Umskiptar is the tenth studio album from Burzum, storied and infamous project of loveable scamp cum murderous eugenicist Varg Vikernes. I’ve seen reviews for Burzum material where the reviewer basically refuses to give the album a good score because of Varg’s questionable politics, but if we followed that logic, every Gojira album would receive a perfect score due to Joe Duplantier’s green philosophy and every Five Finger Death Punch album would receive the minimum possible score due to the band’s mindless jingoism and gross materialism (a circumstance that would ironically not be too far from the truth if the aforementioned were judged on their musical qualities too.) While marking an album down based on the artist’s philosophy might be appropriate in the case of the most bigoted NSBM, uncle Varg, while hardly of the soundest humanist ideals, isn’t exactly singing paragraphs from Mein Kampf set to the soundtrack of Birth of a Nation and as such, I’m going to judge his music on it’s own merits, rather than those of his (admittedly questionable) philosophy.
I’m tempted to hazard that Umskiptar is actually not as good as Varg’s previous two post prison efforts Belus and Fallen, both of which were sterling pieces of music, however I’m not sure if it’s actually not as good, or just not as immediate. There’s definitely some excellent songwriting here, the main melody from ‘Alfadanz’ will be stuck in your head for days, and ‘Galgvior’ is very catchy for such a mournful dirge. In spite of that, I didn’t latch on and say ‘this is great’ quite as quickly as I did the other two.
Varg’s songwriting has matured over time, getting steadily more concise since he got out of prison, and none the songs on Umskiptar drag, despite often approaching the ten minute mark. The music on offer here is well structured and well arranged, Varg himself playing everything; even the drums. Perhaps because of this, there’s a certain holism about the music. Nothing feels like an afterthought and even the typically underrepresented bass makes some interesting contributions. Varg’s vocals alternate between somewhat mawkish spoken word and his now standard throaty whisper, although there is one scream in ‘Aera’ which demonstrates he can still impress with his vocals when he wants. Musically, we’re offered sinuously intertwining countermelodies in Varg’s sharp, spiteful guitar tone. The folksiness of past Burzum is also still apparent; with its gentle arpeggios and harmonised ‘ah’s, parts of ‘Gullaldr’ could, but for the production, have been lifted directly from Ulver’s Kveldssangr.
The spoken word parts on this album are far more apparent than they were on its two immediate predecessors, and there are points where you wish Varg would get to the point and switch back to his guttural hiss or just shut up altogether. It is perhaps to be expected however; Umskiptar (old Norse for ‘Metamorphoses’) is based on the Norse poem Völuspá, from which all of the album’s lyrics are drawn. The spoken vocals aren’t terrible; in many places they do enhance the atmosphere of the album (always a commendable goal in black metal), they just go on for a bit too long & crop up a little too often, thankfully the other elements are of such quality that a bit of pomposity in the form of obtrusive spoken word vocals don’t mar the album overmuch.
Theres a definite musical progression here too, which is nice. Don’t get me wrong, this is still definitely black metal, but it’s a lot more sober and reserved than Belus & Fallen. The arrangements and melodies have doomy vibes, without actually being doom. That’s not to say any of Varg’s previous oeuvre has been a life affirming explosion of jollity and good will, but rather than being depressive in an introspective, folky way, Umskiptar really wallows in it. Between that, the atmosphere and Varg’s snappy songwriting chops, Umskiptar makes for a very satisfying listen. If you like other late period Burzum, you have no excuse not to check this out, Varg can still teach the young pretenders a thing or two about black metal.
Burzum’s website: http://www.burzum.org/