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Yggdrasill (1992)
 

For anyone that ever wondered how a band like Enslaved managed to have their first album released by Deathlike Silence Productions, the label of Mayhem founder Euronymous, you attention should be directed to the darker and grim-sounding Yggdrasill. Recorded in June 1992 and released a short time later, this was the band's second demo and the first to really showcase any Black Metal influences. As with several others from the Norwegian scene, these guys began their musical career playing Death Metal, under the name Phobia. The Nema demo still possessed a good amount of this sound, despite the more blackened vocals. With Yggdrasill, there are hints of their Death Metal past, but the prime inspiration seems to have come from that which their Norwegian peers were up to.

For this demo, Enslaved really sped things up, for the most part. Trym's percussion forces things along at a fast and consistent pace, though sometimes he seems to get ahead of himself and comes close to being lost in all the chaos. The overall sound is dominated by the razor sharp tremolo melodies that are unleashed by Grutle and Ivar. At this point, it would appear that the band were big fans of Mayhem and Burzum, as the work of Euronymous and Varg is easy to hear in many of the guitar riffs. They definitely had their own emerging style, as can be heard on tracks like “Allfağr Oğinn”, but it was still in its formative stages at this point. While there are many great riffs to be found on this demo, some are obscured by the overuse of synth. There are times when it works, here and there, but there are times when its use becomes excessive over the course of the demo. Unfortunately, the band would carry this flaw with them for the recording of their debut full-length. The same can be said of the extended length of songs that could have ended a bit earlier.

The production is perfect, more or less. It is very raw, which gives the guitars a really nasty sound. Likewise for the absolutely hellish tone that Grutle's vocals possess, at times. His voice is a bit high in the mix, but it works well within the context of the music. The 'triumphant battle synth' could have been lowered a bit, however. It would be far less distracting. The drums are rather far off in the distance, which is probably for the best as the drumming is not the most consistent aspect of this demo, anyway. Not that percussion ever needs to be on equal footing with the guitars, in the first place.

What one can expect from Yggdrasill is a much more raw and primitive sound than Enslaved has come to be known for. It is a shame that they did not continue on in this direction. Then again, the rawness is likely more a result of lack of means to do better, at the time, as their material was a little more ambitious than the likes of Darkthrone or Immortal, almost from the very beginning. If you have not yet heard this, you should do so. Pick up the split album with Satyricon which features all of these tracks, plus one extra.
 
(29 Aug. 2012)

 
 

Hordanes Land is the first official release from Norway's Enslaved. This three-song E.P. was released by Candlelight Records in May 1993, later reissued as a split with Emperor. For many, this half an hour of music served as their introduction to the band. This effort is not too far removed from Yggdrasill, for the most part, though it does display Enslaved's more ambitious side.

Right away, it is obvious that the production has 'improved' since the Yggdrasill demo. It is clearer and a little more professional, while still sounding rough. However, for my taste, the raw sound of the demo tape was much better. Nonetheless, this was a necessary evil, as there seems to be a bit more going on here and the fuller and deeper sound allows for every element to be heard well, from the acoustic bits to the clean vocal passages. The drums are definitely clearer than before, and possess somewhat of a heavy echo. The guitars do not seem as effective since they lack the razor sharp tone and severely harsh edge as before. The keyboards are too loud as well. In this case, the band was better off with either the raw quality from the demo or the somewhat more professional sound of Vikingligr Veldi. This rests somewhere in between and doesn't quite suit the music as well as either of those.

As for the music, this is rather decent. "Slaget I Skogen Bortenfor" is a massive piece that serves as an early sign of the band's lofty goals. For those that followed their development from the demos onward, this must have come as somewhat of a surprise. Clocking in at over thirteen minutes, this was one of the first examples of Norwegian Black Metal really breaking with convention and going for something more epic. This even predates Burzum's "Det Som Engang Var", for what it's worth. That said, the songwriting is not quite as skilled and there are times when one gets the impression that the track could have been shorter, but Enslaved surely gets credit for pulling it off rather convincingly, anyway. The only real complaint would have to be the keyboards, which sound really ridiculous. Whoever thought the odd horn sound somehow added to the music should be beaten. The song is filled with a good number of high quality tremolo riffs and Grutle's absolutely vicious vocals, so such effects were simply unnecessary.

