In a genre that thrives on controversy and provocation, there is no more polarizing figure in heavy metal than Burzum's Varg Vikernes. From his conviction for murder (of his own bandmate) and church arson, to his flirtations with fascist and white supremacist ideology, Vikernes has become something akin to Charles Manson in the Norwegian popular imagination. Given the notoriety of its sole member, Burzum's music is almost impossible to judge independently of the man who made it. It's more a sonic Rorschach test. Are you so revolted by Varg the violent criminal that you dismiss his music out of hand as amateurish, repetitive, and poorly produced? Or do you take the contrarian route and hear Varg the anti-hero, gloss over the real-world consequences of his actions, and praise those same musical "flaws" as raw, hypnotic virtues? Would Burzum's music have become influential in its own right, based on its own intrinsic qualities, or would it have drawn any audience at all if not for the tabloid sensationalism surrounding it? The one thing that is clear, much as Vikernes' many personal detractors are loathe to admit, is that Burzum has indeed proven to be a key influence on a whole new generation of black metal bands. That influence rests largely on two albums, Hvis Lyset Tar Oss and Filosofem; although both are marked by epic peaks and self-indulgent experiments, Hvis Lyset Tar Oss boasts a higher percentage of peaks, including the classic opener "Det Som Engang Var." As such, it's the best encapsulation of Vikernes' fascination with mixing atmosphere into black metal's extreme sonics. Devotees view everything here as adding to that atmosphere: the cold synth backgrounds, the long songs and repetitive riffing, the lo-fi anti-production, Varg's hoarsely shrieked vocals, the 14 minutes of ambient keyboard noodling that closes the album. Despite his own technical limitations, Vikernes played all the instruments himself, and recorded the album on the cheapest equipment he could find, oddly enough more for aesthetic than financial reasons. Is it worth the effort to assimilate music that deliberately throws up this many roadblocks? The answer must be yes, since all of those elements are actually keys to the album's lasting influence. Simply put, for black metal neophytes still honing their craft, this is music that can be learned and replicated on an extremely tight budget. That's why Hvis Lyset Tar Oss ended up a much bigger influence on the subgenre of atmospheric black metal than Emperor, despite -- or because of -- that band's superior musical technique and production. And like Emperor's early work, this album inspired a good deal of richly inventive music, from atmospheric American bands like Weakling and Wolves in the Throne Room to folk-influenced Eastern European acts like Drudkh and Negura Bunget (who also copied Vikernes' obsession with local pre-Christian culture). The viability of Vikernes' one-man band format here also helped make lo-fi black metal the ultimate musical vehicle for the solitary misanthrope, spawning a host of bedroom projects across Europe and America. So in the end, like it or not, Hvis Lyset Tar Oss belongs in the same company as early black metal landmarks In the Nightside Eclipse, A Blaze in the Northern Sky, Bergtatt, and Storm of the Light's Bane. ~ Steve Huey
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