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'He's Always There': Enslaved on the Omnipotence of 'Heimdal'

Wednesday, 01 March 2023 Written by Matt Mills

Enslaved are the model of what Norwegian black metal should be. During its 1990s heyday, the genre’s music was all about pushing buttons and testing boundaries, finding new ways to freak the pants off the posers. Its mastermind, Mayhem guitarist Øystein ‘Euronymous’ Aarseth, listened to just as much prog as he did satanically inclined riffing—Enslaved took that ball and ran with it.

Listen to their new album, ‘Heimdal’, and you’ll hear extreme metal endowed with krautrock, pop, prog and folk influences. It embodies the fearlessness the movement initially envisioned. There’s only one problem, though. Enslaved don’t think they’re a black metal band.

“We are not black metal band because we always considered the whole concept of black metal to be any kind of metal with satanic lyrics,” the band’s bassist, singer and co-founder Grutle Kjellson tells Stereoboard over the phone. “So, to us, Mayhem were black metal, Mercyful Fate were black metal, Venom were black metal and Celtic Frost were black metal, but Enslaved weren’t. We were a part of the extreme scene and aligned with it, but we never considered ourselves black metal because we didn’t have the lyrical concept that was required.”

The fact of the matter is that, behind the subversive and haunting sounds made by the likes of Mayhem, Norwegian black metal was also a conglomeration of teenage proto-edgelords pushing themselves too far. Euronymous’s “inner circle” of musicians frequently convened in his record shop, Helvete, to talk about all things satanism. Others went above and beyond by burning down churches in Norway. Euronymous was murdered in 1993 by his bassist, Varg Vikernes, and Emperor drummer Bård ‘Faust’ Eithun was jailed the following year after stabbing a gay man, Magne Andreassen, to death.

Enslaved never had anything to do with that. Instead of a satanic ideology, the band always favoured writing about vikings and Norse mythology. On their debut album, 1994’s ‘Vikingligr Veldi’, they sang in Old Norse and put a photo of the Sutton Hoo helmet on the front cover. And that fascination carries all the way through to ‘Heimdal’, which is named after the guardian of the Bifröst who watches out for Ragnarök—essentially, the end of the world.

“We feel rooted in this tradition and we grew up with these stories,” Grutle explains. “When me and Ivar [Bjørnson, guitars] were quitting our old band, Phobia, and starting Enslaved, we had a talk about how we wanted to get rid of the death metal gore concept. It wasn’t interesting anymore. The last song I’d written for Phobia was a song called The Last Settlement of Ragnarök, so I said, ‘Why don’t we just write lyrics in Norwegian and Old Norse and sing about something we’re familiar with?’ The more you dig into Norse mythology, the more interesting it becomes, as well: the well will never run dry.”

As a result of this career-long fascination, Grutle says that Heimdall has been a figure who’s, conceptually, “always there, lurking in the shadows” for the band. Enslaved’s 1992 demo, ‘Yggdrasill’, opened with a song called Heimdallr, which would later reappear as the fourth track on ‘Vikingligr Veldi’. Now, 31 years later, ‘Heimdal’ commences to the sound of the god’s horn, heralding the fabled Ragnarök.

“It’s a very accurate parallel to Norse mythology,” Grutle says. “Heimdall has significant roles but he’s still lurking around in the shadows. His origins are really shrouded and unclear. The reason for that is that he was most likely adapted into Norse mythology: he belonged to a cult or even had a cult of his own way before the introduction of the Odin cultists and Thor cultists. Who knows for how long back that cult existed? Maybe even back to the stone age, actually.”

For a band whose bread and butter is esoteric music, ‘Heimdal’ also represents Enslaved at the most out-there they’ve been for quite some time. The hooks aren’t as immediate as those on this album’s predecessor, 2020’s ‘Utgard’. Instead, eclecticism and avant-garde song structures are the name of the game. Caravans to the Outer Worlds, for example, is a space rock-inspired thrash metal cut, while Congelia taps into vintage black metal with its cascading riff. Kingdom has sprinklings of wonky pop between its whirling synth notes as well.

“It’s a continuation of what we do,” Grutle says of the music. “The goal has never been to be superstars. We’re never gonna sell out Wembley Stadium. It’s not about that. We do this for the art and for our own musical journey, and our fans seem to really be enjoying ‘Heimdal’ so far. I just hope we can create some great energy at the shows, as well.”

‘Heimdal’ is also a throwback. When writing the album in isolation, Enslaved revisited their teenage idols for inspiration: not just Mayhem, but also speed metal freaks like Kreator and Sodom, as well as the prog they first heard in Helvete three decades ago.

“I have a very schizophrenic taste in music,” Grutle chuckles. “I can have a Teutonic thrash period on Tuesday and then listen to nothing but Pink Floyd albums on Wednesday and krautrock on Thursday. I quite often go back to the inspirations: the band we listened to in our formative years. That’s my favourite extreme metal period, anyway. I don’t think that there have been a lot of very interesting extreme metal albums after 1995. Some of the energy got lost a little bit. That usually happens when genres get big: it loses some of that ‘youth gone wild’ concept.”

Are Enslaved resurrecting heavy metal’s ‘youth gone wild’ aggro? “Absolutely,” Grutle replies. “You aren’t that skilled when you’re 17 years old and depend on raw energy. I think it’s crucial to keep that somehow intact. It’s good for the balance and dynamics in the music.”

Still black metal-adjacent teenagers at heart, Enslaved have syphoned raw rage into an intellectual and increasingly unpredictable career. Basically, they’re what every extreme metal band—satanic or not—should strive to be.

‘Heimdal’ is out on March 3 via Nuclear Blast.


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