This is followed by a re-recording of "Allfağr Oğinn". Right off, this is a bit of a letdown as they changed the lead solo at the beginning of the song, making it less memorable and nearly impotent when compared to the original. Otherwise, it still retains the opening moments inspired by Celtic Frost and then the transition to the colder tremolo melodies. Again, the vocals are possessed by a hateful and aggressive tone that really goes beyond what a lot of the other Norwegian bands were doing. The keyboards distract from the riffs, at certain points, but they are done a little more tastefully than on the previous track. All in all, there are not too many differences between this version and the original. The epic atmosphere may be more perceptible here, though the rawness of the demo recording is still preferable to my ears.

"Balfǫr" is a strange track, utilizing some odd riffs that kind of foreshadow some of the material from Frost. The vibe is definitely more relaxed as the song moves along as a slower pace. Here, the subtle synth touches actually fit the music better than at any other time of this E.P. A brief lead solo adds depth to the song, with somewhat of a sombre touch. The riffs are more thrash-oriented, for the most part, though the mid-paced parts of somewhat reminiscent of old Bathory. While this is certainly different, it makes for an interesting listen and is pretty memorable.

Hordanes Land is definitely an interesting release. It seems that it would fit more naturally between Vikingligr Veldi and Frost, rather than between the demo and the debut. Either way, it is filled with rather dynamic compositions that seek to create an epic atmosphere beyond what most of Enslaved's Norwegian peers were up to. Strange that, when considering the split release that featured these songs, Emperor seemed to get the most attention despite the Enslaved material being far more interesting and well-executed. At any rate, for those fans of the band's early period, this is an essential release.
 
(13 Sept. 2012)

Vikingligr Veldi (1994)
 

Vikinligr Veldi is the first full-length album from Norway's Enslaved. It was released in February 1994, by Deathlike Silence Productions. This was one of the last records to be released by DSP, as Euronymous has been murdered some months earlier. It may have been a good thing that he was gone before this emerged, as one might imagine he would not have been completely thrilled with the finished product. What is found here on Enslaved's debut record is something that is not exactly in line with the darker and more evil atmosphere that characterized most of the other DSP releases.


The material is not that far removed from what can be heard on the Yggdrasill demo. However, the raw recording of that tape may have disguised the band's music a bit, making it seem more aggressive that it really was. Once Enslaved was able to clean their sound up a little, one can see that it is really quite different from what most of the other Norwegian bands were doing, on a fundamental level. Of course, the main themes of songs like “Vetrarnótt” and “Heimdallr” are built around the same sort of fast tremolo melodies that were common in Norwegian Black Metal. Even the heavy use of synth was already done by the likes of Emperor and Satyricon, so this was nothing new, either. However, the basic atmosphere is much lighter than that of their peers. There is nothing dark or evil about this, whatsoever, which really sort of sets Enslaved apart from the rest (though one could say that Immortal focused more on a cold feeling than anything particularly evil, at least, from Pure Holocaust on). One could say that there is still a rather harsh feeling that is conveyed through Grutle's feral vocals and the more intense moments, such as the high-speed battery of “Heimdallr”. From this it would seem that Trym's timing has improved, greatly. The sense of grimness shifts from candlelight rituals to something more reflecting the ruggedness of the Norwegian landscape and the Viking period which serves as such an inspiration for the band. Nonetheless, what this lacks by not possessing a morbid and occult feeling it more than makes up for with the majestic and epic nature of the many memorable guitar melodies that fill its fifty-minute running time.

