Tolerating the intolerent

The most shocking thing about the recent news that Burzum’s Varg Vikernes is going to be released from a Norwegian prison in the near future isn’t so much the music he’ll make once he’s out, the actions he might take (what with his ties to Neo-Nazi groups and such), or even the crime that put him in Der Biggenhaus to begin with (stabbing a dude more than 20 times– a few of those stabs in the head). No, it’s that you can stab another guy 20+ times, be paroled once then be promptly brought back to jail after going AWOL and being caught with a bunch of knives (which Varg did a few years ago), and still get out of your 21 year jail sentence 5 years early in Norway! Mr. Vikernes’ crime would be pretty extreme here– certainly enough to earn him a life sentence or a trip to the gas chamber or… injection bench– in my Country of Origin, and the dude would never see the light of day again had the aforementioned AWOL incident happened during parole. One would hope the man has matured enough not to horribly injure and/or kill anyone in the foreseeable future, and I can’t figure out if Norway’s faith in the goodness of man is endearing or infuriating. (I’m leaning toward the latter, though a lifetime of fatalism and cynicism has a whole lot to do with that.)


My biggest issue with Varg and Burzum– one and the same, in that the former is the only member of the latter– is properly distributing the significance between the man’s horrible beliefs and actions as a younger man and his sizable contributions to the world of black metal. Burzum are a part of the Unholy Four of True Norwegian Black Metal, along with Mayhem, Emperor, and Darkthrone, and their influence is perhaps the most heavily weighed upon in the four. While Mayhem’s sloppy almost-punk approach paved the way, Emperor’s regal flourishes gave it a nice coat of polish, and Darkthrone made it nice and dirty again, Burzum’s claim to fame were those sad, morose, buzzsaw guitar arpeggios that inform both the basement-recording one man bands (whose approach and desire to record by themselves was no doubt a fire lit by Varg) and the more weighty elements of Nachtmystium, Krallice, and Wolves in the Throne Room (among many others both in and not in America) are rooted firmly in Burzum’s raw yet rich stylings. And yet, the one man responsible for them is an adamant racist and anti-Semite that stabbed a man to death over a business dispute (though he claims the attack was preemptive), not to mention the church burnings. Like the Sex Pistols, Burzum (along with Darkthrone) represents everything that’s come to be viewed negatively (and, due to the extreme nature of the elements, rightfully so) about black metal: Nazi fetishism, the hypocrisy of fighting against the church’s oppression by pressing one’s heathenist views upon it, and, of course, corpsepaint and raspy vocals with the occasional demo that sounds like it was recorded via a boombox with a sock over it. Varg Vikernes was perhaps black metal’s Sid Vicious, even if he was astronomically more talented than the man (read: any talent at all).


Burzum’s music was always dangerous, though. Hatecore and other music written by and for racists always had the wonderful handicap of being boring, derivative hardcore with lyrics about racial holy wars or white power or whatever. But Burzum and the so called NSBM (National Socialist Black Metal, a subgenre of the subgenre of black metal) bands that cropped up later on were creating a new kind of music, seemingly rooted in hate and prejudice. And though I agree with many that to dismiss black metal as nothing but the music of racists and exclusively for whites is horribly ignorant, Varg doesn’t necessarily make our argument easy. In fact, I avoided Burzum until about a year ago because his personal views so differed from mine. Though I’m unaware of any Burzum Classic songs that are about white power or genocide (though there are probably more than a few anti-Christian numbers, calling out a metal band for being anti-Christian is like putting out a hit on an ant), the fact that it may have been there– and Burzum did move on to be an ambient music act later on, mainly due to Varg’s realization that black metal was rooted in rock and roll which was created by *gasp* black people but also due to the fact that the prison wouldn’t allow him to make and record music anymore– was always off-putting enough. I heard them a few times in passing, and recognized the influence in many of my favorite black metal bands (Xasthur is essentially the American remake of Burzum), but never sought them out. They remained taboo to me. Of course, that eventually changed.


In an almost completely overmatched comparison, Richard Wagner– the brilliant composer who, on top of being the most respected and influential figure in music since Beethoven at that point, served almost solely as the bridge between the Romantic and Modern eras– was a raving anti-Semite in his personal life, to the degree where Hitler regularly employed the music of Wagner for rallies, parades, and so forth. And yet, Wagner’s operas were never ABOUT anti-Semitism, but Norse mythology and all the other crap people wrote Romantic operas about. To dismiss Wagner because he was an anti-Semite is ridiculous, as his music serves as an important and substantial base in much of the music we enjoy today, even outside of the classical realm (though I don’t excuse him for hating Jews because “everyone else did at the time!”, and have always found that a bogus explanation for being a fucking bigot). And, to a much lesser extent, it’d be silly to simply ignore Burzum simply because it was composed of an angry, silly, hateful, pasty kid in his twenties. So, I checked the band out about a year ago after flip-flopping, and felt slightly guilty even as the albums were downloading. And the results, unsurprisingly, were middling!


After all that buildup, I’d forgotten that Burzum are a True black metal band, i.e. one of the progenitors of the genre and massively influential, yet undercooked and derivative, just like early Mayhem, Darkthrone, and Emperor. The difference is, of course, that those bands would go on to do much more substantial and interesting things later on in their careers. Burzum, due to the whole little stabbing thing, never got that chance, so the music is stuck in a state of arrested development, never improving upon its fundamentals in the way Varg could (and perhaps should) have. The self titled/Aske release is interesting but overall underwhelming, stretching good ideas entirely too thin over the course of 7-8 minutes per song. The real indicator of Vikernes’ squandered potential, though, lies in Filosofem, the record recorded right before the murder that put him in jail and released after his sentence began. Though marred by a 25 minute instrumental ambient track situated smack-fucking-dab in the middle (a pretentious and confusing decision on his part), the album is full of mean-but-melancholy black metal, peppered with what is my favorite Burzum (and perhaps favorite black metal overall) song “Jesu Dod”. The song is based around one killer straight up black metal riff, and some fussy drums that are oddly propulsive, both for black metal and for Burzum itself. The songs rhythmic fussiness almost gives it a dark post-punk sheen worthy of Joy Division or Dead Can Dance, making the fact that the song goes on about a minute or two longer than it should not an issue. One could listen to the main riff over those drums endlessly, and Varg apparently takes you up on that.


It’d be cool to think that perhaps he’s made an American History X-style turnaround, and leave jail a new, open minded man. Varg stated last year that when he begins making new music again, it will resemble old Burzum and not the ambient road they took after their sole band member was incarcerated. Who knows if this is for artistic, fiscal, or ideological reasons. But the issue with thick-headed white guys is that they tend not to change their minds, even after losing sixteen years of their life to a stupid thing they did almost two decades prior. Varg will probably keep spouting the same boneheaded, racialist tripe that has become so closely associated with him. And, as a consequence, those who enjoy black metal will continue to be thought of as the sort of people that enjoy music made by racists. And even despite the fact that Krallice’s drummer is a big ol’ Jew and a Burzum fan, Wolves in the Throne Room have said they denounce Nazi ideology and hold “eco-feminist” views yet listen to Filosofem while working on their farm, and Blake from Nachtmystium has constantly said his band is strictly “apolitical” and clearly has a Burzum fetish, people will continue to oversimplify. Even though, admittedly, they’re oversimplifying for an incredibly valid reason, is it fair to attribute the intolerant views of one onto many?



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