Photo by Christian Misje
“It’s not jolly pop music for fuck’s sake!” proclaims Enslaved vocalist/bassist Grutle Kjellson when I ask him how his band always ends up touring Canada in the middle of winter.
“It’s a suitable environment for such music. We just have to bear with a blizzard or two” he says reassuringly.
The Norwegian progressive black metal icons have just kicked off their trek on The Decibel Tour with Wolves in the Throne Room, Myrkur, and Khemmis. This is quite possibly the largest headlining tour the band has done in North America so far. Their reputation in the West has been growing steadily in the last decade, and Kjellson says he knows how that got started.
“The best support tour we did (in North America) was obviously with Opeth in 2009” he says.
“That was perhaps the biggest eye-opener for many of our current American and Canadian fans. In the years that followed we did some good headline tours as well, and we brought some pretty cool bands (with us) like Pallbearer and Yob. We really enjoy touring there.”
Going to an Enslaved show is an unique experience. Although you’ll hear plenty of songs from their last few albums, you’ll also get a dose their very early material. It’s the middle period of their catalogue that gets ignored, albums that many seem to credit as the roots of their modern sound. Last year the band played their entire 1994 debut Vikingligr Veldi at the Beyond The Gates festival in Bergen, and they’ll be returning this year to tackle their second album Frost. This early work seems at odds with the Pink Floyd and Tool comparisons the band gets today, and that contrast doesn’t seem to be lost on Kjellson.
“Sometimes we tend to go back to the roots” he says after some consideration.
“You can hear the thread, kind of the red line through all the way back to the early years. At concerts, people like to hear one or two, let’s call them ‘old classics.’ It seems to be more from the very early days, it kind of feels like playing cover songs. (laughs) Many of the songs we haven’t actually been playing them since we recorded them. (Beyond The Gates) was more-or-less like playing a full cover song set. It was like just sitting around for days in my cabin trying to figure out what we’re playing, it was weird. We kept one of those songs in the current live set. There ain’t that many requests from (mid-era) albums like Mardraum, Monumension, Blodhemn, stuff like that.”
Although Enslaved are not afraid to embrace the old days, Kjellson is not a fan of new bands trying recreate the nineties underground black metal sound.
“The recording devices back then, they are totally different than the recording devices nowadays” he says.
“People record at home. They’re not able to capture the sound of an analogue recording from 1992, that’s not possible. I mean, why bother? In 2018, trying to sound like ‘True Norwegian Black Metal,’ it’s a bit precious I think. (laughs) Back then to do a recording you needed to borrow money from your friends, parents, and whatever. You had like one hour for the recording of the bass, drums, and guitars, then you have like two hours for the vocals. Everything was done in a stressed environment. There was a lot of factors that made those recordings sound the way they do. You had to do much of the work in the rehearsal space, you had to be ready.”
Enslaved are quite well-regarded at home, even having already won a number of Spellemannprisen awards (the Norwegian Grammy). But reading and watching older interviews, it seems like the band weren’t always as accepted in the black metal scene. Kjellson reveals that it was the very musical elements which would bring them international attention, that rubbed some people in that scene the wrong way.
“In the very early days, there weren’t that many bands, and all the bands that were around there at the time were actually really, really different than one another” he explains.
“Everybody back then respected each other very much I think. But we’re talking about 1991-92. It was Immortal, it was Mayhem, it was Darkthrone, it was Enslaved, Emperor. As the scene grew, maybe it become more stereotypical black metal. Since we were kind of on the side of that, maybe some people (laughs nervously) were not comfortable with our little experimentation, the directions we took.” Kjellson pauses for a moment, chuckling to himself.
“But as a band we have never given a flying fuck (laughs), what others think anyway. It never bothered us as a band, no it hasn’t.”
Enslaved’s latest album E, is available now on Nuclear Blast, and you can watch the video for “The River’s Mouth” below. The Decibel Tour is underway, and you can catch the band in Canada at the following shows.
