Enslaved Interview with Ivar Bjørnson: Patterns in the Currents

Posted in Features on September 14th, 2012 by JJ Koczan

It makes for a pretty vivid scene: In the waiting room of a maternity ward in a Norwegian hospital there sits a man with long hair and a big beard. The room, like most places in a hospital where they let the public go, it smells sterile and is brightly lit, even at night — and it’s Norway in December, right between Christmas and New Year’s, so it’s night a lot — and like most men in maternity ward waiting rooms, the man looks worried. But he doesn’t bite his nails, or tap his fingers, or scratch his head, or jerk his legs. He’s got his phone out and he’s using it to write music.

The man is Ivar Bjørnson. He’s the guitarist and one of two founding members remaining in progressive black metal progenitors Enslaved, and the piece of music he’s writing will not only serve as his daughter’s introduction to the world, but also the resoundingly triumphant final stretch of the song “Roots of the Mountain,” one of many highlight moments spread throughout the eight component tracks of Enslaved‘s 12th full-length and third for Nuclear Blast, Riitiir (review here). Fitting that such a part should be composed in that situation — the thematic tying together the diverse music and lyrics of Riitiir is man’s need for and reliance on ritual for comfort, and one imagines that having been in Enslaved since he was a teenager a good deal of his personal rituals are wrapped up in it. Indeed, the guitarist acknowledges this about himself and his fellow founder, bassist/vocalist Grutle Kjellson, with whom he started the band in 1991, when he says, “It’s impossible to say where Enslaved stops and our personalities start.”

Appropriate too, then, that Enslaved should have handled the basic engineering job for Riitiir on their own, with work split between Bjørnson‘s home studio and the professional studio run by guitarist Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal and keyboardist/clean vocalist Herbrand Larsen, since the farther inward their songs look, the more intimate and personal they become, no matter what kind of cosmic largesse may emerge in their layers. Once Bjørnson, Kjellson, Isdal, Larsen and drummer Cato Bekkevold had put their tracks to tape, the band returned to Sweden to mix with Jens Bogren at Fascination Street studios as they did with 2010’s Axioma Ethica Odini (review here), which was a stunning progression particularly in its second half from the more stripped down direction they seemed to be taking on 2008’s Joe Barresi-helmed Vertebrae. Perhaps their collaboration with the Opeth, Katatonia and Amon Amarth mixer is becoming a bit of a ritual as well. All the better, since if Riitiir proves anything, it’s that there’s strength to be gained from familiarity, from comfort and repetition.

And yet, Riitiir is also inarguably the farthest out Enslaved have pushed themselves in their progression, so while some of the elements are recognizable and the final output is definitively their own, they’re continuing to reshape what that means. Along with new sounds , experiments in structure and an enduring lack of limitation by genre or doing what’s expected of them — I don’t even know what that would be at this point, except perhaps to step forward from where they were last time out — Enslaved have begun to further highlight the dynamics involved in repetition, introducing a part and then reintroducing it later, somewhat changed, or, as in the case of “Roots of the Mountain,” not being afraid to make the most of a genuinely approachable hook. As a result, the songs have gotten longer in general and more pointed in their development. While ritual may factor in thematically and in terms of process, Enslaved are by no means going through the motions.

Because it’s less a reflection on me than the conversation itself — that is, because it feels less like I’m puffing up my own ego — I don’t mind saying what follows is one of the best interviews I’ve ever conducted. Open, honest and thoughtful, Bjørnson generously gives insight into the Enslaved‘s workings, both in terms of the day-to-day banalities and the more abstract creativity driving the material, while also offering his opinions on the future of the music industry in the age of pay-to-stream, the shift toward more extended material (which is actually a return to earlier days, but in a much different stylistic context), tour plans in support of Riitiir, their Roadburn experience, the state of Norwegian microbrewing and much, much more.

All told, it’s a little over 6,700 words, so if you read it in pieces, I get it. However you take it on, please keep in mind Riitiir is out Oct. 9 in the US (Sept. 28 in Europe), and please, as always, enjoy.

The complete Q&A with Ivar Bjørnson is after the jump.

