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The final album recorded by infamous Norwegian Varg Vikernes before he was imprisoned for murder, Filosofem represents the peak of the self-styled Count Grishnackhs achievement at creating ambient black metal, largely because his project has been put on hold by incarceration.
The fourth album written and performed entirely by the Count, Filosofem was a surprising success outside Norway, even reaching the indie charts here in Britain, clearly benefiting from the notoriety of its creator. The twenty-three-stab-wounds murder of Vikernes former bandmate from Mayhem, Euronymous, tends to overshadow reviews of both these bands including this one, clearly. However, this album itself is partly excellent on its own merits, and dealing once again with ancient Norwegian mystical themes and a dash of Tolkien, is free of any trace of the Counts political leanings. Still, Ive gripped you now, havent I?
1. Dunkelheit (Darkness)
2. Jesus Tod (The Death of Jesus)
3. Erblicket die Töchter des Firmaments (Behold the Daughters of the Firmament)
4. Gebrechlichkeit I (Decrepitude I)
5. Rundgang um die transzendentale Säule der Singularität (Tour Around the Transcendental Pillars of Singularity)
6. Gebrechlichkeit II (Decrepitude II)
The album consists of six tracks, and can be easily divided into two uneven parts on first listen. The second half of the album consumes most of the playing time, thanks primarily to the efforts of the 25-minute fifth track. Vikernes has explained that Burzums music was always intended as evening music to fall asleep to, rather than to headbang along to at a live show or club. Intended to conjure mystical dreams of ancient times, the structure is consciously designed to become more ambient and less musically diverse as the album goes on. To paraphrase the Counts own idea of how to approach this record, the first few songs are intended to invoke susceptibility to magic, while the rest continue the journey into sleep. This doesnt necessarily mean that the album ends up becoming boring, though in this case thats precisely the outcome.
The first three songs share similarities with more traditional black metal in their relentless, treble-heavy guitar riffs and raspy vocals, but with a more fully realised hypnotic ambience than anything in Burzums earlier offerings. Dunkelheit especially is the most spectacular, an incredible six minutes of repetitive guitar overdrive contrasted with plodding drums and a simplistic but engrossing keyboard melody. Vikernes vocals sound like theyve been thrice-processed to rid them of anything human that remains, a radical departure from his pained shrieks on the previous albums. While not reducing them to the mechanical coldness of contemporaries Dimmu Borgir or Immortal, this effectively places them more subliminally in the mix, and prevents them from distracting from the flow of things. The two songs which follow continue in this same formula, but are less impressive as the repetitive riffs and melodies are less interesting, and can become noticeably overlong if listened to casually, rather than under the subdued engrossment the record really demands.
The two-part Gebrechlichkeit that bookends the monstrous fifth track still possess traces of black metal, and conjures the same images of frozen landscapes and depressed pagans, but on a more relaxed note. There are no vocals in this part of the album, but the guitars and drums still back up the dominating keyboards, which have now been liberated from their subordination in the opening songs. Taking up half the album, Rundgang um die transzendentale Säule der Singularität is a complete departure from metal, consisting only of a repeated piano melody that barely changes over the course of a long twenty-five minutes. Its very successfully spooky, but the effect doesnt last out. If Count Grishnackh has been successful, you will be asleep by now, and not even notice how boring this is.
This isnt an album for black metal purists, veering wildly away from the frozen hellish sound developed by Venom and Bathory in the 80s and defined by Mayhem and Immortal in the early 90s, but it still shares enough similarities to be labelled as such. Rather than subject the listener to a torrent of screaming guitar treble, under-produced paper drum blasts and tortured guttural vocals, Burzum has always taken a more relaxed, atmospheric and existential slant, and for now this continuing evolution has been halted at this 1996 half-classic. Dunkelheit and Jesus Tod would be essential additions to compilations of the finest Norwegian black metal, but the remaining forty minutes arent nearly so impressive.
Filosofem starts off incredibly, but soon tails off into overlong tedium, even for an ambient release. Burzums future releases will likely continue the formula practiced here, but with more interesting and diverse results. The two ambient albums he was permitted to produce in prison using only keyboard are far more disappointing, even for the fallen Count himself. However, his failure to report back on time after a week of freedom, and his subsequent capture in possession of a false passport and a gun, have extended his sentence somewhat, as one would expect. Wheres the justice in that?
Disc #1 Tracklisting
2 Jesus Dod
3 Erblicket Die Durhther des Firmamaents
4 Gebrechlichkeit 1
5 Rundgang Um Die Transzendentale Saule Der Singularitat
6 Gebrechlichkeit 2