“We’re at the festival and everybody else is a Viking and playing accordions… And then we watched what we were doing, like, ‘I hope this isn’t our fault!’” Ivar Bjørnson on how Enslaved avoided black metal to become prog

Ivar Bjornson
(Image credit: Press)

When it comes to prog, Enslaved rhythm guitarist and synthesiser player Ivar Bjørnson wears his heart on his sleeve. Or more specifically, his love of Pink Floyd. Prog is seated backstage at the USF Verftet venue – an old sardine factory, situated on the dockside in their hometown of Bergen – before the band perform a launch show for their recent Heimdal album and their own brand of beer. Bjørnson proudly points out his large The Dark Side Of The Moon tattoo among many other tattoos on his forearm.

He formed Enslaved with his friend Grutle Kjellson in 1991 during the heady days of the Norwegian black metal scene and the pair still lead the band to this day. While their roots are in extreme music, from the early 2000s onwards Enslaved have introduced more and more progressive elements to their sound – so much so that over the last decade they’ve risen to the forefront of the modern prog metal scene with the albums In Times (2015), E (2017) and Utgard (2020). And Bjørnson’s work with Einar Selvik of Wardruna for their By Norse label continues to push further musical boundaries.

Of course, prog being prog, it’s not always been a smooth ride, with some fans who take a dimmer view of heavy music refusing to accept the band as part of the fold. However, when some gatekeeperish complaints about 2020’s Utgard ranking too high in the Prog writers’ Albums Of The Year appeared on social media, there were plenty of pro-Enslaved prog fans who jumped in to support the band.

It’s been a fascinating journey for the group and especially for Bjørnson, who was further turned on to progressive music by the unlikeliest of sources – the late Euronymous of pioneering black metal band Mayhem. But for all the twists and turns, the big, bearded, heavily tattooed and hugely friendly musician has taken everything in his stride.

What was your first memory of music?

First was the music in the car, I guess like everyone else. Back in the early 80s we were driving for holidays. Everyone in Norway drove around from one end to the other, find a beach, and in the car there would be this – the Norwegian postal service had a cassette aimed at families – children’s music [and] something for the grown-ups. I remember some of that stuff: there was a rockabilly song, it was a kids’ thing.

And then it was watching Kiss on this kids’ series that was going every Saturday about this family that was sort of nutty in a very straight neighbourhood. The teenage daughter was very pretty and she was always dreaming about Kiss towards the end of the episode. She got onstage with them – obviously it wasn’t the real Kiss… imagine how much Gene Simmons would have charged for that? But there was something about the whole band thing that drew me into it. I wanted to be in a band first and foremost.

I was lucky with the people around me; they didn’t think too much about what kind of music it was. My granddad, a silent, strong kind of guy, was a bus mechanic. He saw I was into music and he liked that. My dad was a big Elvis fan – he led the local fan club chapter. When Elvis died he locked himself in a room for three weeks. Anyway, they gave me Kiss’ Dynasty cassette the Christmas I turned six. That was great; I had something that was mine. Then I got other stuff, Europe’s The Final Countdown and Bruce Springsteen. I’d play air guitar along to the music.

I joined a brass band in school. And my dad would play acoustic guitar on the weekends when he had friends over. I asked him at the age of eight if I could play with him. I got to borrow his other acoustic guitar, but my fingers were too small so I played the bass lines. And then I learned how to play the guitar at 15. That’s when I started learning chords. And then my dad went on a business trip, saw something on a shelf with long-haired dudes, bought it, didn’t really look at it, gave it to me. And it was Venom’s The 7th Date Of Hell. And that’s when the little horns came up and I was like, “This is the shit!” They were smashing guitars. It was beautiful.

Was it the energy of Venom that appealed because you were young?

I think so, but it was also tongue-in-cheek, and I liked that. They were singing about Satan and there were skulls on the cover, but it was cool; I wasn’t afraid. I might have been if I was 10 years old and put on some of these second-wave black metal bands that may have been more disturbing. But Venom still had that showbiz thing: they weren’t really good instrumentalists but they put on a spectacular show.

So Kiss and Venom are two early inspirations. What else?

The third path was when I turned 11 and my dad was getting rid of his vinyl. He had all the Pink Floyd albums and on my 11th birthday I got all the Pink Floyd albums and it felt important that I had a little bit of a collection. When I got The Dark Side Of The Moon that’s when something just really changed. I could not stop listening to that album. I still do. The minute I was 18 I got a tattoo of it on my arm.

At what point did you start thinking you might want to be in a rock’n’roll band?

