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Burzum’s Thulêan Mysteries

2,232 words

Thulêan Mysteries is the 13th album released by infamous Varg Vikernes under his working name Burzum. Mysteries comes after Vikernes previously stated that he was finished recording under the Burzum name. To that effect, Mysteries is a collection of tracks that Vikernes has been working on since his last album that were not intended for release as a cohesive unit. While Mysteries, therefore, lacks some continuity, it is still a project with several gems nestled inside that make for remarkable listening under the right set and setting. I will admit that I hated this album on my first listen. I wrote half of this review, panning it, before the album “clicked” and I deleted everything I had written in order to start anew. In many ways, this act was fitting for the record; though mostly instrumental, Vikernes dwells on themes of fleetingness, death, and identity in his trademark opaque style.

Vikernes, born Kristian Vikernes, and legally named Louis Cachet, made a name for himself in the Norwegian black metal scene as “Count Grishnack,” playing in bands such as Mayhem, where he met Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth — famously murdering him in 1993. Aside from killing Euronymous, Vikernes was convicted of multiple arsons targeting Christian churches in Norway. He was released from prison in 2009. While incarcerated, several albums were released under the Burzum name, mostly in the ambient style, save his most well-known release Filosofem, considered now a black metal standard. Nowadays, he records videos — which he uploaded to YouTube before they removed him from the platform [1] — under the name ThuleanPerspective, and it’s likely most anyone who reads Counter-Currents is aware of Vikernes’ general worldview and reputation in these spheres.

Vikernes himself notes that Mysteries was not intended to be a well-defined record. In what may be the most amusing statement from a musician I’ve read in my life, he explains the album’s concept on his Bandcamp page [2]:

Since my true passion has never been music, but actually tabletop role-playing games, I figured I should make this an album intended for that use; as background music for my own MYFAROG (Mythic Fantasy Role-playing Game). Hopefully you will get a sense of Thulê when you listen to this, like always with Burzum, ideally when on your own.

Such a description made me hopeful. It’s exactly the sort of mildly autistic concept that could make for truly innovative recordings. Grimes based her debut studio album Geidi Primes on Frank Herbert’s Dune [3], Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is conceptually grounded upon Jeff Mangum’s weird dreams about Anne Frank [4], and Psychic TV’s Genesis P-Orridge and Richard Norris mixed Jack the Tab/Tekno Acid Beat simply to fool people into thinking Britain had an acid house scene [5]. (It worked.) Thulêan Mysteries has similar energy; you have to commit to its premise to truly enjoy it. This doesn’t mean fantasy role-playing games, though this album would be suitable background noise for such a pursuit, like Vikernes intended. Rather, Mysteries calls for some suspension of disbelief. The chants, hums, and hymns that compose the album bridge the gap between otherworldly and intensely familiar for their marriage of near-ancient European musical tradition with spacey, inescapably modern compositional sensibilities that speak to the ennui that haunts the European psyche.

The rawness of the album may be on account of its spontaneous creation. Unguided by an overarching theme or concept, Vikernes recorded off and on, with the songs on his album reflecting states of mind and creative flights that are transient in nature:

Thulêan Mysteries was made passively, in the sense that I never intended to make a new album; I just made music every now and then and at one point realized that I actually had enough to release it all on an album. When asked to do so I figured: why not?

The individuality of the album’s tracks is both a great strength and weakness. Many of the songs are short, concise explorations of a particular mood or instrument, while some are longer and generally more meditative. The absence of great upheavals within the album’s songs themselves helps make the fabric of the record feel less like a mismatched hodge-podge and more like a patterned quilt.

I will preface with the admission that I am not well-versed in Nordic mysticism nor do I speak much Norwegian. (My excuse is that I am of mostly Central European stock.) My interpretations of some tracks are therefore necessarily abstract, though I did my best to give this record a close read. I also believe that its symbolism taken as a whole is more important than those of individual tracks.

