Nine Circles ov… Enslaved Deep Cuts

If there’s one thing to know about my musical taste, it’s that Enslaved is my all-time favorite band. If Enslaved has one fan then I’m that one, if Enslaved has no fans I am dead, you get the idea. From the early days of lightning fast riffs and blast beats galore to the masterful blending of black and prog metal that has defined (but not constrained) them for over 20 years, and the multilayered ways in which Norse mythology and mysticism present themselves in their lyrics and album concepts, Enslaved encapsulate everything I love about heavy music. Ivar Bjørnson and Grutle Kjellson prove time and again that the band they founded as teens in 1991 will never compromise or tread the same paths twice, yet always remain consistent. With the release of their sixteenth full-length album Heimdal almost upon us, there’s no better time to revisit nine realms of the Enslaved saga.

So what am I considering a deep cut for the purposes of this post? Primarily songs that are rarely (if ever) played by the band live, as Enslaved setlists are consistently fan favorites from all eras of their career. With such an expansive and varied discography there’s no way to include everyone’s top picks, but I’m sure the band is grateful for not feeling like they have to retread the same core songs every single show, save for one — at a record shop meet-and-greet in 2014 Isa was playing in full over the store speakers, and Ivar skipped over the title track as soon as those opening chords came on. I don’t know if anyone else noticed, but I found it hilarious (and understandable given that they’d probably been playing it at every single show for a decade at that point!).

Additionally I challenged myself to critically revisit the string of albums from 1997 to 2001, my least favorite period in the band’s history. This was an experimental period for them in many ways, but it yielded astounding results as they have been on a winning streak in the two decades since. So without further ado, let’s dive into some hidden gems from Norway’s finest.

“Norvegr” – Vikingligr veldi (1994)

This is perhaps not the deepest cut considering Vikingligr veldi is one of the second-wave Norwegian black metal scene’s most celebrated albums, and was one of the first non-Bathory instances of Norse mythology themes introduced to the genre — yet special attention is deserved for this song, because how many of Enslaved’s contemporaries would dare end their debut album with a slow, 11-minute instrumental? Probably the most atmospheric song on the album, “Norvegr” has a mournful bassline from Grutle front and center for most of the track. The rest of Vikingligr has more symphonic keyboards, but here we get piano. Throw in some softly-strummed acoustic guitar, and with Pytten’s classic production style bringing all these sounds together, you have definitive proof that even as teenagers Enslaved stood out among their peers.

“Eld” – Eld (1997)

Despite all the praise I see for it, Eld is an album that’s never really clicked with me aside from 16-minute opener “793 (Slaget om Lindisfarne),” Enslaved’s longest song. The album is often cited as the point at which prog elements began to appear in their sound, with longer songs and prominent clean vocals. This is true to an extent, but I feel like it’s Frost‘s much inferior sibling. There’s some great moments like the intros of “For lenge siden” and “Glemt,” but a lot of the riffs end up sounding the same (yes, even for second-wave black metal) and the songs tend to overstay their welcome — the departure of drummer Trym Torson has to be a factor as well. Still the title track represents some of the best this album has to offer, with dynamic tempo changes, real tension built up with the slower clean vocal middle section, and the warm keyboard melody behind the opening/closing riff.

“Et auga til Mimir” – Blodhemn (1998)

The last “trve” Enslaved album, Blodhemn boils down to 30 minutes of nonstop blasts and grating tremolo riffs followed by the folky closing track “Suttungs mjød/Perkulator” — this album sounds a lot like Blizzard Beasts/At the Heart of Winter-era Immortal, but with some “viking” vocals thrown in for good measure. “Et auga til Mimir” changes things up a bit with a great sense of groove throughout, and the primary ascending riff is one of the finest on the album. Viking metal may not be a real genre for some (I like the RYM definition myself), but this track encapsulates the blackened side of it perfectly.