The roughest stuff we were playing was The BeatlesOb-La- Di, Ob-La-Da. I was a rhythm guitarist already then and I played a little French horn, but I loved playing with other people so I didn’t care. I was eager; I wanted to learn more. I came forward when they had this opportunity to go to summer camp for kids; I went two years in a row. One class we had every day was called Another Instrument. You picked something you hadn’t played before and I chose the double bass. I learned to play it over the course of two weeks.

At some point the conductor, a highly educated guy [who had] moved from the city to the countryside, called my parents and said, “He’s yearning for something more sonic. Every break he’ll go back and find drums and make noise. I’m not complaining, I’m just suggesting you get him an electric guitar instead. I don’t think this is enough for him.” It was such a great thing to do. My parents went out and bought a guitar and amplifier. I could be in the basement and just crank it and play some riffs. And that was all because of the brass band.

What was your first proper band?

A band called Obnoxious. We had something called The Crocodile first but the problem was we were the only two guys in the village that played instruments, both guitarists. It didn’t go anywhere. I tried to convince people at school to become a drummer. At some point I was told to stop harassing the other students: “They don’t want to play in your band.” So I gave that up. That’s when we started Obnoxious. It was modelled on Anthrax, basically thrashy. We got a rehearsal room, people came in and out of the band. They wanted to be a singer and they didn’t want to learn stuff by heart, [that] was like school. But we kept going, and had a lot of fun with that.

As an impressionable young rock fan, what was it like living in Norway and having extreme black metal happen all around you?

I don’t think I processed it at the time. Euronymous of Mayhem was a mentor musically and as a guitarist. The single most important thing as a guitarist was his masterclass. He stopped by our house, he had his guitar, I kept asking him all the time: “How do you get that sound?” We were listening to the demos and he decided to take the guitar and show me. Everything good [was] shaped from that. He was the guy who showed me prog. He gave me Klaus Schulze’s Timewind, Tangerine Dream, all this stuff I had liked. It blew my mind, every second of listening to those albums.

I was 14 or 15 when we would go to his record shop, Helvete, in Oslo, with a packed lunch on the bus. There was an article [printed] two weeks before he was murdered. He was in a white turtleneck and he wanted to give a message. He said, “I’m doing this for my family but also for other people. There is an element of showbiz and charade to all this. It’s art. But things need to calm down because they’re about to get out of control.” That was his last media. I think he understood at that time that the other side was actually meant for the public, it was directed at him. That’s very sad.

Enslaved have never really bought into the satanic side of the black metal thing; you chose to follow your own path with Norse mythology.

If you didn’t have a satanic ideology, you couldn’t be black metal; it wasn’t even up for discussion. It was inseparable, so we didn’t think about it. Satanism? Nah, 99 per cent of the black metal scene is like that these days. You’re a normal chap during the week and then you put on the wig and hail Satan on weekends. It’s very different. But [Euronymous] was serious. It was bleak.

How did Enslaved form?

I saw this band, Witchhammer, and everyone was moshing. There’s one especially crazy guy who ends up stage diving. Of course it ends up with him hitting me on the head and I pass out. I woke up and that’s when I met Grutle [Kjellson]. He asked if I was okay. I didn’t see him for a while, but someone told him about a really good guitarist, and one day they’re outside the rehearsal room and kind of shocked I’m so young. They asked me to join them and that’s when we started Phobia.

After a year or so, we had a lot of friends in that black metal scene – Emperor and the guys in Burzum and all that – but we didn’t want to do satanism. That’s only fun for 10 minutes. We both said at the same time it should be about Norse mythology because we read about it at home. Our parents had books about it. And then we started Enslaved.

Norse mythology seems almost timeless in its scope and it also set you apart from the rest, didn’t it?

It did. It’s weird to think that we were the only band doing this. Some people had historical insight, like Heavy Load from Sweden, but for us it was just Bathory. That’s the only reference point. And slowly more and more people came with black helmets and woolly things and suddenly we’re at the festival and everybody else is a Viking and playing accordions. We’re like, “What the fuck happened?” And then we watched what we were doing. We were like, “I hope this isn’t our fault!” And snuck out of there. Ha ha!

Isa [2004] and Ruun [2006] probably mark a turning point, where you evolved from being an extreme metal band and things began to get more psychedelic and proggy. Where would you say that came from? 

You had bands that were short-term: they did one thing and then dropped or went very different. With us, we didn’t want to lose what we had. In the same way you’re a Norwegian or Bergen citizen, you’re first and foremost a human. We’re music lovers. We happened to spring out of the extreme metal garden, but that doesn’t exclude other types of music. We were always on the lookout.

Around 2000, our ambition was to make our favourite music with our favourite people and we have to stick with that – whatever happens as a consequence is going to be what it is. You think because you do well in extreme metal that [playing] Yes or Genesis is easy. Then you try, and you realise you have to do a bit more in-depth rehearsing. You start finding ways to integrate what you’re looking for. We’re still working on it and will be forever. “How do we integrate all this great music we love so much into one wholesome thing?”

