"Suddenly...life has new meaning." ~Varg Vikernes
There are arguably more potent Burzum recordings but, for me, Filosofem is a deeply personal listening experience that delivers on the esoteric promise of Norwegian Black Metal and never fails to take me places best visited with the lights out. Every repetitive note of this blown-out masterpiece seethes with some unspoken and unspeakable atavistic menace. It is an ordeal at turns utterly primitive, psychedelic, violent, hypnotic, abrasive, archetypal and, ultimately, pathologically transcendental. To put it another way, this is perfect drawing music. Or driving music for that matter. It is a triumph of (first person) singular vision that endures far beyond the morbid fantasies many have come to vicariously associate with its distinctly pallid aura.
As fate would have it, I had only recently arrived in the great Norse West and was literally planting my roots in the fine city of Portland, Oregon around the time that controversial local publisher Adam Parfrey was licensing this gem from Misanthropy Records in England. In 1996 black metal imports were still relatively difficult to find in U.S. shops (not to mention expensive) so the domestic release of Filosofem, with its iconic Theodor Kittelsen cover art, heralded in no uncertain terms the commercial arrival of Scandinavian Black Metal on these shores. It was immediately striking to behold Kittelsen's evocative painting 'Up In The Hills A Clarion Call Rings Out', steeped as it is in a muted wash suggesting the transitional light of dawn or dusk, in the context of an album recorded by a convicted murderer and arsonist. Up until this point most black metal artwork had been just that: black. Such a lucent display of Nordic romanticism was unprecedented in the otherwise shadowy milieu of largely Satanic metal, but the pairing of Burzum's animistic dirges with Kittelsen's beautiful artwork was apt. Consider Kittelsen's reflection on the hardships of the artist's path before his death in 1914:
"Many are the occasions on which it is burdensome to be an artist in Norway, so burdensome that it seems hopeless. But it is no use stopping at that point. One must pick oneself up, and continue. If I did not love Nature so, every flower and every stream, I do not think I would have the energy. Nature is wonderful solace."
Amidst lush illustrations, the Feral House digipack insert also contained a note that English translations of the lyrics and text were available by sending a self-addressed stamped envelope to a local post office box. Needless to say, I immediately dropped my envelope in the mailbox and soon received two single-sided pages stapled at the top left corner. The rough translations that arrived were provided by "Greve Drake" who at that time was the guitarist for Goddess of Desire and I had to completely trust his interpretations since I lacked- and still lack- even basic Norwegian or German language skills. The stories in particular were an inspired read and I have returned to them many times over the years. As is the case with all Burzum recordings, there are only the faintest traces in Varg Vikernes' lyrics of his political ideologies which now more or less threaten to eclipse his artistic legacy. Instead we are treated to cryptic fables and sparse simplistic parables that inflame the imagination and, together with the music, invoke a haunting atmosphere of Norse heathen mysticism. But you already know that.
My darling daughter was born just a few months after I purchased Filosofem- in fact, she was born exactly 16 years ago today- and this recording is forever psychically linked to that most profound moment of my young adulthood. I enjoyed countless hours over the following year gently rocking my little one to sleep against my bare chest with 'Rundgang Um Die Transzendentale Saule Der Singularitat' spinning quietly on repeat. Furthermore, 'Jesus' Tod' remains inseparably the soundtrack for midnight rides to the 24-hour copy shop to work on my zine or scan some drawing. Even now I vividly recall unchaining the fence and barreling out of my backyard gate at the Witching Hour, headphones in place beneath my hood, as the double-bass thunders inexorably above the din of tremulous strings and dungeon clatter. Eight minutes of frantic pumping and I am racing through the downpour with my thighs burning and the neon 'Made In Oregon' sign casting shards of light into a thousand dirty puddles collecting in the sidewalk gutters. I imagine abandoned Portland nights with thin sheets of rain and moss-covered rooftops are not entirely unlike the misty dark of some tidy Norwegian seaport. Perhaps it's just the music. On nights like these, completely alone in the desolate night air, this album comes alive like some prodigious specter that, for at least those 64 minutes and 36 seconds, completely swallows the modern world in its terrifying gaping jaws. "For some," as Vikernes so eloquently wrote in the liner notes, "The world finally becomes a place really worth living in."
(Originally written on the Vernal Equinox 2010)
Dedicated to the fairest in her 16th year.