Compared to the previous demo, Vikingligr Veldi shows a final realization of the ambitious approach that was found on that cassette. Whereas many of the ideas were incomplete and seemed stitched together, at times, things seem to flow much better here. That is not to say that the songwriting is without any flaws. There are times when it would appear the certain songs go on longer than they should. In the case of “Midgards Eldar”, things take a little too long to really get underway. The build-up is somewhat weak and drags on, while also feeling a little disjointed from the main riff that is introduced thereafter. With four of the album's five tracks clocking in around eleven minute in length, this can be a bit of a tedious listen. Thankfully, the quality of the material demands that you put in the effort, regardless. Even “Norvegr” manages to grow on you, despite its slow and plodding pace. The absolutely gloomy feeling that it creates is difficult to ignore. It is placed well, as the epic journey that the album takes you on is likely to leave you battered and weary, by this point.

The production is really strong and rather clean for a Black Metal album. The guitar riffs are much clearer than on In the Nightside Eclipse or Dark Medieval Times, for example. The sound is overall heavier as well, with more focus on the riffs than the aforementioned records, despite the similar tendency to use synth a bit more than needed. In the case of Enslaved, it is done far more sparingly, though maybe not as tastefully. The 'horns', or whatever, are really out of place and do not help the atmosphere of the songs. Still, the keyboards are not so high in the mix as to overpower the rest, like in the case of Emperor. As well, the vocals are at just the right balance to be heard well and for the intensity of Grutle's voice to be felt, but not so much that it becomes abrasive and distracting. The few lead guitar solos are also done well, in that they are not buried in the mix and impossible to hear, like with many other underground releases of the time.

All in all, Vikingligr Veldi is the best album that Enslaved ever recorded and earned them the right to stand at the same level as their Norwegian peers. The only negatives here, such as the lengthy compositions and synth use, are easily forgotten when one realizes the full brilliance on display. While Frost may be somewhat easier to digest, Vikingligr Veldi provides a far more rewarding experience and is much more worth the time invested. This is an essential record for fans of cold and epic Black / Viking Metal.
 
(1 Sept. 2012)

 
Frost (1994)
 

What is Black Metal? In the early to mid 80s, this question would elicit such responses as Venom, Slayer, Mercyful Fate, Bathory, Sodom, Hellhammer, et cetera. While having some obvious similarities, each of these bands had a distinct style of their own. The one common thread that ran through the works of all of these bands (at least, in the early days) was the dark and Satanic content of the lyrics. That is what defined Black Metal, in those earliest times. The common fallacy is that Black Metal was spawned in Norway, in the early 90s. If it doesn't have this sound, then it's not Black Metal. By the same token, if it does have this sound, then it belongs to this style of music. This means that all a band needs to fit in this category are tremolo riffs, blast beats and screeching vocals, regardless of lyrical content. Wrong. Enslaved may be from Norway. They may utilize the same musical techniques used by Norwegian Black Metal bands, but Enslaved is Viking Metal. You won't find one reference to Satan on this entire album. Here, the lyrics deal with Norse/Germanic mythology.

Frost is the second L.P. from Enslaved, recorded in the summer of 1994, in Grieghallen, and produced by Pytten (as so many classic Norwegian albums were). The songs are more straightforward (and thus, somewhat, shorter) than on Vikingligr Veldi. The intro, "Frost", has a mystical feeling to it and goes well with the imagery that is found on the album cover.

"Loke" begins with a nice build-up, before unleashing a very harsh aural assault. The sound is very abrasive, like sheets of ice splintering and being hurled through the air, tearing flesh and severing limbs. The song structure is a bit more varied than one might expect, as well. The song ends with insanely disturbing laughter.

