Change and metamorphosis are at the centre of Burzum’s latest album Umskiptar, concepts that, given the musical direction he has chosen, could not be more appropriate.
Further from its black metal origins than ever before (aside from the neo-classical prison releases), Varg Vikernes has made clear his intention to abandon the purely black metal music with Umskiptar, to create what could be the first Burzum concept album.
Although clearly influenced by black metal, the majority of the instrumental work on Umskiptar is folk based, and works to contribute to the greater ambient, emotional sound-scape. It’s all relatively minimalist, and does away with the typical black metal sound in favour of slow, brooding tones that shift between heavily distorted and clean guitar riffs.
On occasion, Vikernes integrates a few instruments and ambient sounds that don’t quite fit, but for the most part the backing effects support the vocals perfectly. Structurally, the music is typical Burzum, and walks that fine line between being a musical journey or repetitive noise, depending on one’s perspective. Yet that distinct sound is so rhythmic and engaging here it borders on hypnotic, making Umskiptar much more accessible than his earlier black metal releases.
The lyrics come from the ancient Norse poem, Völuspá, a tale of the birth and destruction of the old world, at the hands of mythological figures. Yet being able to speak Norwegian is not necessary, as varying voices and ambient sounds allowed Vikernes to create a concept album that transcends language barriers, and clearly conveys the intended emotions and ideas at the core of Völuspá. While one may benefit from a rudimentary understanding of Völuspá, concepts of growth, loss, desperation, conflict and suffering are all clearly expressed, and easily identifiable. There are, however, the occasional moments where Vikerness attempts to sing cleanly, but fails miserably. While he searches for the correct pitch, any element of emotional depth is destroyed, but fortunately is restored once the clean vocals end.
This gives Umskiptar a somewhat personal touch, allowing the listener to integrate their own story into the conceptual piece. It is not, however, the kind of album you listen to on the way to work. Tracks can be enjoyed in isolation of one another, but to get the full experience, it is best listened to from start to finish in one sitting. In terms of production, Vikerness has finally released an album that isn’t muddy and full of white noise. Dynamics are nice and clear, particularly in the horn sections, which have a remarkable amount of depth for a Burzum release.
Umskiptar is a musical poem, brought to life by an ambient black-folk backing track, and those who see Burzum as a continually evolving and changing concept will get the most out of it. A few tracks overstay their welcome, and the tone-deaf vocals do mar the experience somewhat, but the strength of the story and potential for personal interpretation, allows Umskiptar to be the most emotional, complex, and honest Burzum release to date.
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