You can buy Collin Cleary’s Summoning the Gods here [6].

Mysteries begins with “The Sacred Well.” It is a chorally-grounded ambient tune that moves purposefully with its modulated, bright synthesizer. “Well” sets the tone for the album well, emphasizing the album’s simplicity and devotion to how little details — like the bells at the song’s conclusion — will define each track and their purposes.

“The Loss of a Hero” follows, a 55-second display of hypnotic string-plucking and purposeful drumming set to similar synthesizer work from the previous track.

“ForeBears” is the album’s first lengthy piece, at 4 minutes 4 seconds, and it features a plaintive guitar riff alongside gentle touches of harmony and tasteful basslines. Vikernes left the harmonics of his strumming in the track, and he plays slightly out of time, as well, making “ForeBears” a somber meditation on how ethereal a set of notes can truly be.

“A Thulêan Perspective” features a piano melody that wanders across a Medieval-influenced soundscape. “Perspective” is also one of the album’s longer songs, at 4 minutes and 2 seconds, creating a similarly sparse and contemplative atmosphere as the previous track. Upon first listen, tracks like “Perspective” come across as repetitive and uninspired. But their genius lies in their ability to maintain one mood, consistently, across 4 minutes without resorting to endlessly sustained sounds, as is typical for a drone or ambient release.

“Gathering of Herbs” is very clearly Medieval in its composition, featuring a well-crafted harp melody. It’s one of the album’s shorter tracks, and it follows the album’s established pattern of exhibiting one particular arrangement for its length.

“Heill auk Sæll” is the next track. The title is a deliberately archaic spelling of the greeting “heil og sæl” common in Icelandic and closely associated with nationalism in Scandinavia due to its use by the Nasjonal Samling and closeness to the German “Heil.” “Sæll” consists of primitive drumming and repeated chanting of the track’s title, with variation throughout, invoking the atmosphere of rituals, pagan magick, and communal incantation. It is one of the album’s most moving — and, in a sense, terrifying — tracks due to its simplicity and esoteric nature.

“Jöttunheimr” is a darkwave track with odd sounds that mimic the cry of animals. It is mildly unsettling, lasting 1 minute 39 seconds.

“Spell-Lake Forest” is another short track, at 1 minute 7 seconds, centered around a descending scale and brass flourishments. The main melody seems to be generated by a pan flute, highly affected by reverb and modulation.

“The Ettin Stone Heart” features piano and string plucks, met halfway through with a mildly syncopated bassline.

“The Great Sleep” features Vikernes’ singing over a 4:4 knock and a two-note melody. “Sleep” is a good example of Vikernes’ ability to capture the sublime; over its minute and a half, he puts on an impressive display of range and ability to meld sparse arrangements together in such a way that it does not compromise the track’s negative space.

“The Land of Thulê” opens with spoken word: “We have not inherited Thulê from our ancestors. We have borrowed it from our children.” This will be repeated throughout the track, which is constructed upon the same drifting synthesizers and gentle plucking that form this album’s backbone.

“The Lord of the Dwarves” is a longer track, and it is more abrasive than everything that came before it. With a warbling, distorted guitar fuming in the background for its entire length, the trance that “Dwarves” intends to place the listener in is one of urgency, alertness, and wariness. “Dwarves” is more of a siren than it is a scream; the track’s repeated chords threaten to break free and become something new, but only manage to change just enough that it is noticed.

“A Forgotten Realm” follows in the previous track’s footsteps, with industrial chirps and clipped guitar wails in the background blending with bass plucks and tortured, muted strings. The spectacle is the track most similar to Varg’s earlier work, like “Rundgang um die Transzendentale Saule der Singularität,” This atmosphere is maintained for a tense, spine-chilling 7 and a half minutes, and features heavily compressed spoken word samples throughout. “Realm” is where much of the album condenses; the pleasant, ethereal sounds of the album’s first half are sacred cows slaughtered for the impact of tracks like “Dwarves” and “Realm” to be so tangible.

