Det Som Engang Var was recorded in Grieghallen, in April 1992, not long after the release of the self-titled debut. Like that album, this was produced by Count Grishnackh and Pytten. Its release was delayed until August 1993. Originally intended to be the second official Burzum recording, the Aske E.P. was mistakenly put out before this. It was by this point that the Count had a falling out with owner of DSP, Euronymous, and decided to start his own label, Cymophane Productions. If he could not rely on others, he would take matters into his own hands and see to it that things would be done properly. In interviews from early 1993, Grishnackh expressed his disappointment in the delay of this monumental album and worried that it would be dated and already ripped off countless times before it was ever officially released. He may have been underestimating his own abilities, as this record was far ahead of anything else being done in the Black Metal scene.
After experiencing the brilliance and power of "Black Spell of Destruction", I scoured the earth for any Burzum album that I could find. While I was unable to locate the first one, I did manage to get my hands on Det Som Engang Var. In between hearing that first song and acquiring this album, I had also recorded the song "Burzum" from "The Haunted Mansion". At this point, I had no real idea of what the trademark Burzum sound was, other than certain riff patterns. The vocals from the self-titled album and Filosofem are quite different, so I didn't know what to expect when the second album arrived in the mail.
The album begins with "Den Onde Kysten", a two and a half minute long intro. This creates a sense of continuity as it seems to pick up from where the first album leaves off, with "Dungeons of Darkness". The atmosphere is that of darkness and dread. The title translates to "The Coast of Evil" and it does give the feeling of being isolated in a sinister place, bereft of light or hope.
As the listener's spirits have been drained with the intro, "Key to the Gate" marches forward, unrelenting and chaotic in its attack. It is quite the shock to your system. The song begins with great speed, then goes into a Thrash riff reminiscent of old Destruction, and alternates back and forth for the early part of the song. But this does not last long. Everything comes to a stop, and nothing is present but the guitars and the tortured and misanthropic shrieks of Count Grishnackh. This is followed by a melodic dirge of droning riffs and some terribly desperate shrieks. He sounds almost as if he is dying, or at least wishing for death. This is sorrowful Black Metal at its finest. The song then builds up again before unleashing a dark and beautiful guitar solo that penetrates your soul and slowly carries you toward oblivion. Once again, the Count opens an album with a song that is nothing less than perfection.
"En Ring Til Å Herske" is next and it continues from where the previous song left off, being a slow and anguished march through darkened mountain passes and dismal forests, bound in chains and forced along by black Orcs. The plodding pace and eerie clean vocals in the background create an atmosphere of utter desolation and agony. As the song reaches its slowest point, again we are left alone with only the guitar and the sorrowful wails of Count Grishnack. The drums return and the tempo begins building up toward a desperate climax as the miserable screams imbue the listener with a cold and hopeless feeling.
"Lost Wisdom" is another minimalist Black Metal song, consisting of faster, Thrash sections, and the typical slower parts that Burzum is well known for. The song is more upbeat than the previous two, yet mournful as well. The lyrics are both depressing and misanthropic, without being exactly hateful.
"Han Som Reiste" is a quiet instrumental piece that maintains the atmosphere of sorrow and lamentation. This song seems to truly embody the title of the album, which translates to "What Once Was". Actually, while reading "The Hobbit", I played this song over and over again and it suited the story very well.
"Når Himmelen Klarner" is another instrumental, though being simply a normal song without vocals. The first minute or so consists of nothing but guitars, and it is somewhat reminiscent of "Dominus Sathanas". The title translates to "When the Sky Clears". Like the previous song, this one allows the mind to wander, endlessly. There is a dark beauty here and the harmonies have somewhat of a calming effect.
"Snu Mikrokosmos Tegn" puts an end to the serene atmosphere created by the previous song. This one begins with fast tremolo-picked riffs, blasting drums and every bit of the cold hatred and misanthropic agony that can be conjured by the otherworldly shrieks of Count Grishnackh. There is a definite sense of urgency in the melodies presented. This is one final assault before the end comes. After a few minutes, the pace slows down a bit and the vocals convey the feeling of an agonizing death. Again, the other instruments stop, leaving only the guitar, which uses that melancholic, bleeding, open-arpeggio riffing style pretty much patented by Burzum. Behind the painful screams are some clean vocals that add a lot to the atmosphere. Choosing to use this instead of keyboards adds somewhat of an organic feel to the song. The listener feels as if something has reached inside his chest and is firmly gripping his heart with an icy hand. A sense of desperation builds as you want the pain to end, even if it means that your heart will be ripped right out. You know that relief will come only with death and yet you welcome it. As the song fades, you can see the dark gate before you.
The album ends with a bleak and obscure outro, very similar to the intro and yet giving the feeling that the journey is complete. This is much more complex than the intro, as well, containing many different effects and a melody that seems to recall a world long lost. Then, in the final moments, all recollection of this world is stamped out and gone forever, leaving you empty and alone.