Like most of the free world—or at least the free world according to metal—I spent my formative years very much enamored with traditional black metal lore. Yet, growing older has meant expanding discussion of the genre in relation to its evolution. It wasn’t until I heard Enslaved’s “Storm Son” from their 14th upcoming release E that I realized that I had still been speaking in limited terms. I’m as guilty as anyone of tending to think dichotomously, often to the point of my own detriment. While many great post-metal and blackened progressive ventures have emerged from bands that popped up around 2010 or so, there are still institutionary acts looking to make strides as their stories continue to unfold. Enslaved is one of these special artists who have become the masters of uncontrived growth.
The 10 minute aesthetic experience for Storm God—understated in BM terms but stunning in its own right—serves its purpose of heightening the senses that detect the overt and covert complexities within the track alike. In other words, proper appreciation of the visual component is indebted to the music instead of the other way around. While being focused more on the hoopla doesn’t necessarily guarantee a crash in terms of length-of-stay within the scene (hell, Mayhem is obviously still touring), perhaps it is a route that carries higher risk of becoming a spiral striking the wall of one-trick stagnation.
In contrast, Enslaved is committed to lighting a path to another way – one that’s host to a rare form of experimentation that feels extremely earnest. Above the choir of tactful clean vocals sitting sturdily like the woods, one voice reigns overhead like the crow that flies ceaselessly up above. For Enslaved, this exploration is personified by marching to the beat of their own drum, specifically towards progressive rather than post-. Erring on the side of expanding on the classic rock experience comes across as as logical bend in the path that casts a refreshing shadow of light rather than an abrupt and overwhelming zig-zag. Otherwise, if they came out playing in major and screaming like I’m in a Coffin we’d all be more than a little bit confused. It’s all a very grown up version of the *Cartman voice* “whateva, I do what I want” spirit within blackened music, and, of course, metal more generally.
Further, Enslaved is rooted in solidly-structured ancient myth rather than sensational bombasticism. Much like the band itself, Norse mythology, for instance, has proved enduring through many other artistic/spiritual waves, respectively. The bearing of myth on modern society plays out in the overarching concept of E — our ever-developing relationship with nature. While the thematic status quo of Enslaved has been the inner exploration of the I, the break in E (taken from the rune meaning “horse”) acknowledges that there are still facets of the human experience worth exploring, maintaining the relevancy of paganistic ancestry.
Most excitingly in terms of the ever-uncertain future of black metal, the quieting of the Viking-specific tone speaks to the roots of cross-cultural societies, particularly by utilizing the delicate guitar work laced over rhythm to awaken universal senses, which, ultimately, creates opportunities for unprecedented accessibility. Not to mention that myth serves as an effective outlet for projecting our own inner subconscious for ourselves and the world to assess against the malleable backdrop of interpretation.
But, it is important to note that while our inner core is being analyzed in relation to its exterior layers, underground fires are far from extinguished. Our daily interactions with everything from a misguided conversation with a friend to a struggle to navigate stormy weather leads to nightly reflective battles of our personal social shortcomings and how we maintain a will to live in the lights of an oftentimes harsh and unforgiving stage. It’s a hot hell with which too many of us are familiar, but this agony is accepted rather than invalidated in the human story told by E, as demonstrated by its first single’s willingness to embrace the mist alongside the majesty. And, well, proggy anything makes for a visceral experience, damn it. Oddities in timing and tuning stimulate otherwise dormant brainy worms.
How can such a delicate balance be successfully struck, you ask? Being that I have the artistic integrity of a 7-Eleven fruit cup with its quintessentially poor grape-to-melon ration, I figured it would behoove us all to shut up and go directly to the source. Despite bringing little more to the throne than an offering of kind regards, it didn’t much prodding to get guitarist Ivar Bjørnson to divulge the deceptively simple secrets to evolution, longevity, and fulfillment.
DIAG: Enslaved is so very loved where I come from, and you guys were always a fixture in the musical repertoire of me and all of my little metal friends in high school. But being quite young, we only really knew the post-Vertebrae (2008) Enslaved. It wasn’t until I heard “Storm Son” and began investigating into your background that I learned how much you’ve grown. Enslaved, in fact, came about in the second black metal wave, started off with the traditional second wave sound, and did it all just a little south of Bergen. How did you guys prevent Enslaved from getting its name thrown into the sensationalist hat?
IB: Our focus was 100% the music, and when people started getting crazy, we kind of lost interest and went back to our village to focus on the music. I know parts of the scene put status into being bad-ass and scary and shit like that — like it still is. Isn’t that what happens in any scene with young people? Some people find the common measure of success (in this case, musicianship) boring and want to be noticed in other ways. For us it turned into a ‘meh’ thing and we cut contact with the most extreme elements, especially those who started to turn to politics to gain more infamy.
So yes, they might not make a movie about us in the end, but we have consisted as a band for 26 years and are pretty damn happy, which is more important.
DIAG: How about your secrets to such a clean and graceful evolution? If the comments on your YouTube videos are any indication, Enslaved seems to be one of the few bands that can shape-shift sounds without losing support or faith in the process. That’s a real gift. What advice or wisdom would you have for, say, a young person wishing to grow as an artist while keeping integrity intact?
IB: Thank you. The secret is split two ways, I think. One is the motivation we have for doing this. We always from the get go wanted to make ‘the music that we want to listen to and play. Period.’ If success commercially followed; awesome. If not, the most important measure of success was always, and still is did we do our best? We are music lovers, and even collectors and students I would say; always on the lookout for new music and new bands and styles and talk about it a lot. So, I think people can hear the joy we feel in doing music and being inspired. Weirdly enough, I feel quite lonely when I admit to being inspired by also contemporary music — other bands our size, smaller or bigger. It is like you can like and be inspired by the great classics from the 70’s and 80’s, but that’s it. I can be inspired by a new band releasing their debut because they came up with something powerful. I think people see and hear that.
Secondly, we are happy to have some kind of insight into how to deal with working together in a band. Sure, keeping egos in check can be a fulltime job for musicians (including myself) but you’ve got to if you’re gonna be doing it for a long time. You have to give each other space and be more like family than best friends, if that makes sense. It’s a more even, level-headed relationship where you make room for also having separate lives outside the band, even if that means only a few weeks home here and there.
It is a privilege to have the fans we have that agree that there’s no point in using some form of bashing and death-threats like you see so much of. Maybe that’s a result of us being able to convey some of our focus through the music?
DIAG: Oh, definitely. I think, too, as you talked about, keeping focus shifted to the music itself rather than the external filigree makes people less inclined to throw stones and call names and such. I think the point about collecting music is really important too — when you’re continually finding new inspiration your sound will continually to change shape in a gradual sort of way.
IB: Yes, that is a great summary of the Enslaved story — gradually introducing new elements that have been introduced to us as music listeners and music lovers.
E is out October 13 on Nuclear Blast