Friday, November 25, 2011

Burzum - From the Depths of Darkness (2011)

From the Depths of Darkness is not a new full-length Burzum album. It is a compilation of re-recorded tracks from the self-titled L.P. and Det Som Engang Var. These represent Varg's favourite songs from those releases, and this effort is merely a reinterpretation of those early works. Of course, the decision to revisit this material has generated a considerable amount of controversy. Some people have labeled this as a cash-grab, while others are simply angry that the classic songs are going to be tampered with. Naturally, such powerful and influential music is going to elicit strong reactions from fans. In my view, there is nothing wrong with this release, in itself. The problem with re-recordings comes when an artist attempts to use them to replace the original material, thus robbing future generations of the opportunity to experience them as they once were. However, countless bands have gone back and revisited their early days by making updated versions of classic songs. Ultimately, it is the band's right to do whatever they wish, so long as the original music remains available, as well. That way, if people disagree with the latest interpretation, they are free to enjoy the original. In the case of Burzum, it would seem that Varg is a perfectionist and, rather than trying to give the music a modern feel, he just wanted to correct things that he felt to be mistakes and to present his songs as he meant for them to be heard, in the first place.

He has done this before. The Aske E.P. features a re-recording of "A Lost Forgotten Sad Spirit", since he thought the version from the debut album did not turn out as it was supposed to. It is quite likely that, had he not lost so much time in prison, Varg may have included more re-recorded songs on his albums, throughout the years. Given that he recorded the early Burzum albums at a young age and with little experience, he may have felt strongly about this material the entire time. It is both a gift and a curse of the perfectionist to find fault with everything that they create, eventually, whether or not they act on those urges. Released in November 2011, From the Depths of Darkness is the product of such impulses.

The material on this compilation remains true to the originals, as much as possible. The faster sections are hardly any different than before, though the slower parts are where one can see the most disparity between old and new. In general, the pace is slowed down even more and the atmosphere takes on an increased sense of dreariness and morbidity. Anything that was remotely catchy or upbeat has been completely neutralized and rendered even more cold and lifeless than before. This really gives the songs a darker vibe and unleashes the untapped potential that some of them had, long ago. While immersing yourself in something so abysmal and unforgiving, those lighter moments almost make it seem a little more safe. This time around, there is no sanctuary from the utter black that is set to consume your very soul. This is most evident on "Spell of Destruction". Predominantly, the playing is a little tighter, which is really neither good nor bad, as the previous approach suited the music just as well as this does. In other words, the somewhat sloppy feeling that was on the first couple of records, at times, worked just fine within the context of the album just as much as the tight sound benefits the newer versions. Everything is really crisp and precise, leaving no room for errors. That said, the music still has a lot of feeling and has not been drained of all emotion. Regarding actual changes, they are so minor and infrequent that it is not much of a concern, except in the case of "My Journey to the Stars". This track is butchered, to an extent, due to a handful of alterations that seem to make no sense. While the overall structure endures, there are enough small differences to kill the spirit of the song. There are times, especially during "Key to the Gate", where you can hear how much the old stuff inspired Varg as he was writing the material for Fallen. Actually, it was during the process of creating that record that he took a break and entered the studio to record these songs. Overall, the music stays true to the spirit of the originals, from the intense opening riffs of "Feeble Screams From Forests Unknown" to the hypnotic and mournful atmosphere that is present as "Snu Mikrokosmos' Tegn" reaches its conclusion.

Contrary to what many would expect, the production is not as plastic and modern as some seem to imagine. Obviously, it possesses a bit of an improved sound, compared to the originals, but it is not overdone in any way. The guitar tone is still frigid and morose, carrying the listener off to another world. In fact, the mix is slightly more appropriate in that the drums are buried a bit more and thus allow the guitars to remain the primary focus. This is how Metal should be, anyway, but especially in this case.

One of the most glaring differences is found in the vocal department. To the grief and despair of many fans of the early Burzum records, Varg's voice is nowhere near what it was back then. Any hopes that he would return to the anguished screams and tormented shrieks of the past were shattered from the very beginning, though this should not have come as a surprise to anyone. Varg's voice is quite similar to what is heard on later albums, such as Belus and Fallen, and it is a shame that he has no fondness for his previous vocal style. It added so much more to the overall atmosphere and was one of the truly unique things about Burzum, in the first place. Perhaps, it also came from him no longer being able to get such a sound to emanate from within and choosing to change instead of offering up some pathetic attempt at recreating that sound. On the old albums, he sounded as if he was dying in agony, whereas his current voice sounds like it has been dead and bereft of life for quite some time.

A lot of fans will be disappointed in From the Depths of Darkness, since most people despise change and Metal fans are usually even worse about this. Though the changes are minimal, with the exception of the vocals, the truth is that the original spirit of the songs has been honoured and there are even some points where the alterations of timing or pace actually improve upon the old versions. While the majority will still prefer the originals (myself included), this is a fascinating release and offers a unique re-interpretation of these songs that have meant so much to so many for such a long time. For those that disapprove, there is always the option of ignoring the existence of this compilation and continuing to listen to the old records. However, if you have even the slightest bit of an open mind, it is quite likely that you will find something enjoyable about these new versions. Out of all of the musicians that came from the Norwegian Black Metal scene, as much as he would like to distance himself from it, Varg Vikernes has remained true to his roots much more than the rest.