Sunday, February 18 – Montreal, QC – Corona Theatre
Tuesday, February 20 – Toronto, ON – Phoenix Theatre
Friday, March 2 – Calgary, AB – MacEwan Ballroom
Saturday, March 3 – Edmonton, BC – The Starlite Ballroom
Monday, March 5 – Vancouver, BC – Rickshaw Theater
Photo Courtesy of 2911 Media
Legendary singer/songwriter Don McLean was recently honoured for achieving over five million U.S. radio plays of “American Pie,” and three million for “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night),” both from the 1971 American Pie album. It seems to be a significant accomplishment, one made even more so by the ever-changing state of radio and the music business. But at age 72, McLean seems to have had enough with attempting to understand contemporary music culture.
“I have no idea what’s going on with music, or radio, or any of that stuff. I watched the Super Bowl, and I watched Justin Timberlake do his thing. I didn’t understand any of that!” he says emphatically. When I point out that many people who enjoy modern music may not want to be represented by Timberlake’s performance either, he gives an acknowledging laugh.
“Right! (But) it doesn’t mean anything to me. I know I’m an old guy and everything, but from a musical point of view it just is meaningless to me. I’m saying that not in a way that is a criticism of anything, it’s just that my time is up, and my understanding of what’s going on now is zero.”
This statement seems at odds with McLean’s status as a classic artist, as his work is deeply entrenched in popular culture. While “American Pie” may have been played five million times in America, the song now has over one hundred million plays on Spotify (McLean is quick to tell me that the song “was always considered two plays for every one play. BMI would pay me twice as a publisher, every time they played that song”). His digital presence has, in a very short time, seemingly eclipsed his decades of traditional media exposure. Regardless of McLean’s self-perceived lack of understanding of “what’s going on,” he has his own insight as to why his songs are still being embraced.
“(People) can see me talk to people and they can decide what they think about me from head to toe. It’s quite revealing what’s happened now in the last ten, twelve years. If you decide to get into any artist, you can find so much out there, and it’s always increasing” he says.
“But one thing I would say, is that I think as this whole musical delivery system through the internet improves and becomes more powerful, people like myself who have been lucky enough to have classic albums and classic songs, those individuals will have more and more attention paid to them. Even if you sold a lot of records but you were basically garbage, you’re not going to get attention paid to you as we move forward.”
This all seems to place McLean in a privileged position. It’s easy to forget he’s a folk artist, and that even “American Pie” isn’t an obvious smash hit if you consider pop music of almost any era. It’s a stark contrast between artistic expression and commercialism that he seems very aware of.
“My life has been... I don’t want to say it’s been charmed, cause that would be presumptuous of me to say that” he says cautiously.
“But I’ve had a very wonderful life, and I’ve not been easy-going about things. You know there are people who are easy-going in this business, who naturally go with the flow and do very well. I had to fight like crazy for everything that I’ve done because it’s always been very different from what else was around. You have your record label, and then you have your boosters at the record label, and you have other people at the record label that think you stink and they like somebody else, so you’ve got that whole political thing going on. Then you’ve got radio, then your audience which, you know, you’re trying to reach and you know they’re out there somewhere. I think that has probably slowed me down as a songwriter because I might have... you know if I’d felt there was a receptive audience and a receptive business to what I was doing I might have been more excited about some of my ideas. But because it was such a struggle, a lot of times I would think ‘Oh well, that’s not gonna fly,’ you know what I mean. So it’s a lot of negative energy to overcome.”
There is also the issue of achieving mainstream awareness based on a limited part of your catalogue. McLean has released many studio and live albums since American Pie, but none of which have achieved the same exalted status. Some artists embrace this, while others become infuriated with the mere mention of their biggest hit. McLean seems resigned to this situation, which he admits is completely out of his control.
“I’m prepared to be disappointed” he says.
“The funny thing is that years later, people come up to me, then they start realizing or thinking that the songs were very good and even better than that. I kind of don’t do what I do for right now, I just do my thing and figure people will catch on to it later on. I’m down for the long run, I always was. A song like 'The Grave' (from American Pie) for example. George Michael did that song on television (in 2003 on the Graham Norton Show), and all of a sudden everybody was talking about that song. Well it had been around for a long time. There are a lot of songs on the American Pie album that have taken years to trickle down like ‘Crossroads,’ ‘Empty Chairs,’ ‘Winterwood,’ all those songs. They’re all standards now in a sense. Millions of people know these songs.”
