For all the lofty words we’ve dedicated to Burzum over the years, it’s easy to forget that the legacy of my boy Varg is far patchier than the actual music he gifted us. Usually the echoes of canonized artists of yore can be felt across a plethora of quality artists to follow; Black Sabbath, Slayer, Bathory. Varg is cetainly a bit puddled these days. There’s no denying that. But people that try to play down the genius of Burzum because of this are just plain mistaken. We’ll take that as a given. But it might be fruitful to expand on the contested influence the music itself has had on black metal since the 1990s. For Burzum, the legacy in terms of those directly influenced by his first four albums is a wash of eye wateringly boring ambient black metal, a horde of average albums that attempted to meld early Burzum with Darkthrone, but never really advanced the ideas further beyond where they started, and a whole bunch of Russian and Eastern European NSBM. The vast majority of which is drivel. But in the blasted steps of Europe’s gateway to Asia lurk some choice cuts, the real heirs to pre-prison Burzum. A modest legacy for such a ground-breaking artist maybe, but one not without its delights.
Blood of Kingu – essentially a continuation of Ukrainian mainstays Hate Forest – released their first LP ‘De Occulta Philosophia’ back in 2007. It follows in the same footsteps as Hate Forest and will hold no surprises for anyone familiar with Roman Saenko’s style. Repetitive, raw, minimal, dissonant, grey music for an extremely rainy day. Drums stick with a synthetic barrage of repetition, anchoring the music in predictability. Guitars wash over the whole mix with layered, tremolo picked riffs that trade in dissonance and simple melodic progressions in equal measure. Although the music is defined by these harsh, grating guitars, ‘De Occulta Philosophia’ weaves some more conventional melody into proceedings that sound like rejects from whatever Drudkh album Saenko was working on at the time. Although modest in their application, these melodic inflections provide a welcome break to this otherwise one-dimensional music.
The Hate Forest formula was always frustrating; music that never developed much beyond a singular, static idea. ‘De Occulta Philosophia’, although suffering from the same condition of stasis, does attempt to mix up the overall mood. The most obvious example being the vocals, which are now largely absent. Hate Forest capitalised on creating one particularly grim style, this was aided by guttural death metal vocals. Here, the overarching vocal delivery is a form of throat singing that repeatedly crops up towards the end of each track, as a way to round things off with an additional layer of drama and idiosyncratic delivery for ears accustomed to Western vocal techniques.
Beyond that, the word is frustration, as it is with everything Saenko turns his hand to (except Drudkh who lack even the potential required to frustrate). The problem – as alluded to above – is simply the fact that Blood of Kingu are so one dimensional. The mood is immediately striking, one is immersed in this all-encompassing atmosphere of cold dissonance that could make even the brightest day feel cloudy. But this one, singular idea is never developed beyond this first step. It’s the equivalent of offering the premise of a novel without fleshing out anything beyond. I *get* what Saenko is doing, but by track three it becomes tiresome, confused as to where to take itself, a frozen moment in time without anything to offer the future.
There are prototypes, types, and stereotypes, then there are archetypes. Sometimes these archetypes arrive as if from nowhere, land that seminal album, and depart just as quickly, leaving every association surrounding the album’s name untarnished (unlike many progenitors of metal’s crowning achievements). The sole album from Russia’s Walknut, ‘Graveforests and Their Shadows’, released in 2008, is nothing you haven’t heard before (that’s assuming you found your way to this album via one or two black metal albums). One gets the sense that this was the album Burzum could have made if Varg’s career had not suffered from its famous hiccup in the mid-90s. A lot of ‘Graveforests and Their Shadows’ can be seen in ‘Belus’ released just two years later, but without the clumsy disconnectedness that the latter album suffers from. Walknut take the philosophy of ‘Filosofem’ (chortle) and reimagine its approach to melody. They expand out the chord progressions to articulate grand, heroic cadences which are filtered through a longform approach to repetition. Great care is taken to channel the impact of each transition between chord progression– whether guided by shifts in key or rhythm – over and above the progressions themselves, which trade on minimalism over a showcase of musicality.
The guitar tone plays a big role in centralising the meta-commentary that is the relationship between each passage. One guitar will articulate the simple lead melodies, which throw in some well-placed key changes and subtle shifts in pitch to achieve the greatest impact. These are then backed up by the murky rhythm guitar, the role of which is simply to provide texture, to the point where it may as well just play one single chord throughout each track, such is the power of the sound palette Walknut have crafted here. There is no need for any staccato moments, no licks rising above the mix, no needless synth lines soaring above the distortion. No, this is music presented in rawest its form, foundation and scene setting are placed centre stage, with none of the usual bells and whistles attached to distract us. From this stripped back perspective, the true attention span of this music reveals itself, as the achingly slow melodic progression of each track, unfolding over its entirety as opposed to one short passage, becomes apparent.
Vocals narrate their way through this. They are a high-pitched distorted howl of despair. Their presence is not human enough to be considered crass or overly emotive. One could simply treat them as one additional commentator atop the tectonically slow drama of the music itself. Because everything is so finely balanced, each instrument need only make the slightest adjustment to shift the entire landscape of the wider piece. In this stripped back context, we can see the drums’ function as not just rhythmic but also signalling these shifts in key or pitch through simple fills or switches in pattern. Their role becomes one of melodic dictator, a canary in the coalmine for the onward direction of the rest of the music. Beyond these lengthy transitions, which sometimes take the entirety of a ten-minute track to fully unfold, the listener can get lost in the immediate. This is defined by trancelike repetition, an overwhelming wash of cold sonic energy that ekes out imagined landscapes and bizarre, totalitarian visions that cloud all other thoughts in their wake.
Is a direct comparison of these two albums fair? Prima facie, comparing ‘De Occulta Philosophia’ to ‘Graveforests and Their Shadows’ looks like a wish.com meme. We ordered Walknut, we got Blood of Kingu. But to paint ‘De Occulta Philosophia’ as simply an inferior version of ‘Graveforests and Their Shadows’ is an overly simplistic interpretation. Blood of Kingu do attempt to create a uniquely harsh environment through their music (and they partially succeed). The inherent mechanical qualities to the drums, the tinny sheen to the production, the suppression of conventional melody in favour of dissonance and minimalism, all point in a slightly different direction to the intrepid soundscapes of Walknut. But this does not prevent us from viewing their work as a static object. Half an idea, yet to be fleshed out. Walknut’s singular and single piece of work by contrast (somehow made all the more compelling by the fact that this was the only offering from this artist), is a rich and diverse landscape to step into. One that offers much to uncover beneath its austere presentation; one of the few enduring classics of the 2000s that holds up to this day, and surpasses many recent offerings.