Norway's Burzum—notorious musician Kristian "Varg" Vikernes' one-man band—has produced half a dozen albums since its debut in 1992, though its distribution has remained spotty. The new retrospective Anthology is not only an overview of Burzum's career, but a fair map of black metal's birth.
Raw and dirty, early tracks like "Feeble Screams from Forests Unknown" and "Stemmen Fra Tarnet" feature relentless drums and guitar that betray the genre's origins in thrash metal and punk. Later songs like "Def Som en Gang Var" and "Jesus' Tod" haven't lost all of the aggression shown before, but they display an increasing sense of melody and atmosphere, with movements of repeated sections that are enthralling and full of hypnotic distortion. Also included are two songs from the pair of electronic ambient albums Vikernes recorded while in prison after announcing himself separate from all things black metal.
Of course, Burzum is at least as famous, if not more, for Vikernes' actions outside the recording studio. Interviews with Vikernes—like the ones in the cult black-metal exposé Lords of Chaos—reveal a blustery sense of self-importance and a hearty persecution complex. He sounds like a joke—he is, after all, the man who once added a spiffy title of nobility to the name of one of J.R.R. Tolkien's fictional Orcs to dub himself Count Grishnackh.
But he's also a real son of a bitch. He's aligned himself with Satan and Nazism, and backtracked on both, citing a decision to eschew Judeo-Christian ideas altogether concerning the former, and a mind to consider himself a specifically Nordic bigot on the latter. Appalling ideology aside, Vikernes is currently serving a 21-year prison sentence for his participation in a notorious series of church burnings in Norway in the early '90s, and also for murdering Oystein Aarseth, aka Euronymous, of Mayhem. Vikernes was denied parole in 2006; he'd been arrested again in 2003, after failing to return to prison from a granted leave, while possessing a stolen car full of weapons. As with his philosophical views, he has shown no remorse for any of his crimes.
While there's no shortage of musicians with criminal records or deplorable behaviors that music collectors might refuse to support, Vikernes is one that a lot of folks can agree to hate. But you might never know it just from listening to these tracks. The screaming vocals on this collection—vaguely mystical bad poetry that's incomprehensible even if you speak Norwegian—tend to stay buried in the mix, coming off more tortured than threatening. And the tracks are less menacing, more dark, sounding like a thing of dramatic fantasy.
As different as Vikernes' approaches have been over time, there's a thread of impressive construction that runs through all of the songs on Anthology, a deliberate tone and careful pacing that's consistently effective and—for something made by so hateful a man—often lovely.