Vault Review: Ved Buens Ende – Written in Waters

One level above merely excellent composition is the ability to create an independent style
particular to yourself. On this cult classic, Ved Buens Ende succeeds in sounding like no other band
with their twisted sense of melody and jazzy rhythms.


Ved Buens Ende was (they have reformed a couple of times since initially splitting up in 1997 but nothing has come of it) somewhat of an unofficial black metal super group, consisting of people who spearheaded the Norwegian avant-garde black metal scene as members of other prominent bands alongside Ved Buens Ende. Drummer-vocalist Carl-Michael Eide (“Aggressor”) plays in Aura Noir and Virus, the spiritual successor of Ved Buens Ende; guitarist Yusaf Parvez (“Vicotnik”) plays in Dødheimsgard among other bands; bassist Hugh Stephen James (“Skoll”) plays in Arcturus. He also provided bass for Ulver’s black metal albums and Fimbulwinter’s sole long-play. It’s worth mentioning that these people are all multi-instrumentalists, and I only listed the role they play on this album.

When you look at the history of black metal, everybody knows the post hoc categorisation of first wave black metal followed by the Norwegian black metal scene, which most consider the defining black metal sound to this day. After the implosion of the latter, black metal split into regional and ideological subgroups. In Norway, a wave of avant garde black metal sprouted into the scene during this time. When talking about black metal beyond 1993, this wave easily gets overlooked when compared to the more eyebrow raising nazi black metal or American blackgaze and hipstery post-black metal. The style of Norwegian avant garde was characterized by heavy use of electronics, synthesizers, folk influence and other “proggy” elements. It was a big departure from the minimalist ethos of black metal (almost like what post-punk was to punk) and the “nerdier” appeal explains why the black metal crowd ignored it for the most part. Many albums from that scene have, however, gained a cult status in the underground.

Written in Waters isn’t exactly a typical example from that scene. For one, there are no synthesizers, weird time signatures (for the most part), and the soundscape appears traditionally black. But under the surface of black metal tropes there is a complex and original pallet of composition choices. One level above merely excellent composition is the ability to create an independent style particular to yourself. Ved Buens Ende succeeds in sounding like no other band with their twisted sense of melody and the driving momentum of
their rhythm section which makes the songs flow like a current of water. It’s hard to say who has the best performance among these musicians. Aggressor’s drumming in particular is jazzy and sounds like an endless sequence of drum fills without losing the groove. Vicotnik’s guitar playing is tight and precise in a way that’s more common to death metal, and the note choices are delicate but unexpected. Atypically for a black metal album, Skoll’s bass is very audible, and the basslines are actually great, acting as their own
independent melodies that offer counterpoint to the guitars, and sometimes even take up the role of main melody beneath all the confusingly dissonant guitar notes. The production is another strength of this album with every instrument sounding clear and crisp.

Pictures of bandmembers from around the time of Written in Waters…

The opening track I Sang For The Swans begins with a three-minute instrumental, that acts like an overture for the whole album. It would be tempting to call this intro pointless, as it is so clearly cut apart from the latter half of the song, but it serves a very important role in introducing the musical language of the band right at the beginning. The riffs use a call-and-response technique between lower, more rhythmic notes and open, high notes, creating a wide and atmospheric soundscape. In the base level, the root note alternates between E minor, a major third and a minor third. These same notes reappear in the bassline of the verse, implying that the two parts of the song are more connected than one might think at face value. Many of the notes here, like tritones, minor seconds and major sevenths appear not only in the latter half of the song, but everywhere in the album. It appears to me that Ved Buens Ende, together with Immolation, laid the groundwork for dissonant metal, which would flourish in the 2000s.

Eventually, the intro reaches a climax, and the guitar is allowed to ring out in the air, until it descents into the main riff, which is played in a more traditional strumming technique. This shift to simplicity allows the vocals to enter and capture the listener’s full attention with a wailing melody that has a tinge of microtonality in it. The clean vocal style is very unique to this band, sounding nothing like typical black metal singing. But rather than feeling out of place, the theatrical delivery and oriental-sounding melodies add to the alienness of the music while giving the songs direction and memorability, which could easily be lost if they instead tried to shoehorn in as much dissonant weirdness as humanly possible. Eventually the song introduces some black metal shrieks by Vicotnik, reminding the listener that they are still listening to a black metal album.

The lyrics appear as disparate poems, obscure trains of thought, yet there is re-emerging imagery that ties them together: desert fields, flying, feathered beings, an approaching storm… We can see the desert and the storm in the album cover, which recalls the art of Salvador Dali. In the centre stage are these pale, skeletal figures, that look like they are made of glass, twisting in agony. There is clearly a story, but it’s abstract and I won’t bother unravelling it here. I will say that there is a feeling of true Lovecraftian horror
(as well as Greek tragedy) here: I’m not talking about the tentacled monsters and ancient aliens that have become synonymous with it, but the incomprehensible horror at the outskirts of human reasoning. Lovecraft’s early work in particular included many stories of fantastical lands where human logic failed, like in the story of this album. This line from the opening track always manages to waken similar awe and discomfort in me:

“Let the fallen hear:
“It never rains around here.”

