Enslaved 2020: (L to R) Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal (guitar), Håkon Vinje (keyboards, clean vocals), Grutle Kjellson (vocals, bass), Ivar Bjørnson (guitars), Iver Sandøy (Drums)
Photo by Roy Bjørge

It had been nearly 3 years since I’d seen or spoken to Enslaved guitarist Ivar Bjørnson when I reached him late one Norwegian evening. The band had just released their 15th(!) album Utgard, and I realized that it had also been 15 years since I began listening to them. Their blend of psychedelic progressive rock and black metal was an immediate hit with my senses. Admittedly I caught on to Enslaved about half-way through their ascent to becoming international heavy metal headliners, and an award-winning band at home in Norway. When I got into the band their music had already undergone a transformation from its more raw black metal beginnings, to the signature blended sound they’re known for. But Enslaved has never been a band to ignore their early days, and the old albums are performed live and re-released on a regular basis to show appreciation to the old-school fans, and that’s something that has informed their latest album.

“I think we came to terms with our own history without letting ourselves lie down and die,” says Bjørnson.

“The whole exercise of going back and playing old albums and relating to (them), is a bit of a risky one. That’s my experience, because you have to balance that with being relevant. I do think we did it in a way that left us with the best of both worlds. I think we allow the fans to romanticize and have a nostalgic relationship through (the 1994 album) Frost and all that stuff, without that being the opposite of being a fan of the music. I think we have an open dialogue there. If you wanna be a fan of Enslaved you’re welcome to come and go as you want, because we have been on a more-or-less steady path. Sometimes I’ve been a little bit confused myself, but I have to say on this one, on album number 15… a lot of the things done getting here make more sense now.”

Utgard again finds Enslaved seeped in Norse mythology and runic languages. It’s a concept album that continues where 2017’s E left off. That album dealt with the intertwined events of the creation of Odins’ 8-legged horse Sleipnir, and the gods building a great wall around Asgard, which Bjørnson describes as a “watershed” moment in the mythology.

“For this album we’re looking outwards, ‘What did they build a wall against? ‘What is this outside?’” he says.

“It’s also quite inspired by Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist, (and) his use of Norse mythology. It also (refers to) runosophy, the philosophy around rune magic and rune mysticism, as a metaphor for the unconscious. Both the pre-programmed software so-to-speak that Jung mentioned called the ‘common unconscious,’ (where) we are born with a set of archetypes to make the universe understandable to us, but also the individual part which is created as we go along. That’s what the album is about, the need for a unification, a two-way acceptance of the other. You can put it on a mythological scale. You can put it on the universal forces of chaos and order that we so much like to dabble (with) in metal. Even on a societal scale also, by oppressing all these things that once were natural to us, death and decay and love, all that stuff that’s been swept under the carpet is now coming back to bite us in the ass, to say it in an very un-Carl Jung-ish sort of way.” 

The more we learn about our own local variation of that history, which is mythology, I think we learn more about what being human is.”

My initial attraction to Enslaved’s music was their sound. Norse mythology had always been of interest since I was young, but then again there are plenty of bands who write about it. Over time I’ve come to appreciate some of the deeper implications of Enslaved’s lyrics and how the concepts raised within the mythology can relate to how we live today, but it was my passion for their music that got me there. So I was curious to know what Bjørnson would like someone like myself, who doesn’t have Norse mythology in their background, to take away from Enslaved’s lyrics.

“We’re obsessed with ‘Who migrated here and there, and where did those ancestors come from?’” he says thoughtfully.

“But that’s a lot of physical history and of course that’s interesting, but it’s missing one part and that’s the psychological story of humans. Mythology is the language of that, the very powerful unconscious that is driving development, and that’s creativity. Mythology is a common human trait. It’s been messed up quite heavily by these monotheistic religions, which all coincidentally also started out quite agnostic, or mythological. When it makes the transition from encouraging personal interpretation and introspection, into absolute dogmas, that’s when it becomes a religion (chuckles). So it’s not very different from the first religions that are discovered 10,000 years before, hmm… ‘The Carpenter.’ The Norse mythology is one of the later ones actually, and I guess that’s also the reason why it’s so popular in mainstream culture now is because it was allowed to exist for a long time quite far into the Middle Ages. There’s connections to Greek mythology, (and) pre-Judean, the Kabballah systems like the Tree of Life, which appears later in Norse mythology as Yggdrasil. The concepts are quite similar, and then they have these variations. If the people were living in deserts, the sun could be portrayed as the enemy. Up north, the sun was like the most popular guest ever to appear, when it did once a year. Those are just geographical variations on the same thing I think. It shouldn’t be alien. The more we learn about our own local variation of that history, which is mythology, I think we learn more about what being human is.”

