One of metal’s most fear­less mod­ern bands have rein­vented them­selves yet again. We find out ex­actly what En­slaved saw in the runes to cre­ate mas­ter­ful new al­bum E

Metal Hammer (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: TOM O’BOYLE

on am­bi­tious al­bum E, the Nor­we­gian pro­gres­sives have rein­vented them­selves yet again.

in April 2016, En­slaved were still on a high from cel­e­brat­ing their 25th an­niver­sary. There was much to be proud of – in their ear­lier days they had helped to de­fine Nor­we­gian black metal, be­fore grad­u­ally rein­vent­ing them­selves as a unique pro­gres­sive en­tity that broad­ened the hori­zons of ex­treme mu­sic. Con­tin­u­ing this process, gui­tarist Ivar Bjørn­son booked a stu­dio and be­gan work on Sa­cred Horse, a song that would become the cen­tre­piece of forth­com­ing al­bum E.

But not ev­ery­one in the band was happy. Key­board player and back­ing vo­cal­ist Herbrand Larsen sud­denly an­nounced his de­par­ture af­ter 13 years, throw­ing them into cri­sis.

“I think Herbrand was ex­pect­ing a move in a rock-ori­ented di­rec­tion, be­cause the band had been go­ing more melodic,” ex­plains Ivar. “[Then] he re­alised that En­slaved at any time could im­plode in to­tal mu­si­cal crazi­ness! He wasn’t as mo­ti­vated as the rest of us, which had the op­po­site ef­fect – we be­came more en­thu­si­as­tic. Around the 25th an­niver­sary, there was a re­al­i­sa­tion for us that suc­cess would be to re­alise our artis­tic vi­sion; if it ends up on this or that com­mer­cial level, it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter.”

There was no bad blood in their part­ing, but the strong friend­ship in the band – com­pleted by lead vo­cal­ist/bassist Grutle Kjell­son, gui­tarist Arve Is­dal and drum­mer Cato Bekkevold – made Herbrand’s de­ci­sion all the more ag­o­nis­ing. “It was very painful,” Ivar con­fesses. “It’s so much fun tour­ing; I guess he made the de­ci­sion way back, but the so­cial as­pect kept him there for a long while.”

So be­gan the hunt for a re­place­ment, with stu­dio time fast ap­proach­ing. “Find­ing a guy who can tour 200 days a year, com­mit­ting so­cial and re­la­tion­ship sui­cide, play­ing 70s-style key­board and or­gan and singing clean vo­cals…” Ivar sighs heav­ily be­fore con­tin­u­ing. “To find that in three months, prefer­ably in our home­town of Ber­gen, with only 350,000 peo­ple liv­ing there,

seemed like a long shot. But good art de­pends on luck and crazi­ness!”

They didn’t have to wait long, with Herbrand’s farewell con­cert in Ber­gen sur­pris­ingly de­cid­ing their fate. A lo­cal prog band called Seven Im­pale sup­ported, and their 25-year-old keyboardis­t, Håkon Vinje, im­me­di­ately caught Ivar and Grutle’s at­ten­tion.

“We talked to him af­ter the gig and he turns out to be a huge En­slaved fan, he also sings and, wouldn’t you know it, his band are go­ing on a break and he’s look­ing for some­thing new! We were like, ‘Are you kid­ding?! It’s been 16 min­utes and we have a new guy!’” re­mem­bers Ivar. “Herbrand did his job but was great at play­ing many in­stru­ments; he didn’t have that pride in be­ing a key­board player.”

Despite their com­fort­able line-up, Herbrand’s re­luc­tance to ex­per­i­ment had be­gun to sti­fle the band’s cre­ativ­ity, Ivar work­ing on the keys and Grutle the vo­cals, with­out much con­tri­bu­tion from Herbrand un­til the clos­ing


stages of a record. It was a de­clin­ing sit­u­a­tion they were de­ter­mined to change. They were look­ing for their own key­board mae­stro.

“He’s three months younger than the band!” Ivar laughs. “The cra­zi­est thing is, he told us that when he was eight, he was watch­ing Deep Pur­ple on TV and ex­claimed he wanted to be

Jon Lord when he grew up! That was all the informatio­n we needed.”

Håkon fit­ted seam­lessly into the writ­ing process for E, his love for En­slaved giv­ing him a good sense of what worked for the band, while his tal­ent sur­prised even Ivar. They soon de­vel­oped a bond, Håkon af­fec­tion­ately re­fer­ring to Ivar as ‘Big Egg’, and Ivar call­ing him ‘Tiny Egg’.

“As painful as it was killing off the thought of our eter­nal line-up, there was some­thing new born, and that was us go­ing back into the stu­dio as a unit and work­ing on the vo­cals. It was chal­leng­ing to have some­one come in and see our pro­cesses, that young cheek­i­ness that only 25-year-olds who re­ally know how to play can have,” Ivar grins. “His stuff was amaz­ing – noth­ing had to be fixed.”

en­slaved’s Vik­ing sword has been smeared with young blood; a crim­son-spat­tered blade that has pierced the spir­i­tual heart of the band, re­ju­ve­nat­ing their quest. E, their 14th al­bum, sees them in­hab­it­ing a mythic space, fu­elled by the grat­ing pace and iconic rhyth­mic stac­cato of their black metal ori­gins while con­tin­u­ing their melodic evo­lu­tion, en­hanced greatly by Håkon’s stand­out per­for­mance on key­boards. Tracks are sig­nif­i­cantly longer and more ad­ven­tur­ously ex­per­i­men­tal than pre­vi­ous al­bum In Times, with a theme as ever in­spired by an­cient Norse spir­i­tu­al­ism, al­chem­i­cally melded with Ivar’s fas­ci­na­tion with sci­ence and phi­los­o­phy.