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Enslaved, Riitiir: Becoming the Heralds

Posted in Reviews on August 20th, 2012 by JJ Koczan

In some ways, Enslaved’s twelfth album, Riitiir, picks up right where the last one left off. 2010’s Axioma Ethica Odini (review here) was the Norwegian progressive black metallers’ most expansive outing yet. balancing a more traditional (as far as that kind of thing goes with Enslaved) first half with a second that found them pushing the boundaries of influence into doom and even a burgeoning psychedelic sensibility, all driven by their overtly metallic context but given melodic breadth that even pivotal works of their new era like 2004’s Isa or 2006’s Ruun began to point toward and which was all-too-briefly affirmed on last year’s subsequent The Sleeping Gods EP. Since 2004, the band has been putting albums out more or less like clockwork, and despite having moved to Nuclear Blast for each North American release since Vertebrae in 2008 – Riitiir is their third for the label – they’ve been consistent in lineup while exceeding themselves in terms of quality of output. Riitiir – also written as the all-caps RIITIIR, and derived from the words “rites” and “rituals,” themes that encompasses much of the record’s lyrics and musical sensibilities – was recorded across a variety of studios in the band’s native Norway, and overseen by the band personally, but to mix, they teamed with Jens Bogren of Fascination Street Studios in Sweden and listening to the various layers at work on the eight tracks, it’s no mystery why. Along with their most prevalent melodies yet, Riitiir also boasts the complex arrangements vocally and instrumentally that have been a hallmark of the band’s latter-day work. It’s an album you can listen to three times in a row and hear something different each time, whether it’s a tempest guitar lead in “Death in the Eyes of Dawn” from Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal or Ivar Bjørnson or a subtle harmonic shift in the vocals of keyboardist Herbrand Larsen, whose voice has become more and more a fixture of Enslaved’s work since he joined the band in 2004.

And certainly pre-Larsen albums like 2001’s Monumension or 2003’s Below the Lights were not without their progressive sensibilities, but the work the band has been able to do since his arrival is in a different league entirely. There will be those who disparage their growth as some shedding of black metal trueness. I’m not one of them, and I think to limit Enslaved to one genre or another at this point is to undercut the value of what they do, especially in the songs of Riitiir. Bassist Grutle Kjellson still has his trademark rasp and Ice Dale offers no shortage of monstrous and deathly growls, but it’s the lushness that Larsen brings in his clean singing and synth work – Bjørnson contributes synth as well – that ultimately define some of the most memorable parts of Riitiir, be it the rush of “Veilburner” where he tops a near-punkish beat from drummer Cato Bekkevold or the subdued finale of closer “Forsaken,” the atmosphere of which is no less lonely than its title. Throughout, Enslaved bask in their own indulgences and put them to good use, leaving no avenue in the songs unexplored or underdeveloped. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as a result of this, the individual songs are longer than one might have come to expect from the band, the halfway marker “Roots of the Mountain” – a landmark in more than just its track placement – being the second track to top nine minutes behind opener “Thoughts Like Hammers” and the closer clocking in at a weighted 11:15. That’s not quite the 16 minutes that “793 (Slaget Om Lindisfarne)” took to open 1997’s Eld or the lengths they went to on their 1994 debut, Vikingligr Veldi, but on average, they’ve pushed further time-wise to match their expanding scope on Riitiir, and even on the title-track here, which at 5:26 is the shortest of the bunch, it’s time well spent.

While it’s a little ironic that Enslaved would be around long enough to bring them full-circle from starting off with longer tracks, delving into shorter bursts and then working their way back up over the course of their last several albums, the principle difference between Riitiir and the several outings preceding it is the effectiveness of the blend of influences. Axioma Ethica Odini, which was one of 2010’s best albums, make no mistake, kept the bulk of its progressivism for its second half, and it wasn’t until the last two tracks – “Night Sight” and “Lightening” – that the staggering melodic reach of the band  in its current incarnation really unveiled itself. It’s in that regard most of all that Riitiir picks up where Axioma Ethica Odini left off, as there seems to be a willful shedding of concern for expectation happening right from the start of “Thoughts Like Hammers.” The progression is more rock-based and bombastic. The first verse is a genuine stomp, Bekkevold holding back as he does a lot throughout from unleashing blasts or double-bass drumming, and Kjellson starts off Riitiir with a vicious slew of cosmically-themed lyrics. All seems to be going according to plan until the chorus opens up, Larsen comes in on vocals – he’d done a kind of call and response during the verse as well, but the chorus is all him, and in layers – and the majesty really takes hold that the fabric of the record is made apparent. Enslaved won’t be burying their progressive elements this time around, but neither do they shy away from crushing heaviness, as “Thoughts Like Hammers” shows as it approaches its midpoint break, Kjellson and Larsen once more in a call and response, but over a more vicious instrumental burst. An airy solo follows and long synth lines sustained under Bekkevold’s tom runs while Kjellson gurgles out a few more lines, then shouts back a spoken part and a more melodic guitar takes hold to lead back to the initial verse and chorus interchange. If it sounds confusing, it is. If it sounds like a lot going on, it is. Among Riitiir’s impressive achievements, not falling apart halfway through has to be considered right at the top.