Bjørnson at his home workstation. 

Naturally talk turns to the pandemic. Enslaved has maintained quite an active relationship with their fanbase during the shutdown, including streaming live shows. But for Bjørnson, someone who travels most of the year to make a living, being at home is a chance to spend more time with his wife and kids. But that doesn’t mean that the band is any less a part of his life these days.

“I haven’t been at home this much since I was 18 I think,” he says happily.

“That’s been a great thing. It’s taken a little bit of effort to get used to, but I realized that it’s also been extremely healthy. I have 2 daughters, and I’ve felt that I’ve already been away way too much. But it’s also what I do. There will always be sailors, truck drivers, military, people who are away for a long time. I happen to be a musician. But I’m really grateful that this time became a really good thing. It shows that we’re pretty good at adapting. Also the band has really come through. This is really a central thing in our lives. The touring has just been replaced by old-fashioned rehearsing, which has been very rewarding! I think Norway has been a fortunate place to be. It’s a big country, not too many people, and the concept of social distancing isn’t that far from what people do to begin with. The most heard joke this spring was like, ‘Well, I’m pretty glad all this hugging stuff is out the picture, finally.’ That was a half-joke, I’m also thinking there might some seriousness in it too.”

When I first reached Bjørnson that evening, I was ready to open with questions and comments about Utgard, but like many conversations these days, we immediately began talking about politics, the return of populism, and the proliferation of false conspiracy theories.  

“That kind of stuff it used to be like, fringe. But now it’s really weird how front and center the whole thing is,” he says.

“These things go so slowly, because we go from the 80s and 90s where it’s unimaginable, where it’s really just historical. Now, (during) the so-called (Presidential) ‘debate,’ that the whole world was focusing on, there was a statement (by U.S. President Donald Trump) to a particular political group (extreme right wing group the Proud Boys), who were told to ‘stand by’ or whatever weird things. That’s pretty much Europe 1935-36. The parallels are just, it’s the same. Now you see people on Facebook going, ‘Yeah, well, he does get people employed and that’s a good thing,’ and that’s also the same thing. It’s the worst. People are now, they’re dissatisfied, they’re pissed off because globalization has sort of created a common ideal for everyone. From the biggest cities in Europe and the U.S, to the most remote countryside in Asia or in Northern Europe, everyone’s in the same race, using the same measurement for success and happiness, and nobody’s obviously achieving it! Then you get all these populists pouring into politics now, and they’re giving people something to be pissed at. Low and behold, it’s the same thing again.”

(Euryonymous) was quite clear about that, that fascism, Naziism, is a cowardly way of trying to avoid the one true fact that every human being is a piece of shit.”

Heavy metal is certainly not immune to these issues, and unfortunately black metal still provides the most documented examples of Naziism in the genre, including the most well-known Nazi musician, Varg Vikernes and his one-man band Burzum. But for me the bigger issue has always been one of ambivalence by the metal community at large, especially concerning Vikernes who is embraced musically by many. Most of his fans will come up with the most acrobatic of explanations for why publicly praising Nazi-metal is ok, as long as they don’t share the violent beliefs of it’s creators. In metal, “separating the art from the artist” is often taken laughably too far. Nazi-metal even has its own sub-genre, tactfully named “National Socialist Black Metal” (NSBM) to avoid scrutiny. Bjørnson notes that there was a schism early on in the Norwegian black metal scene, between those who embraced Naziism and those who didn’t.

“NSBM (became) a thing of its own, which is a very good thing,” he says audibly smirking.