“That first song, Sa­cred Horse, be­came a ques­tion of syn­chronic­ity – that won­der­ful mech­a­nism where your sub­con­scious fo­cuses in on things, and you start to see them ev­ery­where,” he says. “Some be­lieve it’s magic, the gods, what­ever.”

Ivar be­gan to no­tice horses wher­ever he looked, turn­ing to one of the band’s pil­lars of strength, Norse mythol­ogy, for an­swers. Study­ing the runes, he found some­thing to fuel his imag­i­na­tion: on their 14th al­bum cy­cle, he was drawn to the 14th rune, ‘the Eh­waz’, which lit­er­ally means horse. It exists to cel­e­brate man’s scared re­la­tion­ship with the an­i­mals, but rep­re­sents some­thing deeper.

“[Tam­ing horses] turned Bronze Age man on to his aware­ness of holy part­ner­ships,” he says. “Man and horse is a very ba­sic one, but it must’ve seemed to them like a mir­a­cle – sud­denly you can move at speed, out­run your en­e­mies, chase down deer; no won­der they gave it a rune.”

Ivar be­gan to ap­ply the con­cept of sa­cred part­ner­ships to En­slaved, in­spired by the par­tial frac­tur­ing and heal­ing of their own.

“Each rune rep­re­sents a mystery,” he con­tin­ues, “and this one about part­ner­ships,

du­al­i­ties and in­ter­de­pen­dence fit­ted well into the En­slaved world.”

It’s quite the the­matic de­par­ture for a band tra­di­tion­ally fo­cused on in­di­vid­u­al­ity – a re­cur­rent theme in black metal – but no man is an is­land, and with in­sta­bil­ity threat­en­ing En­slaved, Ivar be­came fas­ci­nated with ex­plor­ing hu­man code­pen­dence. “A group needs strong in­di­vid­u­als, but they don’t work in a vac­uum – even a mis­an­thrope de­pends on the peo­ple he feeds on hat­ing,” he ex­plains. “It’s an ad­mis­sion that the story of the in­di­vid­ual is im­por­tant, but part of a larger nar­ra­tive.”

It’s a recog­ni­tion on Ivar’s be­half that he hasn’t al­ways been the eas­i­est to work with in En­slaved, cit­ing his am­bi­ent solo project BardSpec, and his re­cent col­lab­o­ra­tion with Wardruna’s Ei­nar

Selvik on their rous­ing Skug­gsjá al­bum, as two con­fi­dence-build­ing cor­ners of “a sel­f­re­in­forc­ing tri­an­gle”, the third be­ing En­slaved.

“We both come from bands where we have the fi­nal say, and were forced to work to­gether – the guys in En­slaved could tell you our col­lab­o­ra­tion has soft­ened me up a bit,” he ad­mits.

This isn’t En­slaved’s first de­par­ture from tra­di­tional black metal ide­ol­ogy, and won’t be their last. They’re used to be­ing out­siders, and you get the im­pres­sion they thrive on glee­fully chal­leng­ing the ex­pec­ta­tions of fans old and new. Sup­port­ing Opeth – them­selves an ex­treme band that crossed over into the prog sphere – on their forth­com­ing UK tour in Novem­ber will fur­ther push En­slaved onto au­di­ences who might be un­pre­pared for the ex­trem­ity of the as­sault that awaits them.

“We’ve en­joyed pro­vok­ing purists in our own scene – it’ll be fun to see how peo­ple in the so-called prog scene re­act,” says Ivar. “Some

“we’Re go­ing to stamp around In their frag­ile prog salad!” EN­SLAVED ARE UP FOR THE CHAL­LENGE OF SUP­PORT­ING OPETH IN THE UK

say this isn’t prog be­cause of Grutle’s ex­treme vo­cals – that’s ap­prox­i­mately the most ridicu­lous thing you can say. That is the def­i­ni­tion of pro­gres­sive – tak­ing some­thing you didn’t ex­pect and mak­ing some­thing new. If we can stamp around in their frag­ile prog salad, that’d be awe­some,” he en­thuses.

How­ever suc­cess­ful En­slaved become, their leg­end is se­cure, ‘suc­cess’ some­thing they’re un­con­cerned with, ac­cu­sa­tions of sell­ing out null and void given the elon­gated, labyrinthi­ne na­ture of E’s six tracks.

“Stream­ing ser­vices are openly telling record com­pa­nies that artists should have four-minute songs. En­slaved with four-minute songs wouldn’t be En­slaved; I stopped look­ing at the watch when mak­ing these songs,” says Ivar.

So En­slaved emerge re­ju­ve­nated from tur­moil, wield­ing one of their best al­bums to date, an ad­ven­ture full of spinet­in­gling mo­ments to rouse the old gods. It’s the fruit of a re­freshed cre­ative process as in­tu­itive in 2017 as it was in 1991, hon­our­ing their her­itage but ever seek­ing to in­vade new shores, Ivar brim­ming with an­tic­i­pa­tion at the thought of un­leash­ing their gal­lop­ing beast on un­sus­pect­ing ears when the Opeth tour starts, re­gard­less of the out­come.

“Now we have this op­por­tu­nity, a steady in­crease in au­di­ence, so let’s just see if it all crashes and burns,” says Ivar with aban­don.

“We need to make sure we’re on our toes!”


Things are definitely look­ing up for En­slaved

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