“Heill Óðinn, Sire” follows the duo of fleshed-out terrors. It is somber and quiet, with Vikernes repeating the title throughout; a fitting prayer following visions of the apocalypse.

“The Ruins of Dwarfmount” has the album’s most defined brass arrangement. In a minute and a half, the same formula for the album’s other shorter tracks is used to explore the voice of the instruments involved. It’s but a brief interlude and refrain of the sounds found earlier in the album, however.

Things return to darkness with “The Road to Hel.” Simultaneously both sparse and lush in its staccato plucks and heavily muffed electric guitar orchestration, “Hel” is a more straightforward journey than much of the album’s longer tracks. There is a very clear progression into more complex arrangements as the track goes on, but there are no fundamental changes to the initial formula. Vikernes’ eschewing of showmanship on this record — and many of his recent releases in general — is clear in this track. It’s known that he’s capable of shredding away on guitar, but he opts not to, in favor of a very well-defined soundscape and atmosphere. In many ways, his music allows him to transcend himself as a man and instead become one with his imagined world.

“Thulêan Sorcery” is built of a sustained men’s choir and one lone man’s singing atop strikes of the drum and whispered questions. It is 2 minutes long and is composed in the vein of a communal gathering of a mystical sort.

“Descent into Niflheimr” uses the same wordless chanting, environmental sounds like dripping water, and plodding drums to set the scene of a march underneath the surface. Barking dogs and repeated utterances of “death” make for a complete picture.

You can buy Greg Johnson’s The White Nationalist Manifesto here [7]

“Skin Traveler” breaks the trend of the previous tracks’ ominousness with a tender synth meditation of 4 minutes 37 seconds, almost like a consoling dose of optimism and a reprieve from the hell that one has seen and knows awaits them.

“The Dream Land,” at 8 minutes 44 seconds, is the album’s second-longest track and the one with the greatest internal changes. There are elements of post-rock present, such as in the crescendo and decrescendo of the track’s primary elements. The length of “Dream Land” makes a case for itself — the longer it goes on, and the fewer major changes occur, the more a listener is forced to be with their own thoughts. The previous several tracks issued questions and presented the listener with disturbances. “Dream Land” is where Vikernes leaves him to ponder their significance, and perhaps come up with answers.

Title track “Thulêan Mysteries” has a more urgent, hurried mood than the album’s other ambient tracks. Rolls of reverbed harp flutter about the track, and the backing synthesizer’s failure to resolve to the tonic for the track’s entire length feeds into anticipation and tension. The “mystery” is inherent in the track itself; the ending that we expect — or perhaps, simply desire — is not to be found.
“The Password” is the album’s dramatic penultimate track:

And then I had to tell her the password
And the password was my own name
I just had to tell her my real name

Almost every sound present on Mysteries reappears on “Password.” Like “Dream Land,” the song’s length is purposeful. There is little to do but bask in the sounds, and perhaps wonder what your real name is.

Mysteries concludes with “The Loss of Thulê.” Vikernes brings out the pianos once more, a bittersweet toast to the events of the past hour and a half. About a third of the way through, a floating synth slices through the melody, taking the listener by surprise. This interruption carries on for several minutes before another piano track shyly emerges from the cacophony to dance alongside the track’s first piano. Everything slowly begins to fade away, the album’s end gracefully trailing out over 30 seconds.

Taken as a whole, Thulêan Mysteries is an album that is awash in its own constructed mythos, albeit somewhat inaccessible to anyone approaching it without the necessary mindset. Vikernes’ music is certainly not for everyone, but that is by design. It’s this sort of exclusion that fascinates and empowers, and is rooted in the same premises that guide white advocacy, nationalism, and unity. We are our own people, complete with our own strengths, weaknesses, and oddities. The culture we create is culture we created for ourselves. Those that get it, get it. And those that don’t?

They’re simply not allowed to join the club.