En­slaved

They’ve al­ready trav­elled a long way from their metal ori­gins, and now En­slaved are chang­ing their sound once again with their none-more-prog 14th stu­dio al­bum E. Gui­tarist Ivar Bjørn­son re­veals all about the band’s past pro­gres­sion, their mapped-out futu

Prog - - Contents - Words: Mal­colm Dome

Nor­we­gian prog met­allers shift ever fur­ther to­wards a prog Val­halla.

ake a note of the year 2043, be­cause that’s when En­slaved are plan­ning to end it all.

“We’re look­ing at be­ing in this band for an­other 26 years,” ex­plains the group’s gui­tarist and co-founder Ivar Bjørn­son. “It does sound daft when you put it like that, but we all just be­lieve that’s when En­slaved will come to a nat­u­ral con­clu­sion. What that means in terms of al­bums, I’m not sure. When we get to within five or 10 years of that point, we’ll prob­a­bly go men­tal and re­lease a 12-LP box set!”

The Nor­we­gian band, who formed in 1991 – which means by the time they fin­ish, they will have made it be­yond their 50th an­niver­sary – have just be­gun a new the­matic cy­cle with the al­bum E. It takes them into ter­ri­tory that’s philo­soph­i­cally very dif­fer­ent from what has been at the core of their pre­vi­ous few al­bums.

Ever since Ver­te­brae in 2008, En­slaved have ex­plored the in­di­vid­u­al­ity of the hu­man con­di­tion on a se­ries of records that have been chal­leng­ing and linked through a fas­ci­na­tion with the darker side of life. Now, how­ever, the band are reach­ing to­wards a very dif­fer­ent con­cept. In­stead of look­ing at peo­ple as be­ing iso­lated, with all the sub­se­quent prob­lems that arise from this, they’re ex­am­in­ing how peo­ple in­ter­act with one an­other.

“Yes, it is a more pos­i­tive spin,” muses Bjørn­son. “And at a time when so many other bands are go­ing to­wards the dark side, it may seem odd for us to be mov­ing the other way. But things like that never bother us. It’s al­most typ­i­cal of us to go against the trend!”

En­slaved are not a band with a far-reach­ing vi­sion of where they should be go­ing mu­si­cally and lyri­cally. The fact that their last al­bum In Times (2015) was to be the fi­nal in­stal­ment of their pre­vi­ous the­matic cy­cle wasn’t ac­tu­ally planned out in ad­vance.

“When we did that al­bum, none of us were sure if it might be the end of that era for us,” ad­mits Bjørn­son. “It only be­came ob­vi­ous when we went out and toured. Then we un­der­stood that we had come to the end of that path.”

In their nor­mal fash­ion, it didn’t be­come clear to them where to go next un­til they had writ­ten the first song for E.

“When you are as young as we were, it’s not easy to try to in­cor­po­rate Pink Floyd into your mu­sic. It takes a while to dis­cover the best way to take the mu­sic for­ward.”

“That was Sa­cred Horse. This is about the mag­i­cal re­la­tion­ship be­tween man and the horse, and how this was used dur­ing the Bronze Age, with the carv­ing of horse images. There’s an in­ter­de­pen­dence which goes back that far. Once we had the song in place, then it be­came clear that we were be­ing led down this route to a fresh ide­ol­ogy, and that’s when we be­gan to write in a way that dealt with the du­al­ity of re­la­tion­ships. It’s the way we’ve al­ways worked. The over­all theme – I wouldn’t call it a con­cept – for an al­bum can come at any time in the process. But once it’s in place, things flow very nat­u­rally.”

When En­slaved first got to­gether, they were firmly in the ex­treme metal cat­e­gory. How­ever, as Bjørn­son in­sists, even back then they had am­bi­tions that lay a lot more in the pro­gres­sive sphere.

“When Grutle Kjell­son [vo­cals/bass] and I started this band, we were both heav­ily in­flu­enced by prog,” he says. “We loved the likes of Yes, Ge­n­e­sis, King Crim­son, Pink

Floyd and Rush, and Grutle was also a mas­sive fan of Led Zep­pelin. These were the ma­jor in­spi­ra­tions for what we wanted to do. King Crim­son were es­pe­cially im­por­tant to metal fans like us, mainly I think be­cause of 21st Cen­tury Schizoid Man.

