and two of "Decrepitude" (which seems to bridge the gap stylistically between the black metal and full ambient chunks of the album) the album's sequence doesn't place it as an afterthought so much as a full-bodied other part of the music that should be regarded just as intently as the three-or-so songs people are originally coming for. In a sense, Vikernes was already recognizing the close-mindedness of the lion's share of the black metal scene and was already playing against it pre-emptively.

Though the ambient centre of the album does seem to go between five and ten minutes longer than might have been optimal for atmosphere's sake, Filosofem still sounds bold and relevant. Even today, there are so few artists that decide to fuck what all others think or will think of their art. I don't get the impression Varg's artistic choices were done as a way to seem 'cool' so much as the behaviour of some of the Second Wave's other star players... He simply felt something deeply to the point that it defined him as a person, and he possessed the musical talent to bring that psychic energy into the material world with his music. I'll say again; those who wish to avert their fragile eyes away from the essential meaning of what he was trying to say are losing sight of what this music is really about. Without feeling something so specific so strongly, the supposedly 'universal' atmosphere here would not have existed to begin with.
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