“Ormgard” – Mardraum: Beyond the Within (2000)

Enslaved does… death metal? Mardraum may the band’s first true foray into prog metal, but there’s an undertone of early death metal chunkiness to this album — I wouldn’t expect the opening riff of “Ormgard” to come from the same band that put out Frost or Below the Lights. They kinda threw everything but the kitchen sink into Mardraum and it doesn’t always work, but it’s certainly an important steppingstone into what type of band they were evolving into.

“Api-vat” – Ruun (2006)

Monumension still fails to do much for me past the first two tracks (Roy Kronheim’s contributions are the primary issue), so let’s skip ahead a few years. By 2006 Enslaved were comfortably in the realm of progressive metal, with the additions of Ice Dale, Cato Bekkevold, and Herbrand Larsen resulting in a lineup that was stable for 13 years and six full-length albums. The blast beats and frenetic tempo changes may have departed, but the music had only increased in complexity. There’s an impeccable sense of groove in these riffs; they’re subtle in comparison to earlier work, but even more precise. The highlight of this song has to be Ice Dale’s closing solo — if I were to describe his overall play style with Enslaved it’d be David Gilmour meets Quorthon, and he is in top form here. Accompanying chord progressions can make or break a solo, and Ice Dale weaves through and above them effortlessly.

“Center” – Vertebrae (2008)

Comparisons between Enslaved and a legendary Swedish band on the death metal side of the prog spectrum aren’t very relevant anymore, but I will say that Enslaved nearly did the “non-metal” album first! The heavy aspects of the band are extremely subdued on Vertebrae, and “Center” is one of the best examples of this. The second half of this song has some beautiful textures, particularly the reverb-laden climax that I’d be willing to call blackgaze.

“Giants” – Axioma Ethica Odini (2010)

Enslaved was at a crossroads after Vertebrae. As interesting as it would’ve been for them to venture into full prog rock territory, I’m glad they decided to release my favorite album of all time instead. Right out of the gate Axioma Ethica Odini hits with all the icy fury of the early years but coupled with the depth of a veteran prog metal band. “Giants” is easily one of my favorite songs in the entire Enslaved discography and I hope it makes a return to their live set someday. With the utterly epic way in which lyrics and music combine here — crushing doom riffs and plodding verses accompanying the choruses of “witness the march of the giants… witness the storming of heaven” — it’s hard not to envision the mighty jötnar laying siege to the walls of Asgard.

“Nauthir Bleeding” – In Times (2015)

In Times was the first Enslaved album whose release I feverishly anticipated after they became my favorite band, so it’s always had a special place in my heart. There’s a lot of blackened prog exploration in the second half of the album, and “Nauthir Bleeding” is my favorite example of this. After an optimistic intro and some more epic atmospherics, Ice Dale’s hard rock soloing abruptly transitions into one of the most dissonant riffs Ivar Bjørnson has ever crafted — the song’s titular rune is associated with hardship, strife and friction, and once again theme and music unite perfectly. This album featured some of the most intense black metal Enslaved had written since Below the Lights, and this song is no exception.

“Feathers of Eolh” – E (2017)

Now that I’ve had a while to process how E fits into the Enslaved canon, I feel like it’s a sister album to its predecessor; both albums are six songs long (not counting E‘s bonus tracks), with a repetitious opener leading into a more straightforward rocker, followed by something folk-inspired with songs two and three, respectively. The latter half of both albums is where things get a lot more experimental, even more so on E. “Feathers of Eolh” has the distinction of being Enslaved’s first metal song to feature all clean vocals; the interplay between Grutle and Håkon Vinje in the soft sections is quite beautiful. The verse’s wall of chords still keeps things within the black metal realm, however. And how can you go wrong with the opening/closing lyrics (per the liner notes) of “(Rune-chants)”?

32 years of incredible music and it doesn’t look like Enslaved will be stopping anytime soon. I’m undoubtedly blinded by bias, but it’s hard not to hold them up as having one of the most consistent catalogues in all of extreme metal. I can’t wait to see what the future holds. Alu Alu Laukar!

Don’t be afraid to bleed, don’t be afraid to dream.

— Colin

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