Your musical roots are diverse, as is Enslaved’s sound. Yet many bands who shift their sound from extreme metal towards progressive music suffer the chagrin of fans of the older sound, while prog fans can be standoffish. How do you deal with that?

It’s fine. I don’t think someone who likes all the albums can say in a quantitative way that they have a better way of liking Enslaved than the guy who just likes [1994 album] Frost. But what we’ve picked up on over the years is we have respect for that. We can relate with bands like that too.

I don’t have a particular reason, but [with] some bands I’m really into [I prefer] two or three albums and I understand that’s what happens. Also I think they hear [what] we subscribe to – it’s important to people in metal that you have people who are preserving history, tradition.

You joined us for the Prog Awards in 2018 and presented the Video Of The Year award to Orphaned Land. Did you enjoy that?

I loved it. I’m sitting there [pointing and] saying, “Oh wow, that’s that guy!” It was so cool. We’re metal people, but I think we feel like a part of the prog scene too. Art lovers. Prog rock is, like, the fans and the level of interest and dedication.

You’ve worked outside of Enslaved with Einar Selvik of Wardruna on the Skuggsjá and Hugsjá projects, and with the By Norse label. What does that give to you musically?

It’s given me a lot. I think it’s good therapeutically to not be the only guy calling the shots musically. Einar’s not this up-and-coming artist, he’s on a level that’s just insane. And working with By Norse you can see that too. He’s a fantastic guy, but also a great composer and the way he works has been a learning curve. We both have a great time. As we went on we discovered we were looking for more of a meeting of what I love about this rock and prog: mystic meets folk. There’s a lot of that in Norwegian folk music and Swedish even more. Swedish folk music is so much more vibrant than Norwegian. It’s close to our hearts. It’s a localisation opposed to globalisation.

It’s dangerous to talk about identity, but for us the world is becoming colder and I think it’s because people are moving away from storytelling and the strain when people start talking about identity and history, especially since the Second World War – it’s causing more trouble these days.

When we meet people from other countries who are wearing their insides on the outside, it scares us because we’re not used to having thoughts about that. Where do we come from? We are not used to thinking positively about it. [But] talking to old people [about the] history, all these wonderful discussions came up. That’s when we realised this was something we wanted to do both with music and with lyrics and start singing again. It’s okay to be what you are.

Your involvement with Einar and By Norse has certainly helped open more prog fans’ ears to what you do, especially those who might have been initially intimidated by Enslaved’s heaviness.

That’s interesting. People are missing that thing from music that you had during prog’s golden era: nothing is so serious or sacred or anything like that. It’s superficial in a sense. Music was about discovering something new, and it was a selling point. And now everything is about what it reminds you of. “Do you miss your high-school years?” What the fuck, man? It’s all retrospective and you’re embarrassed to represent something new.

It must be pleasing to see that development...

It’s great. From a Bergen perspective, for many years we kept wanting something new from black metal bands. But then you notice what’s happening in the prog scene [with] the Dark Essence and Karisma labels, they’re exporting elements of prog rock.

Norway continues to have a terrific prog scene. Why do you think that is?

It’s a DIY thing: they have their own labels, they’re active. That’s where we found Håkon [Vinje, Enslaved’s keyboard player since 2017]. We were at a Seven Impale show and me and Grutle looked at each other going, “Is this happening? Are we finding a new keyboard player at this gig?” And we did.

Working with Shaman Elephant, as you did in 2022, helps with the prog credentials, too.

It’s great. We have Iver [Sandøy, drummer] in the centre of it all. The octopus or puppeteer. He’s producing all of those bands in the studio.

It’s been an incredible journey for you and Enslaved, from extreme metal to pioneers of modern progressive metal...

I’m extremely happy. My daughter asked what I wanted to do when I grew up and I said, “basically what I’m doing”. It’s great, but then we go to the rehearsal place. That’s the success of the band, 32 years now, album 16. It’s so much fun. We want to be at rehearsal to hang out. It’s the best thing we know to do.

Jerry Ewing

Writer and broadcaster Jerry Ewing is the Editor of Prog Magazine which he founded for Future Publishing in 2009. He grew up in Sydney and began his writing career in London for Metal Forces magazine in 1989. He has since written for Metal Hammer, Maxim, Vox, Stuff and Bizarre magazines, among others. He created and edited Classic Rock Magazine for Dennis Publishing in 1998 and is the author of a variety of books on both music and sport, including Wonderous Stories; A Journey Through The Landscape Of Progressive Rock.