Presumably though, if that fate was going to befall a band like Enslaved, it would’ve happened at some point before their twelfth album in. “Thoughts Like Hammers” makes an intriguing opener, showing right away that the band have pushed themselves even further in terms of their arrangements and structuring since the last time out, and that their level of performance, as ever, is second to none. Larsen in particular has surfaced as a defining presence in the band’s sound, and his increased range and confidence on Riitiir only makes the material richer. He appears vocally on every track on the album – he was on almost all of Axioma Ethica Odini as well but for the instrumental interlude – but more than that, he is clearer, more forward and more accomplished-sounding than ever before. Because of the complexity of the arrangements of which he’s a part with Kjellson and Isdal, it wouldn’t be fair to call him a “lead” vocalist, but he makes choruses like that of “Thoughts Like Hammers,” “Death in the Eyes of Dawn” and “Roots of the Mountain” powerful and memorable in ways they simply wouldn’t be without his input. The three distinct voices of Enslaved each have a role to play in the overall balance, but with the bass-heavy groove of “Death in the Eyes of Dawn,” it’s Larsen’s that most stands out, however killer the opening gurgles sound. The song develops some of the spoken ideas of the opener, using throaty semi-whispers to top a bouncingly proggy guitar line during the bridge before Larsen takes over for the pre-chorus and chorus. Isdal returns for the next verse and the cycle seems ready to repeat itself, but a cut to a solo section instead of the Larsen-topped pre-chorus acts as an unpredictable shift and a quick section of effective stops leads to a heavier overall push, Bekkevold announcing its coming with fervent snare rolls and Kjellson coming on for an all-cylinders burst that shifts back to the progressive bounce with hardly any announcement at all. Again, it works. The initial verse/pre-chorus/chorus/post-chorus arrangement repeats, and in the last minute of the song, a stretch of acoustic guitar is introduced to carry the flow into “Veilburner,” which is shorter at 6:46 and more simpler overall in its structure.

Given what Enslaved have so far done on Riitiir, it would just about have to be. Whatever shift it makes to a more established pattern, however, “Veilburner” more than makes up for with its chorus. If modern Enslaved has a prototype arrangement, “Veilburner” is probably it – Kjellson fronting the verse and Larsen taking over for a galloping chorus – but the chorus has a second stage and it’s among the most grand of any on Riitiir. They repeat it twice, Larsen holding the fore once he’s come to it, repeating the lines, “I cannot tolerate being held in the dark/I need to see/I will the flames,” in his kind of drawn out, dreamy melody, seemingly unaffected by the rush beneath him, and when the song opens up and the low-mixed growling accompanies, there’s hardly a finer example of the offsetting melody and brutality to be found in modern metal that is still worthy of the name. Kjellson returns for a final verse and the song cuts to noise that bleeds directly into “Roots of the Mountain,” which stands among “Thoughts Like Hammers” and “Forsaken” as one of the several peaks of the record. At 9:17, it is grandiose, but not inflated. Solid. It is the catchiest chorus on Riitiir and ties together not only the theme of rituals, but the career-long battle-mindedness of Enslaved with their cosmic side and even a flourish of inward wisdom-seeking. Again, it sounds like a lot and it is, but it’s all there. And for those who’d relish the head-down pummel of Enslaved at their blastbeaten heaviest, that’s there too, right in the beginning of the song, which shoves its way through the first verse before you even realize it. It’s only when Bekkevold evens out his bass drum and Larsen hits a newfound falsetto in the chorus that “Roots of the Mountain” makes itself fully known. They rush through another verse and get back to the chorus in good time – rightly so – and let loose a guitar solo before bringing in a different progression, also led out by a solo, this time in an ascending line that leads to a break of Kjellson’s bass and the drums (which sound sampled if they aren’t). The guitars kick in and Larsen spits some raw philosophy, and for a minute, it genuinely seems like the song is in its final stretch.