“How­ever, you have to un­der­stand that we were both very young back then: I was just

13, while Grutle was 17. In the early days of En­slaved, we were sim­ply not good enough or ex­pe­ri­enced enough as mu­si­cians to be able to em­u­late those bands. So in or­der to get started, we had to look at a dif­fer­ent area, and that’s why we grav­i­tated to­wards death metal.

“When you are as young as we were, it’s not easy to try to in­cor­po­rate Pink Floyd into your mu­sic. It takes a while to dis­cover the best way to take the mu­sic for­ward. But we soon dis­cov­ered how to do this. We re­alised that if we stayed in the death metal style then not only was it very re­stric­tive, but it also left us in real dan­ger of be­com­ing a par­ody of our­selves.

“But black metal of­fered so much more scope. The great thing about that genre is that you can do any­thing you want within it. You lis­ten to a lot of the bands who were around the scene in the early 1990s, es­pe­cially in Nor­way, and what you hear is mu­sic that is hard to put into one cat­e­gory. There are clas­si­cal in­flu­ences, folk in­spi­ra­tions and a much more pro­gres­sive-lean­ing ap­ti­tude. That suited what we wanted to do.”

This am­bi­tion was not only fu­elled by the band’s own as­pi­ra­tions, but also through the en­cour­age­ment of one of the most no­to­ri­ous of all black metal icons. Eurony­mous be­came in­fa­mous in the early 1990s when he was seen as one of those who was in­cit­ing the spate of ar­son at­tacks on churches in Nor­way. A founder mem­ber of May­hem, he was mur­dered in 1994 by Varg Vik­ernes. But Bjørn­son re­calls an­other side to the man whose real name was Øys­tein Aarseth.

“We used to reg­u­larly go into his record shop, Hel­vete, in Oslo. The main rea­son we used to do this was to find out what the lat­est un­der­ground metal re­leases were. But he en­cour­aged us to widen our mu­si­cal hori­zons. He would al­ways say to us, ‘Don’t bother with

that shit.’ And he’d give us al­bums from artists like Tan­ger­ine Dream and Brian Eno, plus more ob­scure Scan­di­na­vian prog bands. He would tell us to go home and lis­ten to these records as they were far more in­ter­est­ing than the lat­est ex­treme metal re­leases.

“Peo­ple don’t re­alise how much Eurony­mous was keen on the pro­gres­sive and ex­per­i­men­tal side of mu­sic, but he was a ma­jor fac­tor in get­ting us to stretch our­selves as mu­si­cians. The al­bums he gave us made a big dif­fer­ence to the way we devel­oped as a band.”

By the mid-90s, Bjørn­son and Kjell­son were be­gin­ning to take a lot more mu­si­cal risks. The for­mer be­lieves they were fol­low­ing a sim­i­lar path to other like-minded Scan­di­na­vian bands.

“If you look at that era, then Opeth, Ulver and Ih­sahn were be­gin­ning to move away from the more sim­plis­tic metal style, tak­ing a more chal­leng­ing path. We did this as well. What we all had in com­mon was a de­sire to be dif­fer­ent. I sup­pose in broad terms we all came from that black metal back­ground. But as I said ear­lier, this was an area of mu­sic that was so di­verse in it­self, mu­si­cians were free to ex­plore in their own way. There was a di­rect con­nec­tion to be­com­ing pro­gres­sive, and all of us grabbed the op­por­tu­nity. It’s not that we all did this at the same time, but we were all de­vel­op­ing our in­di­vid­ual styles.”

The turn­ing point for the band came with 2001’s Mon­u­men­sion al­bum. This was when it be­came ob­vi­ous that they were a dif­fer­ent beast to the one that had first ex­ploded into view with 1994’s Vik­ing­ligr Veldi.

“I be­lieve the shift to­wards some­thing more pro­gres­sive had oc­curred in 1997 with Eld.