The next song is "Fenris", which begins with spoken a spoken word section (in Norwegian, of course) before a strange, somewhat folky rhythm begins. This doesn't last long, as the song transitions to a simple acoustic piece, before changing again, to a very catchy thrash riff. This will remain with you, coming to your mind at the strangest times, even when you haven't listened to the album in years. Enslaved truly appears to be one of the last unique bands to emerge from Norway, during this period. You can hear some musical influences from Mayhem, and even small similarities to Immortal, but this really does have a sound of its own. The only thing to complain about would be the bizarre use of keyboards, late in the song.

"Svarte Vidder" begins with some brilliant tremolo riffs and better-utilized keyboards. Grutle Kjellson's vocals are impressively harsh. The drummer, Trym Torson, is also very precise with everything he does. The guitar melodies possess a cold feel, almost cutting through your skin. This is the lengthiest song on the album, yet it contains enough variation that you never really notice. There are brief sections, in the middle and near the end, with some clean voice moaning (or chanting) in the distance.

"Yggdrasil" is a complete change in pace. This has a very folk-ish atmosphere, complete with clean vocals. Eirik "Pytten" Hundvin makes a special appearance, playing the fretless bass. After a couple of minutes, electric guitars emerge from the relative silence, though only adding to the feeling that has been created and not dominating the sound.

The progressive atmosphere seems to fade away as "Jotunblod" rages forth like an unrelenting blizzard. It begins with scathing vocals, fast tremolo riffs and blast beats. There is the slightest use of keyboards, and also typical oldschool drum patterns (not an expert, so it is difficult to describe any other way). The keyboards return, showing some similarities to bands like Emperor and Satyricon.

"Gylfaginning" begins with a very doomy riff that transitions into pure thrash. The drums are somewhat relaxed, while keeping time. In no time, keyboards and clean chanting join the mix. Again, Enslaved have a unique style, and it is very apparent while listening to Frost. This song also features a very nice lead solo, which adds to the cold atmosphere.

"Wotan" is the best song on the album, for those seeking a pure, straight-forward assault. In other words, this is the one with the most Black Metal sound, while (naturally) being as far from that as possible. It is very intense and the cold riffs wrap themselves around you like freezing winds carrying you toward the frigid waters of the North Sea.

"Kjemp med Krigers Gud; WOTAN!"

"Isöders Dronning" is very atmospheric, featuring more keyboard use and some clean vocals and acoustic guitars. In Black Metal, I'd be annoyed with the presence of some of these elements, yet this is Viking Metal, so it must not be held to the same standard. For some reason, much of this song seems reminiscent of Emperor's In the Nightside Eclipse.

This is a very solid album and, along with Hordanes Land and Vikingligr Veldi, the only Enslaved albums that I would recommend. Fans of early 90s Norwegian Black Metal or Viking Metal will, surely, appreciate this.
 
(26 Jan. 2009)

Eld (1997)
 

In the old day, before the prominence of the internet, there were times when one had to make a judgment of an album based on the cover art, hoping that it would serve as an indication as to whether or not the music was any good. Sometimes it worked, yet every now and then this method would fail. In the case of Enslaved's third full-length, the ridiculously lame cover should serve as a warning to not bother listening to this. Released in March 1997, Eld came a few years after Frost and showed that the band had acquired new interests and had returned to the scene with a somewhat different approach. Those that were hoping for a continuation of the early material were sadly disappointed.

Where does one start with such an irritating record? The production is terrible and not in a good way. It is difficult to believe that Pytten had anything to do with this, as the sound is all wrong for this material. There is too much open space between the instruments, as if they are somehow not connected, properly. Even on tracks where they go for a full-on Black Metal assault, the mix seems more geared for a simple rock band and the whole thing is just totally neutered. The drums are too loud in the mix, which makes the disconnect all the more noticeable. The guitar tone is not all that bad, but the overall sound does not match the style of music that is being played.

