Varg Vikernes has been really busy after finally being released from that arguably unjust 16 years spent in a Norwegian prison. After releasing Belus and Fallen as well as a few compilation albums, it is now time for a drastic turn with Umskiptar, which literally means metamorphoses or change in Old Norse. Umskiptar is quite different in comparison to the other albums released after Varg gained his freedom. First of all, the vocals are leaning towards a clean and spoken style that brings a sort of chant to the forefront of the music. The lyrics on the album are taken directly from the Völuspá and thus are built around 66 stanzas containing the various prophecies given to Odin by the Völva. Now, Varg claims that this album is a back-to-the-roots album for him with a larger focus on the atmosphere, yet he goes on to explain that the vocals are more important on Umskiptar than any of the previous albums.
The first problem I find with the album is that it lacks that certain atmosphere that I have come to connect with Burzum. Albums such as Hlidskalf practically brim with atmosphere, yet here we have an album that is supposed to feel atmospheric and yet feels more ritual in its approach. Some of the songs such as “Alfadanz” and “Gullaldr” manage to transcend to something special in the ways of atmosphere and especially the latter has a certain dense feeling of doom to it. The gentle chant at the end of “Gullaldr” leaves a trembling sensation in the air long after the gentle guitars fade into the ritual ambience that is “Níðhöggr”. The guitars on the album are good overall, but one thing that keeps bugging me is the repetition in some of the songs. “Galgviðr” deserves special mention in this department as the song starts out well but then just feels like it gets stuck on repeat with Varg chanting mournfully with a simple melody and bass line to accompany his lamentations. “Jóln” and “Valgaldr” show some of that versatility as a musician that made Varg a bloody legend; roaring guitars and slow drumming combined with hissing vocals undertone the cleaner shamanic chanting into a flawless ritual concoction.
Umskiptar is a stronger album than I suspected with lots of strong melodies that stand as hybrids between primitive black metal and some Heathen ritualistic folk music. The vocals are quite refreshing even though I can miss that primal rage that surfaced in Varg’s earlier albums. Then again, perhaps this is the logical reason for an infamous artist nearing the age of 40. Varg still walks his own path and does so quite well, even if the atmosphere on this back-to-basics album is quite questionable. The change spoken about in the press release is there, yet leaves just enough of the old Burzum to give it a solid foundation for its further evolution.
Last but not least, while I am indeed here to review and criticise the music of Burzum, I am well aware of the various political statements that Varg has blurted out since before time begun, and honestly, I could not care less. Sure this album can be interpreted as critique against modern society, but so can bloody Lady Gaga if you want it hard enough. Personally, I draw a line between the musician and the politician Varg. This is a review of his music not his philosophies, and if some of you claim they are interwoven, well maybe, but mind tricks and propaganda don’t work on those who think freely.
Overall, the album is a huge step forward compared to both Belus and Fallen, both in sense of quality and inspiration. Personally, I find it to be a long way from Hlidskalf and Det som Engang Var, yet it feels like a natural transition in time for that bearded lone Norwegian. I would recommend Umskiptar to anyone intrigued enough by Heathen ritual folk metal to give uncle Varg another chance.
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