“Not that I’m concerned about those people having leisure time activities, but it’s better that they’re ‘over there.’ That was a result of some pretty strange resistance. (It) was the most ironic thing ever to begin with, as the 2nd Wave of Black Metal was initiated by (Mayhem guitarist) Euronymous who was a die-hard Communist. He was quite clear about that, that fascism, Naziism, is a cowardly way of trying to avoid the one true fact that every human being is a piece of shit.”

In 2009 Vikernes was released from prison after 15 years for the shocking murder of Euryonmous and his participation in church arsons, both of which have become eternally associated with the 90’s Norwegian black metal narrative, and he wasn’t shy about disparaging Enslaved in the media. Like myself, Bjørnson is also quite puzzled as to why there are metal fans of varying backgrounds who are comfortable listening to Burzum, as he doesn’t see Vikernes’ belief system and metal as being compatible on a cultural level.

“I remember when Mr. Burzum got out and started talking to the press again, first thing he did was complain about how black metal musicians were looking like hobos and Africans and gay and all that stuff,” he says.

“It kind of blows my mind that people will read that and then just… yeah, keep nodding off to their Burzum albums. That’s you he’s talking about! How he wants you to be exterminated and how you’re useless. He’s not joking. I can see that, as a culture that’s it’s sort of way of not having to engage in a sense. Obviously metal was not around the last time. But the populist, the fascist system is basically a nihilistic world view, it’s nothing because it’s all about power and money grabbing, and some weird uniform fetish. (It’s) the abandonment of anything, and especially, things having to do with culture. In the metal scene, we can sort of remove ourselves from thinking that we’re culture. ‘Ah culture’s for wimps! This is all about drinking beer and stuff!’ After they’ve gone a few rounds with the undesirables, they’re gonna be coming for the musicians and I promise you, metal is not gonna be on a list of things they wanna keep.”

Photo by Roy Bjørge

Despite this disparity, Bjørnson is also quick to note that metal’s influence in these areas is not nearly as impactful as what we have seen creep into mainstream culture. While the metal scene could certainly do more when it comes to these problems, Bjørnson feels that there has also been a lot of misspent energy, like when metal bands who use Pagan runes or World War II imagery are falsely accused of Naziism.

“The NSBM stuff is as obviously as bad as the marching Neo-Nazis, (but) I don’t think that (bands like) Motörhead or Marduk, whatever these characters have been using - World War II imagery, is what has turned the world into what it is today,” he says.

“(These bands) force people to face it in a sense. It’s a bad thing, and it’s a part of the modern mythology of society. I’m afraid that it has to be… you have to see those horrible photos and those things, because when there’s nothing to remind us of it, that’s when the deniers get a free minute. So I think it’s a drawback of human nature that we have to be reminded of that, and I think that popular culture portraying it is part of that. There’s been a discussion, there’s been a back-and-forth about that in the scene, to some extent. But of course it’s not good enough, but it’s still better than the mainstream, because that’s the problem. I’m not gonna mention band names, but even the dumbest and least sensitive, fetishized use of (Nazi) uniforms and stuff is nowhere near what is happening in the mainstream.”

The music of Enslaved exists to me on multiple levels, and no matter which one you choose to engage with, it’s always a memorable experience. There are blissed-out moments like the most transcendental parts of Dark Side of the Moon, balanced by savage landscapes of tremolo-drenched shredding. Beneath that lies a mythology that you can compare to your own, or enjoy from afar. Ultimately there’s as much or as little to unpack as you care to. But that’s not how I felt about speaking with Bjørnson that night, because there was absolutely a lot to unpack, whether you focus on Enslaved’s musical journey, or how they (and black metal as a whole) factor into a changing and divided world. After examining these ideas with Bjørnson, he had one final piece of advice.

“I would say to people… I’m not gonna say what they should do, but I would really advise people to remain vigilant, to actually take things at face value, and stop this whole stupid child game of ‘We’re fed up of being told the truth, so now we’re deciding the truth’” he says earnestly.

“Let that go. It’s not gonna get you anywhere if you have 5 million individual truths, because now we have people rebelling against natural law and science. It’s not gonna stop shitty weather by you declaring that you’ve decided that it’s different. If you go outside and it gets you wet, you can write whatever you want on Facebook about it, it’s still gonna be raining (laughs).”

You can find every way to stream and purchase Utgard here, and you can watch the video for the track "Jettegryta" below.