Burzum: From Bergen’s Shadows to Black Metal Legend

Varg Vikernes, under the banner of Burzum, not only defined the essence of early Norwegian black metal but also stirred a controversy that continues to echo in the genre’s legacy.

Varg Vikernes (Burzum)
Key Takeaways
  • Burzum profoundly influenced the early Norwegian black metal scene with a unique blend of fantasy and darkness, inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien and various metal influences​​.
  • Burzum’s music, characterized by its diversity and minimalist soundscapes, combined black metal, dark ambient, and neo-medieval elements, with Vikernes as the sole creative force behind the project​​.
  • Following his arrest and imprisonment in 1994, Vikernes continued to create music under the Burzum name, shifting to dark ambient styles and synthesizer-based compositions due to the constraints of prison life​​.

Vikernes’ Early Musical Endeavors

The story of Burzum, a pivotal entity in the black metal scene, begins with Varg Vikernes and his foray into guitar playing at the age of 14. Born and raised in Bergen, Norway, Vikernes found himself in a city that would later emerge as a crucial hub for the black metal movement. His early interactions with the guitar set the stage for what would become a significant musical journey.

Vikernes’ initiation into music with Kalashnikov and Old Funeral laid the foundation for his future influence in black metal.

Vikernes’ initial venture into the music world was through the formation of his first band, Kalashnikov, around 1989. The band was later renamed Uruk-Hai, a nod to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”. This early connection to Tolkien’s works went beyond the band’s name; it influenced Vikernes’s later work, including his pseudonym and the eventual naming of Burzum. The influence of Tolkien’s mythological landscapes can be seen as a precursor to the thematic elements that would later permeate Burzum’s music.

Around the same time, Vikernes joined Old Funeral, another emerging band in the Norwegian extreme metal scene. His stint with Old Funeral, spanning from 1989 to 1991, saw him collaborating with future members of Immortal. During his time with the band, Vikernes contributed to multiple tracks featured on the “Devoured Carcass” EP, as well as on various compilation albums released later. This period with Old Funeral was marked by significant musical development and experimentation, laying the groundwork for his future endeavors.

In 1991, a pivotal shift occurred as Vikernes left Old Funeral to pursue his own musical visions. This decision led to the founding of Burzum, his solo project, which would soon play a pivotal role in shaping the early Norwegian black metal scene. The creation of Burzum marked a significant departure from his earlier band involvements, providing Vikernes the space to fully explore and express his unique musical and thematic ideas. Burzum’s inception represented not just the birth of a new musical project but the crystallization of Vikernes’ artistic identity.

Burzum’s Inception

In 1991, a significant shift occurred in the musical journey of Varg Vikernes. He left Old Funeral to concentrate on his own projects, driven by a desire for complete creative control and the exploration of his unique ideas. This decision led to the founding of Burzum in the same year, a project that would become a cornerstone in the early Norwegian black metal scene.

Burzum, founded in 1991 by Varg Vikernes, emerged as a pivotal force in black metal, reflecting his unique blend of fantasy and darkness.

The name Burzum, inspired by the Black Speech from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” meaning “darkness,” reflected Vikernes’ fascination with fantasy, mythology, and the darker aspects of these narratives. Burzum’s music, characterized by its diversity, weaves together black metal, dark ambient, neofolk, and neo-medieval music into a minimalist and dark soundscape. The project’s distinctive sound featured repetitive and simple song structures, creating a unique auditory experience.

Varg Vikernes, the sole creative force behind Burzum, described his music as a form of “spell” or a recreation of an imaginary world linked to Pagan history. Each album was designed to draw the listener progressively into a trance-like state, ultimately transporting them into a world of fantasy. This approach underscored the depth and complexity of Vikernes’ artistic vision, blending music with narrative and atmosphere.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s influence on Vikernes was profound, as seen in his early moniker “Count Grishnackh,” taken from a character in Tolkien’s novels, and in the name Burzum itself. Vikernes’ approach to music was also shaped by various influences outside the black metal genre. The German thrash metal band Destruction had a significant impact on his approach to playing music. Albums like “Blood Fire Death” by Bathory and “Morbid Tales” by Celtic Frost were instrumental in shaping Burzum’s sound. Additionally, the non-metal influence of Dead Can Dance’s “Within the Realm of a Dying Sun” played a role in the project’s musical direction.

