For almost 30 years, Enslaved has taken an uncompromising path when it comes to their craft, and fifteen albums in; it's that very approach that has helped set them apart from their Norwegian Black Metal contemporaries. With the band's latest album, 'Utgard' set for release this month, guitarist, and founding member Ivar Bjørnson talks with Jonathan Graham about this latest chapter in the band's evolution.
The Norwegian black metal movement is easily one of the most interesting scenes within the metal genre, not least from a cultural and historical perspective, but also in terms of its evolution throughout the years, and nowhere is that more prevalent in a band than in Enslaved. In 2020 Enslaved is in continued stellar form, a band at its most existentialist and self-conscious, not to mention bearing the torch of their hometowns' extraordinary musical history.
With the band's latest incredible album 'Utgard' (out now via Nuclear Blast Records), Enslaved proves they are at a stage where just about everything they touch turns to gold. Icy black metal anthems walk hand in hand with refined prog-rock gems and primordial, dark folk sorcery. It's Enslaved to the bone! Yet again the band casts off its old skin, delivering some of their shortest songs in years while still packing them with glimmering detail. Bjørnson tells us. "Creating this album was truly special. We almost felt we were in Utgard all the time; we were so invested in this concept. Plus, we got a lot of help from the weather gods. We started recording in October 2019 and were finished with mastering on the morning of Christmas eve – or Grutle's eve, given that this is his birthday. In that whole period, I don't think I experienced more than five minutes of bright light outside."
The tendency in the Metal genre has always been to do it heavier and largely to do it faster. That has been the norm since Tony Iommi's opening riffs roared in Black Sabbath's debut album back in 1970, and it has remained true to form to this day, however, black metal has certainly pushed things to the more extreme.
In terms of style, the movement of the late 80s and early 90s was defined by very simple axioms: more is more when it comes to aggression and delivery. Much like the thrash metal movement of the Bay Area that came in the decade before, black metal was all about upping the intensity, the darkness and the sheer vile energy of the music.
Of course, there were also the ideological factors to take into account, like the Satanic beliefs, the burning of churches and even going as far as band members murdering one another, which goes to show that this movement was not like any other at the time or ever since. It's not only a music style but also an ideology.
Many bands were forged in the fires of this black metal scene, but Enslaved has always stood out from the pack. Formed in 1991 by guitarist Ivar Bjørnson and vocalist and bassist Grutle Kjellson when they were just mere teenagers, the band actually started out as Phobia, but they eventually took the name from a fellow black metal band's demo track released back in the early 90s ("Enslaved in Rot" by Immortal), which goes to show how deep the connections where within Black Metal at the time to the point that bands were listening to each others demo tracks. It was a really strong and heavy underground movement where everybody seemed to be familiar with one another.
"It is not about avoiding fear of the pitch-black darkness, but to go into the darkness itself."
What's interesting about Enslaved as a band is that despite the fact that grew and developed deep within the black metal movement, they never saw themselves as such, with Bjørnson aiming to go beyond the already established frames of this subgenre. For example, in their formative years, Enslaved started out as a prototypical black metal band, with a lot of emphasis on extreme sounds, a lot of harsh vocals and with the now-classic raw production that is a common trait in bands of this nature. However, by 1993 the band started to mutate, slowly developing a more unique sound and that is clearly shown in Enslaved's debut, 'Vikingligr Veldi,' where pretty much every song bar one is more than ten minutes long.
While other bands were aiming for the chaotic and the extreme, Enslaved was starting to develop a different kind of sound where there was more room for experimentation and there was also a factor of an epic scale, which influenced significantly in the so-called Viking Metal scene, with Quorthon and Bathory already started to exploit with their album 'Hammerheart.'
Never a sucker for stagnation, Enslaved explored uncharted progressive and psychedelic territories even back in the "grim nineties" – placing them in a unique position of both bearers of tradition as well as explorers into the unknown. Now, almost three decades on, Elsaved has become a worldwide phenomenon, enthralling their listeners with music at once bleak and sublime, effortlessly proving that it is indeed not a problem at all to sound like the sophisticated love child of King Crimson and Bathory. For the band, it is not about avoiding fear of the pitch-black darkness, but to go into the darkness itself.
