Fog drifts over rolling hills on a grey cloudy day. There are too few trees and too few mountains. The only form to break through the mist is a black rotting tower in the distance. Even from so far away you can see its decay, its moss-covered bricks, its black hole windows, consuming every poor soul that wanders too close, condensing those souls into a pinpoint of spirit effervescence, locked away deep in its dark dungeons. But out in the landscape the ghosts are free to wander, lost adrift but not trapped, content to hope that the clouds might break over some distant horizon, an ever-fought denial of the gloom.
I’ve been listening to Født til å Herske for about fifteen years now. I’ve always loved it, but I also feel like I’ve never fully cracked it. It’s cold, monotonous, mysterious, and wearingly solemn. It’s like the dungeon synth equivalent of plainchant, a dim ray of light within the darkness, only able to illuminate an enveloping void. But somehow the light is never fully consumed by the hungry shadows. I remember reading a Mortiis interview from this time period where he described his music as being even darker than black metal, which I think is inaccurate. It faces the darkness rather than embracing it. It’s a bit bleak, but it gives me a feeling of stoic determination, an inner drive to continue pushing forward even in the face of utter ennui.
Beneath the static gloom-wandering there’s a subtle feeling of excitement, a sense of wonder at a world of the mind manifesting through the keys. Before this (and The Song of a Long Forgotten Ghost demo) the only real dungeon synth was short individual tracks featured on black metal albums, so I can only imagine that Mortiis would have taken great pleasure from seeing such a novel concept come together so successfully. The idea was to take the listener on a journey into another world in the same way as the old space ambient pioneers, except instead of taking the listener into space, taking them into the mystical medieval lands suggested by black metal’s most atmospheric moments. This had never been done before, and yet just immediately fell into place and had the power to transport a listener to somewhere they’ve never been. It must’ve been an electrifying experience to produce this album, a real magic spell.
But that sense of creative satisfaction seems to be masked and restrained by an attitude of strict solemnity. This album is very serious, despite some of the cheap sounds, and of course despite the campy original cover art of Mortiis with the prosthetics and medieval garb, pompously pointing his finger. But the earnestness of that serious tone overpowers the naive surface cheese for those willing to allow it. I think it was meant to cater to a black metal audience first and foremost, and with that, especially back then, is a very bizarre worldview, humorless and narrowly-focused, only concerned with the biggest life-or-death questions man faces, rejecting all frivolous things, societal, aesthetic, and emotional. This self-serious attitude might make it seem even more campy to outsiders, and I think Født til å Herske can even be appreciated on that level as an exotic curiosity. But for those who wish to experience it as intended, I believe an effective method would be to suspend one’s disbelief and attempt to think with a black metal attitude:
We live in desperate times, torn from our state of nature by a cruel historic fate. The soul of humanity is at stake and steadily collapses into a pit of decadence and despair. The only way out of that certain doom is complete societal destruction, to rebuild anew in some distant future. So we are in a place of nihilistic despair, and all we can do is howl to the moon with our piercing shrieks and screeching tremolos. We know too much and are unable to laugh anymore at the tragic truth. But upon tiring and returning to the cave we can dream, of what once was and what could be, but only after we’ve forgotten this corruption as we finally drift off into slumber.
Something like that. I don’t think it’s a healthy way to look at the world in daily life, with such intensity at all times, and I’d imagine that’s why most of the old black metallers eventually grew out of such complete commitment to that way of thinking. But I believe to understand where this album is really coming from it’s necessary to at least temporarily don some kind of mental mask and try to put oneself in a mindset of that perception being true and these fragments of beauty being an oasis in a spiritual desert, and of seeing it less as a piece of entertainment to be consumed and more as an unrefined shamanic ritual spontaneously manifesting from the void, recognizing that the effectiveness of such magic is reliant upon participatory imagination.