The first four Burzum albums, recorded between January 1992 and March 1993, showcased Vikernes’ unconventional and minimalist approach. He often used basic equipment and low-fidelity production, which became a hallmark of early black metal. This period was marked by a raw and unfiltered expression of his musical ideas, setting a new standard in the genre.

Early Discography

The early albums of Burzum, played a crucial role in shaping the sound and aesthetic of the early black metal scene. Each album, distinct in its style and production, contributed significantly to the genre’s development.

Vikernes’ first four albums under Burzum showcased a progressive development in black metal, combining raw production with thematic depth.

“Burzum” marked Vikernes’ debut studio album. After gaining attention from Mayhem’s Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth, Burzum was signed to the label Deathlike Silence Productions. Released in 1992, it was the second album on the label. Notably, the song “War” featured a guitar solo by Euronymous, adding a unique element to the album. This debut set the tone for Burzum’s signature sound and established Vikernes as a notable figure in the black metal community.

“Det som engang var”, Burzum’s second album, was recorded in 1992 and released in 1993. Continuing the raw production style and minimalist approach of his debut, this album further solidified Burzum’s distinctive sound within the black metal genre. The album’s title, translating to “What Once Was,” hinted at the nostalgic and mythical themes that pervaded Vikernes’ work.

“Hvis lyset tar oss”, released in 1994, comprised material previously recorded in 1992. This album continued to demonstrate Vikernes’s evolving style and was one of the last recordings he made before his imprisonment. Its title, meaning “If the Light Takes Us,” reflected the deepening exploration of philosophical and existential themes in his music.

“Filosofem”, recorded in March 1993 and released in 1996 while Vikernes was in prison, is often considered among his most influential works. This album was characterized by its experimental use of sound and production techniques, including the use of a headset mic for vocals, contributing to its unique and raw sound. “Filosofem” stood out for its atmospheric and introspective qualities, marking a departure from the more aggressive style of earlier black metal works.

These albums played a significant role in defining the early black metal scene. Vikernes’s approach to recording and production, coupled with his thematic focus on fantasy and Norse mythology, set a precedent for the genre that would influence countless artists in the years to follow. His work during this period exemplified the essence of early black metal’s ethos: raw, unrefined, and fiercely independent.

The Prison Albums

Varg Vikernes’ arrest and subsequent imprisonment in 1994 for the murder of Mayhem guitarist Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth and church arsons in Norway marked a turning point in his life and musical career. Despite the constraints of imprisonment, Vikernes continued his creative pursuits, resulting in two significant albums under the Burzum name.

Facing limitations in prison, Vikernes’ shift to dark ambient music with Burzum reflected adaptability and a persistent creative spirit.

During his incarceration, Vikernes recorded two dark ambient albums, “Dauði Baldrs” and “Hliðskjálf”. This period represented a notable shift in his musical style, primarily due to the limitations imposed on him in prison. Deprived of traditional instruments, Vikernes turned to synthesizers, which allowed him to explore different soundscapes within his confined environment.

Both albums were created entirely using synthesized instruments, marking a considerable departure from Burzum’s earlier black metal albums, which featured a full range of traditional metal instruments. The synthesizers enabled Vikernes to venture into new musical territories, adapting his artistic expression to the resources available to him in prison.

For the recording of “Hliðskjálf,” Vikernes faced the additional challenge of being allowed access to a keyboard and recording device for only one week. This constraint required him to be exceptionally focused and efficient in his creative process, a testament to his determination to continue producing music under difficult circumstances.

These prison albums marked a departure from the black metal genre, moving towards a dark ambient style. The minimalist and atmospheric qualities of this style were well-suited to the equipment and conditions available to Vikernes in prison. Despite the change in musical direction, these albums continued to reflect the essence of Burzum’s earlier works. They maintained an atmospheric and evocative quality, embodying the spirit of Burzum in a new form.

Burzum’s Recording Techniques

Varg Vikernes’ approach to recording the first four Burzum albums between 1992 and 1993 exemplifies the DIY ethos that was prevalent in the early black metal scene. His use of equipment and recording techniques was instrumental in forging the raw and atmospheric sound that Burzum is renowned for.

Vikernes’ minimalistic and lo-fi recording methods played a pivotal role in defining the raw aesthetic of Burzum music.

Vikernes’ recording methods were marked by minimalism and a disregard for high-fidelity production, crucial in defining the aesthetic of black metal. These techniques influenced many other artists in the genre, establishing a sound that valued atmosphere and mood over technical precision.

