Burzum: Heart of Darkness
Originally published in Guitar World, April 2010
Burzum’s Varg Vikernes has disowned the Norwegian black metal genre he helped create in the Nineties. After an absence of more than 15 years, he’s back with a new album that takes his musical vision deeper into the abyss.
In 1991, 18-year-old guitarist Varg Vikernes founded one of Norwegian black metal’s most important bands upon a simple, yet powerful, platform: to bring darkness into the world. Vikernes’ ambitious musical pursuits and extreme, anti-Christian ideology quickly placed him and his band, Burzum, at the heart of Oslo’s burgeoning scene, which also included bands like Mayhem, Immortal, Darkthrone and Emperor.
But over the next couple years, Vikernes’ dark intentions grew beyond his art. He turned to violent crime, activities that culminated in 1993 when he burned several churches and murdered the scene’s figurehead, and his one-time friend, Euronymous, who was the guitarist for Mayhem. The following year, Vikernes was convicted of these crimes and sentenced to 21 years in prison.
In May 2009, after serving more than 15 years of his term, Vikernes was released. He remains unrepentant of his crime, and his time in prison has done nothing to dim his musical vision, a fact made clear on his new album, Belus. If anything, he has an even greater sense of purpose, purity and creative hunger than when he began, which has resulted in his split from the black metal community. “I am no friend of the modern so-called ‘black metal’ culture,” Vikernes wrote on his web site in November 2009. “It is a tasteless, lowbrow parody of Norwegian black metal circa 1991–92, and if it was up to me it would meet its dishonorable end as soon as possible. However, rather than abandon my own music, only because others have soiled its name by claiming to have something in common with it, I will stick to it.”
Vikernes’ musical history reaches back to the mid Eighties, when the guitarist was in his early teens. “Until I was around 12 or 13, I only listened to classical music, mostly Tchaikovsky,” he says. “But around that age I started listening to Iron Maiden, and that’s when I purchased my first guitar, a pearl-white Westone.” Maiden’s classic dual-guitar attack and epic songs soon inspired Vikernes to seek out heavier and more extreme metal, such as Kreator, Celtic Frost, Bathory, Destruction and Megadeth, which he played in endless rotation on his stereo for the next several years. “My scope was rather narrow,” the guitarist says. “But my biggest inspiration was always early Iron Maiden, because it was the only band I knew for some time, and, as we all know, Iron Maiden is great.”
Kreator, Destruction and Megadeth helped feed Vikernes’ love of thrash, but it was the nefarious themes, gritty production and dramatic imagery of black metal first-wavers Bathory, Celtic Frost and Venom (whose 1982 album Black Metal effectively named the genre) that eventually inspired him (along with other second-wave black metal contemporaries Mayhem, Darkthrone, Emperor and Immortal) to take the genre to new artistic heights, and dangerous illicit lows.
But first, the guitarist had more thrashing to do. Around 1988, Vikernes formed his first band, the classic-thrash-inspired Kalashnikov, which later changed its name to Uruk-Hai, reflecting his affinity for Middle Earth role-playing games and the evil Orc creatures from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings fantasy novel. After a year playing thrash metal in Uruk-Hai, Vikernes moved on to join the local Bergen, Norway, death metal band Old Funeral, which also included future Immortal members Abbath and Demonaz. The guitarist appeared on their Devoured Carcass EP, but left in 1991 after becoming frustrated with the constraints of their straightforward style, which featured stock death metal elements such as palm-muted, tremolo-picked guitars, guttural vocals and relentless double-kick drumming.
At the time, the death metal of U.S. bands like Morbid Angel, Death and Deicide had grown. No longer a stateside underground phenomenon, it had become the style du jour among extreme metalheads throughout Norway. While many musicians welcomed this upsurge with open arms and saw the potential to create a strong scene, Vikernes wanted nothing to do with it. “The main objective was to be anti-trend,” he says, “and to show all the trendy death metal bands out there—and at the time there were a lot of them—that it could actually be done differently.”