06 February 2019

Varg Vikernes: Separating Art from the Artist

Varg Vikernes and I have taken the same first name, same taste in music, and fantasy media, among others. We even share many of the same physical features. However, this tends to be where the similarities end. Vikernes happens to be a talented musician, whereas I am not, and a giant tool, which I hope I am not. Either way, Vikernes has proved time and time again that while largely articulate, he seems to be a bit off. Here's why despite being so hugely influential, Varg gives black metal a bad name.

Kristian Vikernes, also known as Varg Vikernes, or Louis Cachet, or Count Grishnackh, or even Greven is an extremely important member of the metal music community with a long troubled legal history and interesting worldview, to say the least. Varg is responsible for some of the sickest riffs to come out of Norway, but he's also responsible for numerous hate crimes, church burnings, and also his own band mate's life. Let's dig into it and show why this man is a prime example of separating superb art from its less than idealistic source, and not just because he told me to piss off on YouTube the other day.

Vikernes was born with the name Kristian in Bergen, Norway, but spent a chunk of his youth in Baghdad, Iraq. Vikernes himself claims in an interview with Michael Moynihan that this period was the result of his father working on a computer program for Saddam Hussein. His mother was also interviewed in an effort to gain a higher understanding of his thought processes. Unfortunately, some of his thought processes are sprinkled with some casual racism, likely beginning during this time. Vikernes and his family both confirmed that it seemed as if the young boy was untouchable in a school fraught with corporal punishment, simply because he was white. In addition, Varg explains that his father proudly owned a nazi flag and had an unkind view towards minorities. Vikernes has been quick to call him a hypocrite in this vein and mostly dismissed his father following his parents' divorce.

The musician came into his own with the journey into adolescence and the departure of his father. At the ripe age of 12, Varg began his descent into the metal music of the time, taking particularly to 80s groups like Bathory, Kreator, Slayer, and Iron Maiden. Having grown up on classical music and literature by J.R.R. Tolkien, it's easy to see where the influences for his later project Burzum were developed. By the time the young man picked up a guitar at the age of 14, things were mostly set in place. There is a polarizing debate as to whether or not Vikernes spent portions of his youth in a nationalist skinhead gang, but this is likely a false rumor given that there is no evidence of such a group existing in Bergen at the time.

After playing guitar in a short lived death metal band called Old Funeral, Varg's solo project for which he is known, Burzum, was born in 1991. The name derives from a Tolkien-created language (black speech) word meaning "darkness" and his respective stage name "Grishnackh" is borrowed from the name of an orc appearing in The Lord of the Rings. Burzum would go on to record four albums in the span of a year and a half, featuring almost entirely Vikernes musically. To obtain such a raw sound, he scoured pawn shops to find the worst microphone he could, eventually settling upon a mic attached to a headset. The albums also feature a cheap bass and a borrowed drum set, recorded through a boombox or a Peavey brand amplifier. It's kind of awesome. These albums were later released as demos, with his fourth effort Filosofem obtaining worldwide recognition. The single "Dunkelheit" even enjoyed occasional play on MTV. How bizarre. Despite all this relative success for contributions made in an obscure genre, things are only about to become interesting.

Coming off of some recognition achieved through his solo work, Vikernes was recruited to join the similarly themed black metal band Mayhem. This is where things seem to go wrong, given that Mayhem had its own extensive list of issues, including the recent suicide of founding member Dead. Being a talented bass guitar player in his own right, Vikernes seemed to fit in for a short time, until he became at odds with fellow Mayhem member Euronymous, at one time a good friend.

Euronymous, the only consistent member of the group from its inception, at one point maintained a record shop in Oslo which became integral to the formation of Norwegian black metal, brewing kinship between integral scene figures such as members of Enslaved and Emperor, and of course Burzum. Vikernes even found himself staying at the shop, named Helvete, for periods of time. Euronymous held enough stake in the genre to recommend these groups to labels, and released Burzum's music through his own records. So far it sounds like the ideal friendship, but it would soon drift into a stalemate of competition between the two which spelled disaster given the chaotic nature of Mayhem.

Vikernes left, Euronymous right (1992)

Following the increased media attention that the movement was gaining, these two fated young men felt that it was time to strike while the iron was hot. By the end of the year, there were at least fifty attempted church burnings in the country of Norway, almost all of which were committed or inspired by the black metal scene. Vikernes himself was involved with at least four such arson cases and subsequently tried in a court of law. Euronymous was also highly suspected of orchestrating many of these attacks, having publicly been quoted to have enjoyed seeing evil spread. Many of these churches had been declared national landmarks, some exceeding 600 years of age. Wikipedia has a comprehensive list of church burning details regarding this time frame, which can be found here. An anonymous interview was staged with Norwegian newspaper Bergens Tidende between (once again) Vikernes and Euronymous, using their pseudonyms. Vikernes confirmed Mayhem's involvement in the attacks, in addition to a confession of murder (which later could not be proven to occur). The goal of the interview was to spread fear and promote their new album, scheduled for an upcoming release. As anonymous as the interview was said to have been, by the time it was published Vikernes had long been in police custody. He was later released, given that concrete evidence to implicate his involvement wasn't yet substantial enough to warrant his detainment. Helvete was later closed after police involvement and public attention became too bothersome.

