THIS IS ARMAGEDDON!: Unravelling De Mysteriis Of ENSLAVED's Latest Masterpiece; Exclusive Q&A With Frontman Grutle Kjellson
Welcome to the year-end edition of your fave column on all things True, Norwegian, and Black Metal. If you've come looking for a giant, boring-as-all-fuk list of fave albums of the year, well, you've come to the wrong place. So, join us as we throw tradition out the proverbial window, and instead focus on one band – one album – that truly defined the spirit of Norwegian Black Metal in the year of our lord, two thousand seventeen.
Before jumping into it, let us reflect a little on what made 2017 such a banner year for True Norwegian Black Metal. First and foremost, it was the year that gave rise to the very column you are reading. It was also a year that saw your's truly experiencing two mighty legends of Nordic black metal on the live front – both Mayhem and Satyricon – with the latter being witnessed on Norwegian soil. Trust me when I say this is bucket-list shit that must experienced. For those that didn't make it to either show, fret not, as we covered both in previous installments of this column here and here. If this weren't enough, we were also incredibly privileged to premiere the brand new video for Satyricon's "To Your Brethren In The Dark". If you missed that, head here to get caught up.
So, back to the reason you are here today. If you've been following, you'd know we were hit with a handful of quality releases in 2017 straight outta Norway. Of course, there was Satyricon's latest masterpiece, Deep Calleth Upon Deep. In fact, it was a tough call when deciding which to feature in this article, as the Satyricon has not left the turntable and Spotify playlist in nearly two months. If this weren't enough, Taake's Kong Vinter saw Hoest and crew delivering a bare bones, back-to-basics ode to the Nordic old-school. On a similar note, Halden, Norway's Mork absolutely blew minds with their third full-length effort, Eremittens Dal.
As great as all these releases are, there was only one band whose music transported the listener into the deepest, darkest corners of the universe, allowing only brief, beautiful glimpses of what lies beyond. Enslaved. Of course, one could argue that Enslaved are much more than black metal. In fact, they themselves would be the first to correct this. That said, there is a spirit and vitality to contemporary Enslaved that is far more black metal than the kvltest of kvlt.
One cannot enter into an Enslaved listening experience passively. To give anything less than your utmost attention would be doing the band – and their beautifully crafted songs – a disservice. I mean, this isn't without trying. Believe you me, I've tried. Next time you find yourself engaged in a particularly menial task (e.g. work, reading, cleaning, cooking), throw on an Enslaved album and see what happens. In my experience, I quickly came to the realization that Enslaved demands one's full attention. Doing anything else is a lesson in futility – one that will either get you fired from your job, reading the same page of your favorite book over and over again, or standing on your front lawn while watching your house burn to the ground.
As is the case with the very best in both classic and contemporary art – which requires focus and deep contemplation to truly appreciate – such should be the approach of an Enslaved album. This has become more apparent with each successive release, and has never been more apparent than their brand new album, E. So, what is it about E that demands such attention? Well, first and foremost, the eight tracks on display all share a very crucial component that makes the hour long listening experience so unbelievably seductive and entrancing. This fundamental component is known as quintessence.
In ancient times, quintessence was described as the fifth essence or element (ether), with the others being the ones we are all intimately familiar with – air, fire, earth, and water. Quintessence is the very fabric of black metal – its signature – its DNA. It's that inexplicable feeling that can make every hair on your body erect when presented with an incredibly momentous passage of music. When done correctly, as is so often heard within the Norwegian contingent of this sub-genre, its power can induce the listener into a trance-like state, whereby one begins to question the depths of the soul, scrutinizing every concious thought – a musical journey right to the very essence of one's being. This is the jaw-dropping dynamism that is Norwegian black metal. If you are lucky enough to have ever felt it, you know exactly what I am talking about.
The true test of any artist comes with the projection of their art – the extension of their quintessence. In this, E succeeds in spades – its titillation palpable and all-consuming. This is an album that presents itself in both darkness and light – yin and yang – and employs some truly mind-blowing measures to achieve this. To successfully project two diametrically opposed principles, there must exist a palpable sense of inner turmoil; a soul-consuming struggle between primordial chaos and world order, which is then channeled into the compositions. Burzum has it. Emperor has it. Satyricon has it. Borknagar has it. Pink Floyd has it. Enslaved has it in spades.
Digging even deeper, more astute, active listeners will be drawn in by the Pink Floyd-like scope of E – both musically and themeatically. In its obvious homage to the all-seeing, all-knowing gods of prog rock, the album follows a theme-based concept, similar to that of Dark Side Of The Moon, where each and every song orbits around a core concept. This core, being the album's title of E, is a letter belonging to the latin alphabet, with its runic reference pronounced as "Ehwaz". Take for example the intro of album opener "Storm Son", where the listener is immediately drawn in by what sounds like the distressed neighing of a horse. When one considers that the English translation of "Ehwaz" is, in fact, "Horse", understanding just how each song fits into the larger picture begins to make a bit more sense.
Without getting too abstruse, guitarist Ivar Bjornson has simplified the album's basic premise of "trust" and "cooperation" as the symbioses that surrounds all of us; the things that are vital to our existence, to human development – on all scales. This could be the relationship between man and horse, a person and their significant other, child and parent, chaos and order, moon and tides, subconscious and conscious, Oden and Sleipnir, wisdom and communication, or musician and instrument.
