When I started this “Pirate Guide”—the monthly “Sonic Boom” feature wherein I offer short reviews of several new albums—I intended to in fact write short reviews. Like, tweet-length. Or, more specifically, like the great reviews published in Robert Christgau’s “Consumer Guide,” which inspired this feature in the first place. This month, though, I started off by writing about two artists whose decades-old careers have long since held my imagination captive, and whose new works can’t be summed up in a couple short sentences. (That is, I can’t do it. Christgau could do ’em both in 90 words total.) So, as I’m dedicating too much space to too little music this week, I’ll return next week with Part 2 of this March 2010 Guide—at which point I’ll abandon the excess to be found below in favor of the economy for which we should all be striving in these tough times.
Just so you know, it’s not, like, OK to like Burzum. The man behind the one-man Norwegian black metal band—Varg Vikernes, aka Count Grishnackh—is a convicted murderer and arsonist (he killed a fellow Norwegian black metaller and burned down three churches in Norway), not to mention a reprehensible bigot. (Perhaps curiously, it is this latter transgression that seemingly most offends Burzum detractors.) Coincidentally or not, Vikernes is also a musical visionary, arguably the single most important artist in the history of black metal. The work recorded by Vikernes between 1992 and 1993 stands as some of the darkest, most chilling and most compelling of the era, blending buzzsaw guitars, hissing vocals, eerie synths and production that might generously be described as “rudimentary” to create an aesthetic of desolation that has spawned and shaped a genre (yet never truly been equaled). Vikernes spent the last 16 years in prison (for, um, murder and arson) from where he recorded and released a pair of inessential synth-based albums that veered into New Age territory. Belus is the first post-prison Burzum album, a work that probably should have fallen somewhere between “forgettable” and “embarrassing.” Instead—somehow, shockingly, impossibly—Vikernes has delivered a record that is not only worthy of his own legacy, but is perhaps the very best album of his career. Belus finds new depths in Burzum’s signature sound; Vikernes hasn’t changed anything drastically, but he’s grown as an artist (a word not used lightly here), unearthing elements of crust punk, garage rock, ambient, even traditional metal from the sound he invented nearly two decades ago. A perfect example of this is the magnificent “Kaimadalthas’ Nedstigning,” a swirling tunnel of blast beats and squealing guitars, in which Vikernes accompanies his standard ghostly howl with textured singing and speaking. That’s not to say Belus represents a markedly more accessible Burzum—though by black metal standards, Burzum has always been more accessible than most—simply that Vikernes has expanded an unforgiving sonic palette. Those looking for evidence of Vikernes’ vile political beliefs will likely have to look elsewhere, as: (A) Belus is an elaborate concept album concerning the Norse god Baldr; and (B) it’s sung entirely in Norwegian. It’s worth wondering the extent to which Vikernes’ infamy has solidified his legacy—black metal places an unusual emphasis on authenticity, and what is more authentic than murder, arson and hate?—but Belus would be a great record regardless of its author’s résumé, and it is a great record regardless of how you’re supposed to feel about its author. [9/10]
Speaking of visionaries, if you were taking bets in 1997 or so, Damon Albarn would hardly have been considered the most likely member of Britpop legends Blur to emerge as one of popular music’s most adventurous and exciting artists circa 2010. (The smart money would probably have been on guitarist Graham Coxon.) But over the last decade or so, Albarn has been just that. Among other projects, he has: fronted the underrated and understated post-Blur supergroup The Good, The Bad & The Queen; collaborated with Chinese theater and opera director Chen Shi-zheng on the stage adaptation of the traditional Chinese story “Journey to the West” (as Monkey: Journey to the West); and created the Honest Jon’s record label, which has released compilations of indigenous soul and folk music from Africa, Latin America, England and the Caribbean. And then there’s his post-modern cartoon pop creation Gorillaz—probably Albarn’s most commercially successful work to date (including Blur). Plastic Beach is Gorillaz’ third proper album, and it strays from the conceit under which the band was born: No longer are Gorillaz a modern-day Banana Splits; now they’re just a faceless, shape-shifting pop collective with no conceivable artistic boundaries. One might say that Plastic Beach is loaded with guest spots (everyone from grime artist Bashy to Brit-rapper Kano to the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music…and that’s all in one song!) except that guest spots are the point here—it’s sort of like a Timbaland album, except, y’know, worth listening to. In fact, Plastic Beach offers a galaxy of musical exploration, with Albarn’s gorgeous plaintive croon acting as the space between the stars. It’s intoxicating, and sometimes disorienting, which isn’t always a great feeling—it’s such a disparate mélange of sounds that it necessarily shuns a singular artistic vision, and therefore, an identifying voice. Frankly, to those unfamiliar with the band’s origins, even Albarn might feel like a guest here. Still, Albarn is at his strongest when he’s at his weirdest, and on a song-by-song basis, it’s hard to imagine a weirder collection than this, not to mention a more rewarding one. And its myriad highlights—“White Flag,” “Superfast Jellyfish,” “Empire Ants,” “On Melancholy Hill”—hang with the very best moments of Albarn’s career, a career that will one day rank among the all-time greats. [7/10]