McLean is about as famous as he is unknown. His digital presence continues to grow and allow him to be introduced to new generations of people. With his admitted awareness of how accessible the digital age has made him, I wanted to know what kind of impression he wants to make on new listeners. As he speaks, he grows more emphatic and passionate with each sentence, until he’s almost yelling.
“I’d like them to know that I love them,” he says in a hopeful tone.
“I love the human race. I love all people everywhere. I want to contribute something to their lives that is interesting and different, and they can have their whole lives to listen to. Not something that ‘Oh I wanna go back to when I was sixteen.’ (Something) that’ll always be good for them to go back to as they go through their lives. That is really my motivation, and that is probably the reason why I respect people more than seeing them as just consumers! I want people to get something from me that is personal, and that I’ve thought about and that is different! Like a unique gift of some sort rather than saying, ‘Oh this is my Don McLean consumer, so I will give him the Don McLean song he wants.’ I have too much respect for people to do that, and I have too much respect for myself to do that.”
McLean appears quite aware of how his music and legacy are viewed. He’s optimistic, but he doesn’t want to have any illusions as to realities of the music business. He wants to approach the world as it should be, while maintaining an awareness of how it really is. So as our conversation ends, I ask McLean, despite all his other releases, if listening to American Pie is still the best way for a new listener to get into his music.
“That’d be a nice start,” he says.
Don McLean’s new album, Botanical Gardens, arrives March 23rd, and he currently has dates lined up in the U.S, U.K, and Ireland. You can listen to the title track through all major streaming services and pre-order the album here, or you can listen to American Pie here.
Photo by Zoharon Photography
Israeli metallers Orphaned Land are back with a new album, Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs. The band has a unique reputation as perhaps the only act from Israel that has a passionate following in many Arab countries. Places that, with the exception of Turkey, do not allow the band to play within their borders and their albums are banned from stores (a situation the band has navigated around in the past by giving their fans in those countries free album downloads). All this has come about due to their staunch pacifistic stance on the conflicts in the region, and their use of multicultural music and ethnic instruments, which are blended seamlessly into their 70s-inspired progressive sound.
I spoke with guitarist Chen Balbus before a tour stop in Toronto about the musical diversity of the new album, sharing a band philosophy, how he’s actually not that into the heavy stuff.
Orphaned Land’s new album, Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs is out tomorrow, Friday January 26th on Century Media. The band currently has shows lined up in the UK, Europe, and Japan through June of this year. You can watch the video for “Like Orpheus” featuring Hansi Kürsch of Blind Guardian below.
Photo by Josefa Torres
American prog-metal superstars Periphery are currently on a North American co-headling tour with instrumentalists Animal as Leaders, and return to Canada for one of two dates this weekend. They’re currently promoting their fifth album Periphery III: Select Difficulty, which is somewhat of a return to form after the simultaneously-released concept albums Juggernaut: Alpha and Juggernaut: Omega in 2015.
Although the band has a reputation for mixing progressive metal with Meshuggah-esque riffs, they come off more like a crunchier Dream Theatre, with well-crafted melodies taking the lead over chunky bursts of sound. It’s a combo that has resonated deeply with younger fans, as well as the band’s kitchy sense of humour. The whole package is bright and in-your-face, a tone that doesn’t always sit well with more cynical heavy music fans.
On their last tour stop in Toronto, I spoke with guitarist and band founder Misha Mansoor about being tagged as a progressive band, going back to their trademark style after a double concept album, and what he thinks of the excessive trolling the band often receives online. Listen in the SoundCloud player below.
Periphery’s North American tour with Animals as Leaders runs through to December 3rd. They’ll be at the Music Hall in London, ON this Sunday November 5th, and Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom on November 28th. You can watch the live video for the Rick and Morty-themed “The Way The News Goes” below.