For the recording of the “Burzum” album, Vikernes used a 10w Marshall practice amp. Despite its modesty, this amp was key in achieving the raw, unrefined sound characteristic of early black metal recordings. This choice highlighted the genre’s focus on raw emotional expression rather than technical sophistication.

During the recording of “Filosofem,” Vikernes employed fuzz pedals plugged into a hi-fi stereo for guitar tracks, further emphasizing the lo-fi, raw sound that Burzum became known for. This unorthodox recording setup contributed significantly to the unique tonal quality of the album, distinguishing it from more conventional black metal recordings.

On later albums like “Belus” and “Fallen,” Vikernes used looped drum parts instead of recording whole drum tracks. This method not only saved time but also added to the music’s repetitive and hypnotic nature, enhancing the atmospheric quality that Burzum’s music often evokes.

In his later work, Vikernes adopted digital recording tools like GarageBand for recording albums. This shift demonstrates his willingness to embrace new technologies while maintaining the project’s essential sound and spirit. It reflects an evolution in his approach to music production, balancing traditional black metal sensibilities with the possibilities offered by modern technology.

Post-Prison Era and Beyond

After his release from prison, Varg Vikernes continued to produce music under the Burzum name, marking a significant era in the project’s history with several notable releases.

Vikernes’ post-prison era under Burzum saw a return to black metal and an exploration of new musical territories.

“Belus”, Vikernes began working on new tracks for this album shortly after his release, initially titled “Den hvite guden” (The White God). Released on 8 March 2010 by Byelobog Productions, “Belus” marked Burzum’s return to the black metal scene after an 11-year hiatus. This album signified a revival of Vikernes’ musical journey and Burzum’s ongoing influence in the genre.

“Fallen”, released on 7 March 2011, “Fallen” was the second album of new material post-incarceration. This release was followed by “From the Depths of Darkness,” a compilation album containing re-recordings from Burzum’s earlier works, released on 28 November 2011. These albums showcased a continuation of the evolving Burzum sound.

“Umskiptar”, released in May 2012, “Umskiptar” was Vikernes’ third studio album of original material post-incarceration. This album continued to showcase the evolving sound of Burzum, reflecting a blend of the project’s black metal roots and new musical directions.

“Sôl austan, Mâni vestan”, released in May 2013, this album marked Burzum’s first electronic album since 1999, demonstrating Vikernes’s versatility and willingness to explore different musical styles. The shift to an electronic sound indicated a continual exploration and reinvention of Burzum’s musical identity.

“The Ways of Yore”, released in June 2014, “The Ways of Yore” expanded Burzum’s musical horizons further, exploring neofolk and ambient elements. This album continued the trend of Vikernes pushing the boundaries of his musical expression.

In June 2018, Vikernes announced that he had “moved on” from Burzum, indicating an end to the project. This announcement seemed to mark the conclusion of a long and influential chapter in the history of black metal.

Despite his earlier announcement, Vikernes released “Thulêan Mysteries” on 13 March 2020. Initially stated as Burzum’s final album, this release included 23 songs and was intended to serve as background music for Vikernes’s MYFAROG role-playing game, blending his musical and gaming interests.

Contrary to his previous statement about ending Burzum, Vikernes released a new song titled “The Reincarnation of Ódinn” on 8th September 2023, marking a revival of the Burzum project. This release suggested a continued evolution and perhaps a new phase in the Burzum saga.

Influencing the Black Metal Genre

Varg Vikernes’ transition to Burzum allowed him to pioneer a style in black metal that was not only musically groundbreaking but also thematically rich. His compositions were a blend of Norse mythology and fantasy, elements that added depth and narrative to the music, setting Burzum apart from contemporaries in the genre.

Vikernes, through Burzum, crafted a fusion of sound and story that profoundly influenced the black metal genre’s evolution and thematic depth.

Burzum rapidly became a staple of the early Norwegian black metal scene and is recognized as one of the most influential acts in the history of the black metal genre. The impact of Vikernes’s work with Burzum extended far beyond the Norwegian borders, influencing the development and perception of black metal on an international scale. His approach to music production, blending raw sound with atmospheric and mythical themes, set a new benchmark in the genre, inspiring countless artists and shaping the direction of black metal music.

Vikernes’s work in Burzum reshaped the landscape of black metal, contributing not just a distinctive sound but also a rich thematic tapestry that has continued to inspire musicians and fans alike. The legacy of Burzum is evident in the many bands that have followed in its footsteps, adopting and adapting its unique blend of musical intensity and mythological storytelling.