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Six Dumb Questions with Ereb Altor

Posted in Six Dumb Questions on July 19th, 2012 by JJ Koczan

Now a trio for the first time in their career, Swedish outfit Ereb Altor mark a lineage that spans well over a decade despite having issued their first album, By Honour, in 2008. Their mission on that record was an almost singular homage to their countrymen forebears in Bathory, taking that outfit’s seminal Viking approach and recontextualizing it into powerful melodic Euro-doom. For the core duo of founding multi-instrumentalists Crister “Mats” Olsson and Daniel “Ragnar” Bryntse, it was a departure even from their main project, Isole, which had released its debut just three years prior.

From 2008 on, both acts would continue to exist almost independent of each other, and Ereb Altor continued to develop a personality distinct from that of Isole on their second album, 2010’s The End, which pushed further into the epic Viking style and kept the plod and melodic presence of its predecessor. Some of the novelty had gone out of their loyalist approach, but Ereb Altor‘s sophomore installment still showed they weren’t a fluke or a one-off tribute band to anyone who might have thought otherwise. That Ragnar and Mats would be joined by a full-time drummer, Tord, for their third album was much less of a surprise — makes for easier touring, songwriting, etc. — than that album itself wound up being.

The record, which was released just at the end of June, is called Gastrike, and while it holds fast the epic nature of Ereb Altor‘s songwriting, it also shifts away from the doomed sensibilities of the first two albums toward a harsher black metal feel. Songs like “Dance of Darkness” or the blistering closer “Seven” (also the seventh track, as it would almost have to be) rip into a side of Bathory‘s sound perhaps more commonly heard in the overall sphere of the metal underground, but which is a marked turn for Ereb Altor as a unit. That they managed to do it so well speaks to both their level of devotion and the universal nature of quality metal songcraft.

Hoping to get some insight into what might have prompted the change in direction, I hit up Ereb Altor for the following Six Dumb Questions:

1. Ereb Altor seems to be really branching out with Gastrike in terms of the band’s sound. Was there something purposefully you want to change from By Honour and The End? Were there any shifts in the songwriting process from the past albums?

Yes, it was our purpose to have a different approach on the new album. It’s been in my head right after the release of The End. I had an idea of building a concept with stories from the area where we live. Dark myths, legends and ghost stories and therefore the music had to sound darker to fit the concept. We haven’t changed the way we write songs and I think you can hear that if you listen carefully, it’s all Ereb Altor wrapped up in a black coat.

2. How involved was Tord in the songwriting and what does having a full-time drummer mean to Ereb Altor? Does having Tord in the band open up the possibility of doing more shows? How does it change the dynamic between the two of you?

Tord was only involved with some thoughts and input about the actual drumming since all songs were already written when he was recruited. We needed a good drummer and he was the right man for the work. He’s a good musician and he will probably be able to help out in more ways in the future and the fact that it’s easier for us to do more shows nowadays. The dynamic between Ragnar and me are the same as usual.

3. What does it mean to you to be moving away from the Bathory Viking metal style, or do you see Gastrike as a different interpretation of a similar idea?

I think we needed to move away a little bit to avoid repeating ourselves. I still think there’s some flavours of this particular style in our sound though. Perhaps it has some influences from the earlier works of Bathory as well.

4. Tell me about balancing time and musical ideas between Isole and Ereb Altor. When Ereb Altor started out, it seemed like a side-project paying homage to Bathory, but as the band has put more music out, it’s become a distinct entity of its own. How do the two bands relate for you? Is there ever material you write that you’re not sure which band it would work best for?

To me Ereb Altor never was a side-project. I always write songs specific for each band and most of the times I’m not writing for both band at same period of time. I just put focus on one band at the time. Both bands are very close to my heart and none of the band means less to me than the other one.

5. Is there any way to tell yet what the future holds for Ereb Altor? Are you thinking of Gastrike more as an experiment on the part of the band, or do you think Ereb Altor will continue to work more on the side of black metal than doom? Or is genre not a concern for the band at all?

