Appreciating Hliðskjálf with borrowed cultural memory

horns of doom

Hliðskjálf, the second of Burzum‘s prison albums, was recorded with the intention of promoting old Nordic mythology and, in association with much second wave black metal, revivifying the flagging cultural memory of the Scandinavian region. While it is beyond this blog’s expertise to comment on whether the music contained on this album bears any relation to traditional music from that part of the world, it is perhaps a good place to discuss the kind of aspirations that a project like Burzum or any number of nationalist-revivalist black metal bands have at heart.

Cultural memory as a concept was introduced by German Egyptologist Jan Assmann in the eighties and refers to how a common identity takes shape among populations of human beings. Nation-states as a political construct that unites people under a territorial banner, often in uneasy compromise, is a relatively new phenomenon on the global scale. But far before this came to be the undisputed norm, people were drawn to one another based on a commonly felt and experienced identity or memory, one that complemented their racial heritage on a cultural-anthropological level.

According to Assmann, this common identity/memory is formed as the result of a shared pool of knowledge that is transmitted over time. These memories are categorized as:

  1. Individual memory:- Restricted to the body of the person, this takes into account the experiences that they gather on a contemporaneous and life-long scale. This is an intensely personal form of memory that the individual uses to relate themselves with their environment. However, by the same token, individual memory dies with the individual and as such is transitory, non-persistent, and perishable.
  2. Social memory:- Also known as communicative memory, this form of memory extends beyond the individual to the social setting that he inhabits. This, first and foremost, includes family, and the bonds and folklore that are handed down over several generations. Social memory also stems from the various groups and denominations that persons belong to over the course of their lifetimes. Derived from an external source of knowledge and indoctrination as opposed to the more personal individual memory, social memory persists for a longer time than the former.
  3. Cultural memory:- These are memories of civilizations stretching back to their origin myths. Cultural memories come down to us preserved and codified in the forms of song, dance, oral word, ritual, esoteric knowledge, and artifacts. They speak to us of a time beyond traceable lineages and histories, a primordial time to which, however, we most strongly owe our sense of cultural identity. The Rigveda and the Yajurveda, two of the four canonical texts of Vedic Hinduism, would be examples of this form of memory in effect today, their hymns and sacrificial prayers still invoked in all Hindu liturgy.

The identity of a group of people according to Assmann, then, is a composite of these three forms of memory, with the preservation of cultural memory being the particular focus of black metal bands like Burzum. Their primary complaint is the steady erosion of this identity through the homogeneity imposed by globalization. The deprivation of this ancient character and its substitution with a one-size-fits-all straitjacket stifles freedom of choice and individual opinion, and so plays into the hands of market forces and global oligarchies. By compromising our cultural memories, we efface who we are as a group of people, and our place in the world and in time.

Globalization, however, also creates what can only be called a borrowed or a simulated cultural memory in those not a part of the original culture. As a man of non-European persuasion raised in a non-European setting but with a decidedly Western education that has been accompanied with a bombardment from popular and not so popular Western culture, I can relate to things Western. But this familiarity with a foreign culture does not make it natural to my native make-up. The way I interact with it is intimate, perhaps more so than things belonging to my Indian heritage in a way, yet I can only deal with it on an abstracted plane, and not as a participating member of that foreign culture. This is a peculiar by-product of globalization, a sense of “belonging” appropriated from other cultures but not registering beyond a certain surface level.

On the other hand, though I maintain no belief in the supernatural and though endless Hindu rituals tire me, I recognize the bond I share with them and with others around whilst involved in them. This bond goes beyond logic, obviously, yet it exists and is, in its own way, as comforting as the relationship I share with my “regular” pursuits. What could this contradictory attitude be other than a cultural memory that has come down countless generations and that encourages a kinship with one’s roots?

It is with a borrowed cultural memory, then, that we attempt to understand albums like Hliðskjálf on an abstract, intellectual, and emotional plane but also a culturally shallow one. Does this mean a lesser understanding of the music? Not necessarily, but there is bound to be a significant component missing in its overall appreciation to those looking from the outside in.

Recorded with the barest of synthesizer technology available to Norway’s privileged incarcerated, Hliðskjálf is a wholly ambient suite of soundscapes obviously created with a great deal of thought, creativity and sincere emotion, and can be enjoyed on the same semi-mystical level as other great metal, albeit with a slightly adjusted sensibility. Minimalist, even ascetic, in sound and never exceeding the gentlest of zephyr-like tempos, these pieces show definite and distinct melodic themes and development. A soft wash of chord progressions frequently acts as background against which solo note tinkering plays out a lead voice. Repetition, as in previous Burzum work, is a key element in fomenting these compositions, stirring the brew till a steadily solidifying image materializes out of the murky depths. While no obvious connection to a specific folk sound can be made to the best of my knowledge, maintained throughout is a severely austere and meditative yet ultimately hopeful air. The soundtrack of weed-overrun ruins and eventide bells in monasteries, Hliðskjálf is worthy of greater attention than it receives.

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