Enslaved: The Progressive Black Metallers

Enslaved standing together in front of a dark background

Even among the misfits and outsiders of the early 90s Norwegian black metal scene, Enslaved stood out. This was partly down to their fascination with ancient Norse culture and spirituality, and partly down to their youth – their youngest member, guitarist Ivar Bjørnson was just 13 years old when the band came together in 1991.

Now Bjørnson and his bandmates are celebrating their 25th anniversary. It’s been a fascinating journey, which has seen them veer away from their black metal roots into altogether more progressive territory. But while some things have changed, others have very much stayed the same.

“We always felt both our lyrics and music should have these dark elements,” says Ivar, as he looks back over the last quarter century. “But also should be constructive, because that is an important part of the old Norse philosophy. Destruction is all good but it’s the beginning of something or the end of something… it’s always been a circular movement.”

You formed Enslaved at the age of 13 – notably young even by the standards of what was a very youthful movement. What was it that attracted you to the scene?

“What was important to us was that there was a revolution in music going on. It was put in such a high regard to be an original, creative band – it was one thing that there were bands coming out that were tough and dangerous and all that stuff, but it was more important among the musicians to have this innovative and pioneering spirit and a band that would be praised because they brought something new to the table. Really the opposite of what’s going on today, where it is more acceptable to reproduce and be retro – that was really frowned upon back then. There was pressure to develop your own style and that really sparked our development.”

That ethos seems to have left an impression on you that’s lasted throughout your entire career…

“From the get-go and my beginning as a musician there was always a positive emphasis to being innovative. I still feel that freedom. It’s never felt like there were preconceived expectations of what we should be doing. I guess there’s some limit – it has to remain organic, there’s always this rock’n’roll base in the production – but apart from that, everything feels up for grabs.”

The progressive and experimental leanings seem to have only increased as the years have passed. Was there a particular point where you decided that you would branch out dramatically from your black metal roots?

“There were little proggy elements from the beginning because we were listening to that stuff, even on the first few albums. I think the one and only time we verbalised the direction of the band was in 1998 after Blodhemn, our most black metal-sounding album to date. After that we felt, ‘Okay, we can continue in the realm of the first four albums and make variations on the epic, long songs, play the more brutal black metal stuff or go with the more melodic material’. And we decided to try out to see how we could translate the progressive music that we all loved so much as people.”

You already had a strong following in the black metal world. Did you have any reservations about making that initial stylistic leap?

“You know, we had a bit of a career going, people were taking an interest and we were touring a bit in Europe and the US. And we were pretty much expecting that we would lose that and that we’d have to start over. So we were very pleasantly surprised that quite a lot of people decided to keep following the band and a lot of new ones joined.”

With so many options available, is it ever hard to get a unanimous decision on which direction to follow when making an album?

“Yes absolutely, and the catalyst for line-up change has always come from a personal disagreement on where to go with the band. It’s a positive thing in a sense there’s never been any fallouts with, you know, people stealing people’s wives or any other tabloid stories. The bit of commercial success we had after [2004 album] Isa probably marked a transition and a guy like Arve [Isdal, guitarist] – who is moving towards the more melodic side of music – might have hoped, ‘Things are going well for the band, why not make more snappy songs under five minutes with clean vocals and see how that pans out?’. On the other hand, you have Grutle [Kjellson, bass and vocals] who really enjoys music that a lot of people find inaccessible, so he’s probably hoping it becomes more crazy.”

How do you resolve those tensions? In 25 years you’ve only had a handful of people leave the band, which is an impressive track record.

“It’s important that the people performing are happy, so I go as far I as I can in making sure that the music is interesting for people to play and at the same time I’m not compromising what I’m writing. We’re grown-ups and we have shouting match maybe once a year – and that’s at the end of a long tour when we’re sick of each others faces.”

Is it fair to say that ultimately you steer the ship?

“Yeah a little bit, because I think that’s how we’re comfortable doing things. Everyone has strong opinions and that’s why they’re interesting people and interesting musicians. So rather than having one ship and arguing how to steer that, it reminds me of more of a swarm analogy – I’m trying to inspire some sort of common directionality but people are still moving on their own path.”

One thing that has remained consistent throughout all the musical changes has been the lyrical and thematic focus on old Nordic culture and spirituality. How did that come about?

“When we started Enslaved we wanted to have the same level of commitment to something spiritual as our contemporaries in black metal [have with] the Satanic side. The dark destructive part of black metal didn’t seem right because we didn’t have any commitment to any Satanic ideology.

For a lot of people, this Viking theme is quite exotic, but do you think that perhaps it sometimes confuses audiences who might otherwise be into what you do?

“At some point we would be seen as a half-baked black metal band, that somebody else would be more Satanic. People didn’t see the difference. They would say, ‘We’re going to write about this band or book this band because they have had people in jail and that’s a lot more juicy’, so that would put us at the back of the line for a long time. I think might have seen it as a bit odd, the whole Norse thing. You say ‘Vikings’ and ‘old Norse’ to the guy in the street and they think of Manowar, big babies in underwear or really drunk people wearing barrels and playing accordions. Now we have the TV series Vikings and an interest in old Nordic culture that goes beyond the cartoonish. It’s hard to see the big picture, but now that the financial system and the big religious institutions turned out to be a load of assholes only looking out for themselves maybe, just maybe, the interest has been reignited in what came before this crap monotheistic takeover led us to the belief that money and strict beliefs would make everything fine.”

You’ve been making music within Enslaved for your entire adult life – what do you think you would be doing if this hadn’t worked out?

“I’m not saying I’m a terribly exciting guy to begin with, but I would be abysmally boring if I wasn’t doing this! What I did for education was learning to becoming a database programmer/analyst, and my aim was to have a combined degree in that and psychology. But then we started touring extensively in the early 2000s. It would have been something with computers combined with human interfaces with the computer world. Maybe working in a university doing research or something.”

Have there been any notable challenges to the lifestyle you’ve committed to?

“I think we’re really lucky that we started out as early as we did. We were able to establish ourselves before things began to get really tough. It’s a lot different building a band now, it’s more like ‘make it or break it’. I’m really happy that we’re able to do this. The family side of things is perhaps the one thing that when I’m away for a long time I maybe think, ‘Is this the right thing?’. But then again there’s always been parents like that; sailors, explorers, truck driver, oil workers. So no regrets and I wouldn’t change anything.”