A variety of ideas marred by inconsistency
The rate of Burzum releases since Varg’s parole from prison in early 2009 has been swift yet wholly within the norm when you take into account his prolific approach to song-writing prior to his incarceration. What makes Umskiptar slightly different in this sense is the album’s seemingly rich narrative underpinning (I say ‘seemingly’ because it is based on an old Norse poem, Völuspá, which I have not read) and the somewhat strange dual musical approach on display that is comprised of Varg’s post-incarceration black metal-esque style and a dark/ambient/folk one.
Umskiptar’s opening tracks are quite black metal oriented and are rather reminiscent of those that were proffered on Fallen, though this time around there is a greater sense of introspection and moodiness as a result of the dirge-like compositions and, perhaps, the album’s subject matter itself. This, for me, is where Umskiptar shines at its brightest with Varg’s melding of traditional Norse mythology and his unique compositional approach being amongst the most coherent he’s achieved in his entire career. Where the album falters, however, is through Varg’s attempts to present his ambient and black metal sounds side by side; the results of which tend to be quite hit and miss with a heavy emphasis on the former.
It’s clear that the intent of Umskiptar is less about the material itself as it is the ways in which the material can be used to present a particular atmosphere to the listener and, on that level, you would have to say that it succeeds in its mission with the decidedly maudlin and dense feel pervading practically each and every moment of the album, irrespective of whether it is being presented through a black metal lens or an ambient one. The problem for me, however, is that when Umskiptar changes gears just after its mid-point and focuses more directly on its dark/ambient elements, it loses what little pacing it had to begin with and the vision becomes significantly less coherent. The strange thing about it though is that these slower, darker, and more ambient tracks for the most part aren’t half bad at all and, had they featured on an entirely different album made up of material of a similar ilk I’d have likely been much more receptive to them. In this context, however, their inclusion juxtaposes a little too roughly for my tastes and the album goes from being somewhat of a challenging listen to one that I simply struggle to identify with.
Setting aside the merits of both the black and ambient musical aspects of Umskiptar, one area that has received a fair bit of attention is Varg’s clean vocals which feature much more prominently than on any other Burzum release and have, to these ears at least, matured considerably. Perhaps it’s due to the subject matter at hand lending a sense of weight to his performance or there may be some other reason for it but, whatever the cause, his use of the spoken word as well as his singing itself stand out with a heightened sense of authority and confidence in ways that I don’t believe they ever have before.
With its 66 minute duration and its tendency to be rather uneventful for large stretches of time, Umskiptar ranks amongst the most (self) indulgent of Burzum’s recorded output and its strange and often jarring marriage of black metal and ambient material make for an album that is at times interesting and mysterious but far too often rather boring and, ultimately, simply overlong.
There are lots of ideas present on Umskiptar that are promising and even at times are on the verge of being exciting but they haven’t really been fleshed out to their full potential and are too often haphazardly assembled which leaves us something that is interesting in spirit but ultimately undeserving of too many repeated listens.