Just as the themes of E run deep, so to do the tracks contained within. In what is probably the finest example of organic maturation, E will neither alienate or confound the listener – be that listener new or old, seasoned metalhead or neophyte. Its composition is such that long-time fans will be immediately comforted by its inherent genealogy, recalling the very best moments of Enslaved's quarter-century existence. Songs such as "Storm Son" and "The River's Mouth" would not feel out of place on 2014's In Times; an album that gallops to a more refined, simplistic beat. In stark contrast to the cultivated, sophisticated material of recent years, E recalls far earlier times, such as the quirky, vertigo-inducing blackened sludge of turn-of-the-century album, Monumension, as well as the progressive extremity of 2003's Below The Lights.
At the end of the day, Enslaved has achieved what few other bands of their caliber. Simply recalling the listening experience of E has left the hair standing on the back of my neck. This is the quintessence of Norwegian black metal, and the inherent quintessence of E.
So, with the dissertation out of the way, we thought it prudent to let one of Enslaved's very own weigh in on the subject. We were lucky enough to score a one-on-one with frontman Grutle Kjellson, who enlightens us with tales from the land of ice, fjords, reindeer, moose, and black metal…
On whether or not the music of Enslaved could made anywhere else but Norway…
GRUTLE: I don't think so. I think that goes for a lot of Norwegian music. It's not necessarily the most popular music in the world – always has been a little underground. Of course, there have been a handful of famous composers and artists over the years, but we have always been kinda… weird. There is no doubt in my mind that this is no small part due to the environment of Norway. I would say the environment and the climate has really colored the moods of the people living here for many, many generations. I still think it plays a vital part. I mean, even if you are just living, not born here, it can really get under your skin. You become a part of the surrounding nature, and act accordingly to those surroundings. If I went over to, say, Los Angeles, where the climate is very stable, without proper seasons, I would probably go nuts.
On overcoming the perceived limitations of extreme metal…
I think we have achieved this by being very honest and loyal to ourselves. A lot of bands approach their music in an effort to please the fans. We think that this a bullshit way to approach music. We have always tried to explore new territories, to do something we are not necessarily comfortable doing in order to develop – to make our very own contemporary music – something we, ourselves, would put on the turntable. For those creating music, there should always been an effort to make the music interesting for yourself. To make music for a specific type of audience in mind is limiting and will not really work to your advantage in the long run. It is our philosophy to try and be loyal to ourselves. This is perhaps the main reason we have been around for twenty-six years.
On the creation and direction of E…
We are never really trying to achieve anything with each album. We just go with the flow. There have been a couple of changes this time, which definitely gave us a different energy while writing and rehearsing. The end result is more seamless; it blends together in a different way. The production is also better, which helps the flow as well. I mean, if we have ever been guilty of working inside a frame in the past, we totally embattled that concept this time and threw away the frame and burned it. Every song breathes in its own way. We tried to treat each and every song as a living organism.
On E's comparisons to 2003's Below The Lights…
I suppose there are certain similarities in the moods of both albums. Simliar to the changes we experienced going into this new one, so too did we experience when approaching Below The Lights. The way we wrote the songs is similar between both albums – both were approached from a fresh perspective and new-found energy. Every minute in the studio was a blast this time. It was life-giving and fun. It truly was.
On the gradual acceptance, if not reverernce, of black metal by the Norwegian mainstream…
The thing is, I lived through the 80's as a fan of this music – when heavy metal was popular to us here in Norway. When I went to high school in '86 metal was huge and everyone had patches. It was definitely the most popular music back then. Of course, the media hated it. To them, if you listened to heavy metal back then, you were an idiot. In Norway, it was very, very much looked down upon. In Sweden, it was totally different. They had their own metal sections and metal charts. The same thing with Denmark. It was an accepted form of music. The same can not be said of Norway. It was always looked down upon. Even New Wave and Punk had more credibilty than metal in Norway at that time. It really starts when the underground of metal came along – extreme metal bands such as Mayhem, Darkthrone, Cadaver, and then a bit later with Old Funeral, Immortal and so on. By the time we emerged, it was still a very, very small scene. There would be ten people at the concerts. It actually got a lot more attention abroad – in places like England and the USA. At this time it was still very much underground. The only reason it became popular was, of course, not because of the music, but the activites of some of those involved – the church burnings and such that we are really tired of talking about. So, as you could imagine, it got a lot of attention in Norwegian media, but in a negative way. Suddenly, the scene exploded. It became a huge segment that could no longer be neglected by the press. Back around the turn of the century, the big Norwegian magazine and news outlets actually had to listen to the albums. I think that this was a big eye-opener for many journalists who now saw what they had been overlooking for years – the actual quality of the music. I think a lot of them felt a little embarassed by this realization. Many of those journalists now sit in jobs at the Norwegian cultural department. They are now giving metal music support money for touring and such. So, it was somehow accepted because it had grown so big and they couldn't avoid it anymore. Things have really, really changed.
(Band Photo Credit: Christian Misje)