As for the material itself, Enslaved really lost their way on this one. Either they failed to accomplish that which they set out to do or they were actually trying to make something totally horrid and bereft of any value, whatsoever. The opener, "793 (Slaget Om Lindisfarne)", clocks in at over sixteen minutes and doesn't feature a single enjoyable moment. Right from the onset, the band decided to challenge the patience of the listener, bombarding you with all of the new elements that they chose to embrace; i.e. an overflow of clean vocals, acoustic passages, more of a folk-like vibe. This is usually a sign of a band that was not that committed to what they were doing in the first place, having run out of ideas and needing to find some sort of gimmick. In this case, all of the new additions helped them gain praise from those that see such nonsense as progressive and thoughtful. Some tracks, like "Hordalendingen" and "Alfablot", try to inject some of the old intensity into things, but the execution and production really prevent this from ever happening. And, of course, the use of keyboards and clean vocals has to be ever-present. There doesn't appear to be a single pure Black Metal song on the album, which is really what they needed since their brand of 'Viking Metal' is so disappointing.

Eld represents the exact moment when Enslaved became completely irrelevant to the Black Metal scene and began to belong to some faux-progressive movement, populated by musicians that had utterly lost any and all sense of purpose and were content to start throwing things against the wall to see what stuck. There were certainly hints that this might happen, particularly on Frost, but it is doubtful that anyone could have predicted such an atrocity. Avoid this.
 
(9 Sept. 2012)

Blodhemn (1998)
 

After the incredibly disappointing Eld, Enslaved appeared to realize that something had gone terribly wrong, in just about every manner possible. From the production to the songwriting to the playing, itself, that record did nothing but stain the band's reputation. The following year, in 1998, they returned with Blodhemn. While this L.P. is a a few steps above its predecessor, in all aspects, it still fails to match the band's earlier output and even manages to give rise to new problems.

From the very beginning of the record, one does not even have to bother checking the liner notes to tell that this album was recorded in Studio Abyss, produced by Peter Tägtgren. This was mistake number one, though it was a common thing for Black Metal bands in the late '90s. As a songwriter and musician, Peter is excellent. Anyone with the old Hypocrisy and Abyss albums in their collection is well aware of this. As a producer, he really fails to capture the appropriate atmosphere and seems to often mold the band's sound to the way he thinks it should be. The worst curse that this album can suffer from is the stench of modern production, which absolutely ruins it. From beginning to end, one cannot help but think how much better this would have sounded if recorded elsewhere, or maybe some years earlier. By the late '90s, this plastic sound was becoming more and more prevalent and was seemingly impossible to avoid. Truth be told, one could make a fair assessment that this album is worthless based off of the info in the booklet, before ever hearing a single note.

With regards to the music, Enslaved really went out of their way to try getting back to their roots, to an extent. Songs like "I Lenker Til Ragnarok" and "Eit Auga Til Mimir" hearken back to the fast-paced and intense songs from Vikingligr Veldi and Frost, possessing much more of a typical Norwegian Black Metal vibe than one the last L.P. The clean vocals, introduced on Eld, are still present but they are done in a much more tasteful manner. In the case of the former, I am 100% convinced that Peter came up with the vocal melodies, as they sound so similar to something that one would expect from Hypocrisy's middle period. In the case of some of the other tracks, the modern feeling is present even with the songwriting, with too much reliance on double bass, at times. "Ansuz Astral" even includes some really terrible synth that kills the supposed 'Viking' atmosphere and gives one the impression that the Martians have landed. For the most part, the bulk of the material is generic and uninspired, even if it is an improvement over their last effort.

Every band is allowed to slip up and put out a bad record, but Blodhemn makes two horrible albums in a row. As a result, any and all credibility that Enslaved ever had was wiped away and forgotten. While the songwriting is somewhat stronger and the production a little more suitable for the material than on Eld, the fact is that the music and the sound reeks of a modern, sterile sound that renders it all worthless. It is a shame that Darkthrone was not more productive during the late '90s, as the rest of the Norwegian Black Metal scene were either wimping out and jumping on trends or just making lousy records. This release by Enslaved is a good example of both.
 
(9 Sept. 2012)

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