Genre is not a great concern, I will follow my instinct and do what’s come from inside. As I mentioned Gastrike is a little bit like a concept album and I will probably not abandon the epic touch completely. Actually I had almost a whole album sounding like the first albums but without lyrics and to me the lyrical concept of Gastrike didn’t fit that music. My vision is to unite these two styles but only future can tell how Ereb Altor will sound for sure.

6. What’s next for the band? Will you tour for Gastrike before going back to work on Isole? The last couple years seems to have been a back and forth with a release each year. Is that the pattern you want to keep going for the two bands?

We’re working on getting a European tour for Ereb Altor right now as well as some festival appearances. I can’t reveal anything at the moment. And I already have lots of ideas for the future sound of Ereb Altor.

When it comes to Isole I think we’ll start writing material quite soon but there is no new release planned at the moment.

Actually a new Ereb Altor album feels closer somehow.

Ereb Altor on Thee Facebooks

Napalm Records

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Ihsahn: Standing on the Shores of a Black Sea

Posted in Reviews on January 13th, 2010 by JJ Koczan

Oh sure, I’ve serenaded the dusky welkin with the occasional anthem, I’ve been disciplined in fire and demise, I’ve enjoyed the periodic nightside eclipse and even [insert something clever about the self-titled Emperor album here], but there is a fandom cult league for highly influential Norwegian black metallers Emperor to which I simply don’t belong. Not that I can’t or don’t appreciate the records, I just don’t salivate like a Pavlovian dog at the mere mention of their titles.

Accordingly, I feel in some strange way qualified to review After, the third post-Emperor solo outing of frontman Ihsahn (né Vegard Sverre Tveitan). I’m familiar with his work, but not masturbatingly so; having heard both 2008’s angL and 2006’s The Adversary, it’s possible to have some sense of what he’s done since Emperor’s disbanding and what exactly he’s changing up with After. You know, other than throwing in some free jazz saxophone and that kind of thing.

Ihsahn, who also recorded After in his Symphonique Studio, still plays with the melodies and progressive death metalisms he showed on angL, it it’s not until the title track, third of the total eight, that that side really shows up. The first two tracks, “The Barren Lands” and “A Grave Inversed” — the latter featuring that aforementioned free jazz saxophone — are righteously heavy and nearly if not completely blackened metal. Even on “After,” Ihsahn’s vocals morph into his trademark throaty approach, although they do so over an angular Opethian riff with single notes layered before shifting back into a melodic chorus. Nothing’s ever the same.

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Where to Catch the Plague in Los Angeles

Posted in Whathaveyou on November 24th, 2009 by JJ Koczan

The below has literally nothing to do with stoner rock or doom, but I was asked to post it and I hate the thought of people showing up to the wrong venue in a big city like Los Angeles to see a show, especially because it’s an experience I’ve had myself. I’ll tell you all about it some other time. For now, this came in via the PR wire:

Not a stoner band in sight on here. Too bad. Suplecs would have been awesome on this bill.The US Plague Tour, featuring Marduk, Nachtmystium, Black Anvil, Mantic Ritual, and Merrimack that was scheduled to stop at the Key Club on Friday, December 4th, has been moved, due to the Key Club closing it doors to re-model. The new location for the show is the Salon Royal (Royal Hall) in downtown, located at 8637 South Alameda Street, Los Angeles, CA 90002. Parking is provided, with an entrance through the ?Steel and Lube? entrance.

A statement from Jordan of Church of the 8th Day, the promoters for the show:

?Since everyone has been asking, what and where the Royal Hall is, I wanted to explain, and send something out to clear things up. The Key Club canceled the show, about two weeks ago, leaving us just a few weeks to move it. Since we had two stages? worth of bands booked, it was near impossible to move the show to anywhere in Hollywood, at a reputable club, as everything was already booked. We found a place in downtown, which is a banquet hall, and we are going to build it into a venue from the ground up, with two full stages and great sound, full bar, and a BBQ. There have been numerous events held there, including the Bestial Legion Fest. If you purchased tickets through one of the local bands, your tickets will still be valid at the new venue. If you purchased your tickets through TicketMaster, you should be receiving your refund any day. The Key Club said they will be issuing refunds, but they haven’t been responding to us about the progress of it, so if you’d like to call and find out, go ahead. You can now purchase tickets exclusively through our new ticketing website, 8thDayTix.com. We’re sorry about the confusion, and hope to see everyone there. More information can be found at churchofthe8thday.com.?

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