"IT'S NOT A SATANIC thing, it's a nationalist heathen thing," or so says Varg Qisling Larssn Vikernes, a.k.a Count Grishnackh, a.k.a. Burzum, one of the most notorious figures of the Scandinavian music scene and the Charles Manson of Norway. At age 26, Varg, who looks like he could be Donna's next boyfriend on Beverly Hills 90210, sits in a Trondheim jail, five years into a 21-year sentence doled out in 1994 for murder and church arson. His band, Burzum, currently releases albums from prison, where the philosophies behind the music seem to get creepier with each release.
To put yourself in the worldview of Burzum, you have to go back a few hundred years to St. Olaf, who imposed Christianity on previously pagan Norway. With this Christianity came the forced acceptance of "alien morals, alien values, and alien cultures." Churches were built on top of heathen altars, pagans were chased around with pitchforks and nooses, and the trolls went into hiding deep in the forest.
Fast forward to the mid-1990s. Feeding off the primarily Norwegian invention of black metal, teenagers, with their amazing ability to subdivide themselves to ridiculous proportions, mutated the scene into a million warring factions. There were the pure Satanists, nationalist pagans, hardcore Odinists, anti-racist heathens, the anti-Satanist pagans, and then there was the mainstay of any subculture, the kids who want to look cool, get wasted, and have sex. Burzum moved through many of these genres, pioneering sounds that were in turn adopted by most of his contemporaries.
As the scene got more extreme, the competition to be evil was on, and Varg put his money where his heathen mouth was—or in this case, a knife into the body of bandmate Euronymous, guitar player of the legendary black metal band Mayhem. Varg, who was playing bass in the band at the time, stabbed Euronymous 23 times. On top of the murder, Varg had also been reducing many of Norway's historic wooden churches to ashes, starting a trend that resulted in the destruction of dozens of places of worship. Varg was arrested in his apartment, where police also found 150 kilos of explosives. Amid a frenzy of media bottom feeding, he was tried and convicted for the crimes.
In jail, with plenty of time on his hands, Varg further "evolved" his pagan beliefs. He studied loads of Scandinavian mythology, more Tolkien, and gave the entire mix a healthy twist of xenophobic fascism—a tweaked philosophy espoused in his book, Vargsm弯I>l, the blatant racism and nationalist fervor of which spooked even his die-hard admirers. In his book, Varg claims it is his duty to "wake the Christian slumber" of his "dozing brethren," to run everything un-Norwegian out of Norway, to return the country to a golden age of Vikinghood where Aryans can run and play without fear of accidentally eating a burrito or riding on a dragon boat across the aisle from an Asian family. He justifies his actions—the church burning and grave desecration—by stating that Christian churches and graves are themselves desecration against Norway. His heroes include dictators like Stalin, Hitler, and Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian Nazi who served as a German puppet during WWII and was hanged as a traitor soon after. Hey, with friends like these....
MUSICALLY, BURZUM VARIES from record to record, with earlier albums sounding like they were recorded at the bottom of a beer keg. Of the last three, Filosofem, Daudi Baldrs, and his latest, Hlidskjalf, Burzum plays what can almost be thought of as ambient folk music—repetitious, classically based electronic sounds, the occasional piercing guitar, distorted, thin lyrics concerning themselves with nature and mythology. These three albums were recorded from prison on a keyboard (his guitar was taken away after Filosofem), something that's more obvious on the cheap but spooky MIDI-laced Daudi Baldrs than on the better-sounding Hlidskjalf. It seems Varg has learned to make the most of what he has in prison, and if one can accomplish the impossible task of putting the Count's troubling beliefs aside, these are very interesting records.
While the idea of fascist nationalism is about as attractive as the idea of Himmler pole dancing in a G-string, and while it may be easier to turn one's back and ignore this sort of thing (or express outrage that it even exists), it must also be acknowledged that there is a certain fascination in listening to the music of a murderer. Like watching Panzer divisions roll across Poland on A&E or the recent show of criminal works that the Seattle Art Museum deemed unfit for public consumption (but which would've assuredly drawn crowds), Burzum has an artifact-like quality that is not easily dismissed. The same hands that stuck a blade into the skull of an ex-friend who was playing notes on a keyboard, the same mind that hatched a Tolkienesque take on Mien Kampf, crafts hauntingly beautiful melodies out of vibrating air behind bars in a Norwegian prison. It raises an intriguing philosophical question: If a despicable artist creates a beautiful piece of art, can it be appreciated irrespective of its origin? And are you a creep for enjoying it?
Ambient folk tributes to Wotan will hardly build Varg a deep following in the United States (which would probably just disgust him anyway), but to know the history of Burzum, and then listen to records like Filosofem and Hlidskjalf, is to develop goosebumps that are not easy to shake.