Reinvented, refined and progressed their highly inventive brand of extreme metal to a wholly unique level, fluently combining blistering black metal with warm prog rock and archaic folklore with psychedelic thrall. 'E,' their fourteenth album, released back in 2017, proved their worth by bringing a certain metaphysical plane to their very own interpretation of Nordic mythology, runes and the sacredness in profanity. "The album cycle for 'E' was the most intense we did so far," an enthusiastic Bjørnson exclaims. "We covered more territory than ever before and gladly realized we got noticed more outside the extreme metal scene." It was a thrilling but weird time, he recalls, when one day they were playing their groundbreaking 'Frost' in its entirety only to churn out their more psychedelic, soothing tunes the next day at a prog festival. Only now it becomes apparent that this was only the beginning of yet another journey.
Enter 'Utgard,' a record brimful with northern magic. Let all those other bands sing about Thor's mighty hammer and poor Odin hanging from that tree in miserable weather conditions. Enslaved is looking behind the mirror, tracing the origins of the well-known fables of the northern world back into each and every one of us. "Utgard can be countless things," Bjørnson states. "An image, a metaphor, an esoteric location. From Norse mythology, we know it as a landscape where the giants dwell, where the gods of Asgard have no control. On a psychological level, it can represent the spheres of sleep, dreams or lucid dreams; the outer borders of your consciousness and what lies beyond them in the subconsciousness. Utgard represents something that is hard to master completely, perhaps impossible. This something is dangerous, chaotic, uncontrollable. Yet something is enchanting about a place like this. It is where madness, creativity, humour and chaos dwell."
Their new album is a journey into and through scary Utgard. Sounds dark? Absolutely! 'Utgard' shows Enslaved both unleashed and fully thought-through, a lethal combination unfurling a potential that's easily rekindling the furore of their early works while dancing gracefully through their most ambitious, haunting and musical compositions yet.
Work on 'Utgard' commenced in the dying weeks of 2018, fueled by a sudden onslaught of the northern muses. "I sat down in my living room with my acoustic guitar, and suddenly it happened all at once", an almost bewildered Bjørnson remembers. "I couldn't believe it at first, it was like all the noise in the world had followed me home. After only two nights in my living room already the first songs had taken shape. That was amazing, but at the same time, I almost didn't trust myself because it happened so fast. I took a break before I went back to it, but again, it all happened pretty fast. And as soon as I took the songs to Grutle, things really took up."
After being friends for so longs, things between them happen naturally. "Friendship is what makes this band so strong", Bjørnson nods. "We both are loyal to the idea and stick to our vision, come what may." In a way, that's true for the rest of the gang as well. The concrete base of Arve "Ice Dale" Isdal (since 2002) and Håkon Vinje, along with the arrival of new drumming talent extraordinaire, former co-producer and good friend Iver Sandøy, really spiced things up. "2019 went by in a creative blur, and that's also thanks to Iver," Bjørnson stresses. "We're in a really good place right now."
The unusually rollicking rock'n'roll touch of "Urjotun" or the archaic voice from the deep that is "Utgardr," the raging force of "Flight Of Thought And Memory" or the elegiac final curtain "Distant Seasons" show Enslaved more open, more focused and simply more brilliant than ever. Also, to Bjørnson, 'Utgard' is truly special. "We have albums that are steps, and we have some that are milestones," he says. "I personally think 'Utgard' is a milestone along the lines of "Frost" or "Below The Lights"." Time will tell, of course, but hearing a 42-year-old veteran of the Norwegian metal scene talk that fondly and enthused about his 15th studio record is restoring a lot of faith in the concept of long-running bands. Maybe that's why even after 30 years, Enslaved still refuse to lower their standards...and don't expect them to any time soon.
'Utgard' by Enslaved Tracklist:
1. Fires In The Dark
7. Flight Of Thought And Memory
8. Storms Of Utgard
9. Distant Seasons