But it was with Mon­u­men­sion that we moved away from us­ing blast­beats, and you can hear the pro­gres­sive in­flu­ence com­ing though. By this time, we had ab­sorbed lots of in­spi­ra­tion from a wide range of artists and felt ready to do some­thing more dra­matic.

“In some ways, though, maybe we made too much of a jump with that al­bum. There were fans, maybe quite a lot, who didn’t ap­pre­ci­ate what we were do­ing. And we did lose them for a time. But once they had got used to what we were try­ing to do, they came back. In the long run, I feel our fans ac­cepted where we were head­ing mu­si­cally, and now they are pre­pared to go on this jour­ney with us.

“In truth, I don’t think we have re­ally made rev­o­lu­tion­ary changes to our sound. What we have done is more evo­lu­tion­ary. With each al­bum we’ve recorded since 2001, there have been grad­ual al­ter­ations. There’s been no rea­son to go for a big jump. We’re happy with the way every­thing has gone.”

How­ever, there has been one change in the band’s line-up that has made a mas­sive dif­fer­ence to their phi­los­o­phy. Key­board player Håkon Vinje was brought in at the start of this year to join Bjørn­son, Kjell­son, gui­tarist Arve Isdal and drum­mer Cato Bekkevold.

“Our pre­vi­ous key­board player, Her­brand Larsen, had been with us since 2003. On our last tour, he ex­plained that he was fed up with the no­madic life you lead with a band who spend as much time as us on the road. But be­ing a gentleman, Her­brand said he’d stay with us un­til the end of the tour.”

Once that was over, time was against En­slaved. “We had three months to find a key­board player, re­hearse with them and record the al­bum be­cause the stu­dio time was booked. We could have post­poned every­thing, but didn’t want to do that. We could also have started the search for a re­place­ment ear­lier, but that would have been like mov­ing your new girl­friend into your house be­fore your di­vorce had come through. It would have been rude.

“Our last show on the tour was in Ber­gen, and we had a good young Nor­we­gian prog band called Seven Im­pale sup­port­ing us. And their key­board player was in­cred­i­ble. He went men­tal on­stage, and even played the or­gan with his el­bows. He seemed like ex­actly the right per­son for us. It was Håkon. Af­ter the gig, we asked him if he’d pre­pared to help us out in the stu­dio on the new al­bum. Then we found out that he could also sing, so we be­came even more in­ter­ested.

“As luck would have it, Håkon was look­ing for a new band be­cause Seven Im­pale’s singer was plan­ning to take time off to go to an opera school. So we grabbed him. You know what sums him up? When he was eight years old, ap­par­ently he said he wanted to be like

Jon Lord – that clinched it for us!”

The ar­rival of Vinje has had a ma­jor ef­fect on the band’s ap­proach. “In the past, we worked every­thing out on gui­tar. But Håkon has now ex­panded it. For me, he’s like a Rick Wake­man or Klaus Schulze, in that he’s given our key­boards a voice of their own. He came up with some great mu­si­cal sug­ges­tions dur­ing the record­ing ses­sions.”

All of which makes E an al­bum that al­most sat­is­fies Bjørn­son. “I al­ways feel we can do bet­ter when I hear the fi­nal re­sults. But there has to be a point when the al­bum is ready, oth­er­wise we’d still be work­ing on Mon­u­men­sion. I can’t say that E has turned out ex­actly as en­vi­sioned, but it’s as close as we could hope to get right now. Maybe in 26 years, when we reach the point where we call an end to En­slaved, we’ll be even closer to re­al­is­ing our dream sound.”

E is out on Oc­to­ber 13 via Nu­clear Blast. See www.en­slaved.no for more in­for­ma­tion.

“When we started this band, we were both heav­ily in­flu­enced by prog. We loved the likes of Yes, Ge­n­e­sis, King Crim­son, Pink Floyd and Rush. These were the ma­jor in­spi­ra­tions for what we wanted to do.”

EN­SLAVED: LOOK­ING ON THE BRIGHT SIDE OF LIFE ON NEW AL­BUM E.

EN­SLAVED, L-R: HÅKON VINJE, ARVE ISDAL, GRUTLE KJELL­SON, CATO BEKKEVOLD, IVAR BJØRN­SON.

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