How does one separate an artist from their art? Or can it even be done? Some might perceive the art to be a piece indicative of a moment in time, while the artist continues to grow and evolve into a different person as each new day arrives. Such a question, or conflict, arises when approaching the case of Varg Vikernes‘ new Burzum album, Belus: Should the artist and their history impact the perception of their current creative output, or should it be separated from their work entirely?
The notorious story of Varg Vikernes began as he transitioned away from a socialist skinhead faction in favor of the blossiming black metal community in Norway in the late 1980s. He would then release four highly influential albums under the Burzum moniker before befriending Øystein Aarseth (Euronymous) of the legendary band Mayhem. Joining the group in 1992, Vikernes later became associated with a movement (unjustly billed as Satanic in the media) which was highly critical of Western religions and responsible for the burning of several historic churches which dated back as far as the 12th century. Though the stories surrounding the events which followed vary, the result was concrete. Whether it stemmed from a struggle for control in the black metal community or was a measure of self-defense as Vikernes claims, he brutally murdered Aarseth in August of 1993. Convicted the following year, he was sentenced to 21 years in prison, although he failed to serve his entire sentence as he was released in May of 2009 after a judge granted his freedom following a parole hearing. All in all, that’s a lot to chew on.
To reiterate, can one even approach a piece of art — in this case a recording — with the ability to separate it from the artist’s violent history? Or should the separation even exist? Should the man be judged in the present for his past transgressions? Should his art? This brings us to Belus, the seventh full-length Burzum album, which was released earlier this month by Byelobog Productions.
While the theme which runs through his new record most definitely falls within the realm of personal beliefs and ideology, Belus looks to a different source for inspiration than Vikernes did in his younger years.
“Belus is not a religious album or an anti-religious album, nor is it a political one, but an attempt to explore the myths about Belus [an 'ancient European solar deity of light and innocence'] and unveil the oldest roots of our cultural heritage” reads a description on Vikernes’ website. The attempt with the record is to tell the story of “The death of Belus, his sombre journey through the realm of death and his magnificent return.” And through the journey, one track stands out in particular: “Glemselens Elv.”
The title loosely translates to “River of Forgetfulness,” alluding to the Lethe which was one of the five rivers of Hades in Greek mythology — supposedly if you drank from the Lethe you would experience some hardcore amnesia, pretty much forgetting everything. What initially captures the listener with the song isn’t the story however — though a Norwegian speaking audience might be more drawn to the lyrics — but rather the distinct contrast between the sounds in “Glemselens Elv” and the rest of Belus.
The song is stinging wth its rapid wave of guitar, though the initial draw is in its dull, blunt bass line which accents each note as the music transitions throughout the track. At nearly 12 minutes in length, Vikernes’ sheer ability to avoid becoming tedious despite the repetitive nature of the song only goes to further exhibit his impressive artistry.
A crude translation of the lyrics — which are found on Vikernes’ site in Norwegian, German, French, and Italian — offers a tale of a voyage below the surface to Hades where both a feast (which I’m presuming is a temptatious one leading the traveler to drink from the Lethe) and death await. (Maybe my Norwegian friends can shed a little more light on this.) It’s simple mythology — nothing to get too worked up about — but it creates an interesting example which relates to the question at the heart of the matter.
There are many variables when considering the man and his music, but the reality of the situation suggests that Vikernes is not the same person who he was at the time of his infamous imprisonment. In some cases it’s absolutely impossible to separate the two — here being the musician and his music — primarily in those situations where the output directly reflects upon the person who created it. If Vikernes had crafted a piece praising the ideals of neo-Natzism there would be no way to clearly identify a line between the ideals of the person and the song: They are one and the same. Here, Vikernes has created something based on a distant belief, but a belief nonetheless, which is ultimately no different than the Nazi example, or if he had expounded on the beauty of war, or the evils of the Western world. It all follows “belief” which is no different than the path he’s taken throughout his entire career as a musician. It is impossible to create that separation when the art is a direct expression of who the person is who created it. To honestly look at someone or something with open eyes is to see who they are and what they stand for at this exact moment. That doesn’t mean that who they are now doesn’t still reflect who they were, but simply that any judgement should be made within the consideration of their actions or output at this moment.
There’s no way for me to justify what Vikernes has done in the past: he was a brutal human with ideals detrimental to those around him. But the person he seems to have become is different, albeit no less vocal about his beliefs. Then again, he just released an album that would fit in lyrically within the bulk of Led Zeppelin’s mythos-based early material, so his beliefs might still be a little bit out there. Varg Vikernes is his music, and his music continues to be a reflection of who he is, but he at least for now he appears to be a different man than used to be, and like others, should be given the chance to be viewed as such.
[Also, subsequent to all of this, a recent press release states that all proceeds from Belus will go to "benefit Haitian earthquake victims." Although the support is honorable, the whole thing does seem a bit odd to me.]