Afterwards, Euronymous became separated from his peers and disillusioned with the black metal scene. August 10th, 1993 after weeks of animosity between Vikernes and himself, Euronymous was stabbed to death in his own apartment. His body was found with 23 total cut wounds. Up to interpretation, the fine details of their confrontation is still muddled in a sea of hearsay. Varg claims that he killed Euronymous in self-defense after an extended period of rumor that Euronymous planned to kill Vikernes by torture. Others in the scene seem to agree that this is likely the case, though debate is a constant, especially since Varg stabbed him so may times. Vikernes claims most of the cut wounds are a result of broken glass injuries during a physical altercation. It is likely that issues arose between the men around a power struggle or financial disputes, or the fact that they were both bat-shit crazy. You can hear more of Vikernes' point of view in regards to the infamous moment from his personal YouTube channel. A link to the video is provided here

Nine days later, Vikernes was arrested and later put on trial for his crimes and was found guilty on counts of murder, the arson of three churches, attempted arson, and theft of explosives. He was sentenced to the maximum prison sentence of 21 years (which is incredible, right? 21 is the max?), of which he served 15 years. Both men involved later appeared as guitarist and bassist on Mayhem's album De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. The day he was officially sentenced, two more churches burned down as a public display of respect. 

Vikernes on trial at the age of 21 (1994)

Over the course of the next fourteen years, Varg would serve time in five different prisons across the nation. He began to adopt a skinhead look and reportedly had his jaw broken in 1996. He quickly began working on a manuscript intended to tell his side of the story, though it was not initially published in physical formats and he was denied the ability to proofread its contents. Afterwards, Varg hoped to resume the Burzum solo project within the walls of incarceration, but was initially denied the use of traditional instruments. Instead, the institution provided him limited access to a single synthesizer. The next two Burzum albums, Dauďi Baldrs (1997) and Hlidskjálf 
(1999) were recorded in this manner. For the latter, Vikernes was only granted access to the keyboard for a one week period. Both of these recordings helped innovate the "dungeon-synth" genre, and marked a radical departure from the black metal style Burzum was known for. These releases detail legends and texts of Old Norway, and while sounding closely like a midi-file from 2007 RuneScape can be quite beautiful. Here is a YouTube link to a touching ambient piece titled Hermodr a Helferd which I quite like. Following these darker keyboard outputs, Burzum was put on hold for the duration of his sentence.

The rest of Vikernes' time was uneventful, barring his attempted escape during a leave where he allegedly took control of a vehicle at gunpoint. Varg has identified his motive for his actions as his only means of survival after recently having been strangled by a fellow convict. A year was added to his sentence, and he was transferred to a higher security facility. During the rest of his sentence, Vikernes would go on to write five books mostly focused on paganism, and receive sporadic absences from the confines of his cell to visit family. He was eventually granted parole in 2009, where Burzum was immediately reactivated with its characteristic heavy sound. The artist would release six more albums, all focused on mythological themes. The final release by Burzum returns to the neo-folk sound introduced on the prison albums, concluding Varg's musical journey. In 2018, Vikernes indeed confirmed the end of the musical project he had begun in 1991.

Varg's personal life following his release from prison is mostly just this blur of odd, obscure behavior to be honest. He married a woman named Marie Cachet (who seems nice) and changed his own name to Louis, moving to and settling in France. He now has at least seven children and resides far from the city where he can do weird things in privacy. He seems to have calmed down a bit, aside from a 2013 charge for inciting racial hatred against Christians and Muslims and suspicions of terrorism following his wife's purchase of six rifles. He has also been banned from PayPal, in case you care. He now spends his free time developing his own fantasy-themed RPG and contributing to his YouTube channel ThuleanPerspective, where Varg give his insight into philosophy, as well as subjects such as survivalism, paganism, and his personal life. The channel now boasts nearly 225,000 subscribers. He's certainly entertaining and knowledgeable, but sometimes his rants get a bit carried away. Here is a small look into some of the titles of his vlog entries: "Pro-White Porn?", "Human Garbage", "About Autism & Retards", and "Why Are Scandinavians Sluts?". A greatest hit collection if I've ever heard one. However, I will recommend viewing at least a few of his videos to get an idea of his personality type and because it is an interesting look into a different world, even if it isn't a particularly delightful one.

Present day Varg Vikernes, 45 years of age

So back to the original point of this post. Is it okay to enjoy art produced by someone who committed so many crimes without yourself inadvertently becoming associated with it?  I think so. I'll be among the first to admit that I absolutely rock out to Burzum from time to time, but that doesn't exactly make me a supporter of church burnings (which for the record, I am not). While I agree it may be unethical to financially support artists who have committed such crimes against humanity, the choice is ultimately yours. As long as you do your personal best to benefit the planet and those around you, who the hell cares what music you listen to? What are your thoughts on separating art from its artist? Tell me in the comments! Keep on rocking on, and be kind to one another. 'Til next time. 

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