Third song It’s Magic slows things down with arpeggiated chords, before delving into some of the most chaotic composition on the album. It’s also on this song that Aggressor has his most manic vocal performance yet, his wails standing somewhere between pain and euphoria.

Den Saakaldte, one of the longer songs, is also one of the most straight-forward ones. The song starts off with some pretty standard black metal chords. Here the presence of the bass is really highlighted, and the bass melody is almost reminiscent of classic Tommy Iommi riffing. This song suffers a little from a general lack of direction with lots of stylistic variation. The doomy middle-section stands out in its epicness. The song slows to a halt, until it explodes into orchestral cacophony near the middle-point of the album. After this it transitions into possibly the most old-school point of the album, with blast beats and growling vocals making their first appearance after this opener. Overall, it does make for one of the best climaxes here, even if the song is a bit disjointed.

Autumn Leaves is the Ved Buens Ende song you can play your grandma: it features no distorted guitars or harsh vocals. If the female vocals here sound familiar, that’s because they were sung by Lill Kathrine Stensrud, who also provided vocals and played a flute on – again – Bergtatt. Weirdly, the song doesn’t feel out of place and manages to maintain the dark atmosphere.

Remembrance of Things Past is the emotional finale of the album, and structurally one of the best. Here the band goes full prog with a jazzy intro transitioning to a tremolo-picked frenzy. The middle-part has one of my favourite riffs on the album, a weird mix of the signature upstroked middle eastern chords and galloped melody. The album descends into an extended orchestral part, calling back to track four. This time it’s easy to hear the pianos, accordions and violins battling dissonantly. The cacophony is cut by a knock on the door and a voice answering, a part that sounds almost like a studio mistake but with this band it’s hard to say if that’s the case. This is clearly a transition point in the story, as the song then continues with the same melody as earlier, just with an acoustic guitar playing it. Two things are worth noting here: firstly, the riff is special in how natural it sounds both with and without distortion; secondly, this is the only part on the whole album that acoustic guitars are used (there are clean electric guitars at various points, but never acoustic before this). It feels like a sort of awakening from a story point of view, a shift from obscurity to clarity through chaos. We come closer to finding out the origins of the protagonist, with these lyrics especially sticking with me:

“Witches painted me,
Like the mysteries created me…
Like where the poets breathe,
I were woven into blasphemies…”

These lyrics are first growled by Vicotnik, then sung by Aggressor over the distorted guitars, and finally over the acoustic, adding to the idea of awakening. There are some problems with the lyrics of the last two songs, as the lyrics given for track nine are sung on track eight, and the actual lyrics sung on track nine are muffled and hard to make out. The instrumental on the closing track includes accordions and a piano rather than guitars. The music has now achieved consonance, but the piano is out of tune and the accordion just feels alien to a black metal album. Despite coming close, the album doesn’t offer resolution to the listener. It feels like even after making the journey out of the desert, there is irreversible damage that’s left.

Ved Buens Ende, current day

The reason why genre fusion typically fails is that bands use it to compensate for their lack of originality by mashing together unrelated genres in a way that enhances neither one. While Ved Buens Ende does take elements from folk (You, That May Wither), speed metal (Den Saakaldte) and jazz (Coiled in Wings), they never leave the context of black metal. Since these genres have always had an influence on black metal (safe for maybe jazz) they don’t clash with the music, allowing the band to focus on the songwriting rather than aesthetics.

I’ve heard criticisms of this album accusing it of postmodernism, but this is a misunderstanding of postmodernism. If I had to describe this album with an art term, it would be surrealist. From the cover art to the subject and compositions, everything is dreamlike and contradictory, but unlike postmodernism, this album doesn’t try to make the musical and ideological elements of black metal
meaningless by deconstructing them but expands them to portray ideas that linger outside the immediate human awareness. For a purist, that sort of transcendentalism might be distracting, but for others it provides new artistic frontiers to explore.

Ved Buens Ende never released an album after Written in Waters, and so it stands as the sole work of art from these three musicians together. Though they released music through different projects, the lightning in a bottle moment was never recaptured, and the quality of those works doesn’t quite reach as high as this. According to Vicotnik, who was only 18 when Written in Waters was released, the band became too analytical and perfectionist, and this ruined their improvisational and creative way of working. Despite this, their influence lives on in the post black metal and dissonant metal of the 21st century.


Ved Buens Ende, live at Inferno 2022

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