Enslaved are the finest incarnation of the modern Norse-inspired black metal band, leaning heavily on its heritage and mythology, its symbolism and setting, but at the same time seamlessly absorbing modern influences and ideas into their music and storytelling.
So, they are an excellent choice as a headline artist at Midgardsblot, in Borre, a place steeped in Viking history. The festival, which has expanded over the site around the stunning, carved Gildehall to include a second stage, a beguiling range of clothing, craft and food stalls, and plenty of room for the most dedicated attendees to live for a few days in the ways of our ancestors, is a place where the ancient and the modern rub shoulders. You can get the latest vinyl release of the artists while they are playing Viking-inspired music on modern or ancient instruments, sung in English, Norwegian, or Norse, and then pick up a moose burger or a Thai curry, and go and buy a hand-made drum or an item of jewellery, while people in band t-shirts and hoodies pass by people wearing the simple, traditional tunics and dresses of another time. It also plays host to an international audience, with people coming from all over the world to attend a unique cultural and musical event which goes far beyond mere historic re-enactment, and it is very much a musical event, as that has had a critical role in the continued evocation and exploration of the ideas and values of that time.
These circumstances weren’t lost on Enslaved. They started the set with the sinister voice of Malcom McDowell as Alex DeLarge in Stanley Kubrick’s «A Clockwork Orange», coming onto the stage as the words «a bit of the old ultraviolence» rang out into the clearing between the stage and the Gildehall. The band were in a mischievous mood. The high spirits would be apparent throughout the set, which was well executed, played with the band’s usual visceral precision.
As the first number, «Isa» finished, frontman Grutle Kjellson greeted the crowd first in Norwegian and then in English – he would stick to English for the rest of the evening. «We are enslaved, all of us in way or another – and we’re the band Enslaved» he declared and was greeted with a cheer. They knew who they were playing for. «Jettegryta» followed, the sound dense and overpowering, even in the open air. From where the undersigned was standing, the sound balance took a while to sort out, so that Arve Isdal’s lead guitar was not as high in mix as it would be later on.
Håkon Vinje’s keyboards were always clear, though, adding texture as well as rhythm throughout the set, from the earlier pieces where the contribute was more underpinning, to the more prominent motifs in the later pieces, not mention some very heavy organ at the very end.
«We’re going to continue with another number from the same album. You know what album that is, don’t you?» There was an awkward pause, and Kjellson filled in with an arch smile «No, you don’t know, do you! It’s Utgard». It was «Homebound», which was Iver Sandøy’s moment to shine. It was his most significant lead vocal in the show, and his voice was as usual, clear and rounded, almost stately, and at performed the same time as some demanding drum patterns. The drumming on the track is generally challenging and it was all delivered with punch and immaculate timing.
Near the entrance to the festival there stands a new sculpture, of Heimdal, the mythic archetype who stands at the heart of the lyrics and storytelling of Enslaved’s latest release of the same name. The figure is easily three metres tall and appears to have been carved out of a whole tree trunk, a huge metal horn curled around the figure and over its shoulder. The band played four tracks from that record, as well as tipping their hat to their earlier releases. «Kingdom» and «Forest Dweller» were first. The material from the new album has had a lot of stage-time lately, and it sounded sharp and polished, but not tired, still fresh and exciting. Isdal’s solo on «Forest Dweller» was excellent, meandering, edgy, and evocative. It’s also a credit to the band’s musical direction that they can put tracks from their whole career side by side and have it sound consistent.
If Kjellson is the charismatic face of the band, Ivar Bjørnson is the musical heart of the band, the composer, the evil genius. On stage, his flawless rhythm- and motif-guitar playing are at the foundation of the music. He is not a flamboyant player, mostly standing still, even when his feeling of the music shows in his movements. «Kingdom» was his stand-out moment, where his playing was foregrounded most, though his guitar was generally prominent in the mix, his simple, efficient, practised hand movements producing a wide range of grinding or dazzling riffs.
«Do you want some old stuff?» asked Kjellson. They played «The Dead Stare» from «Below the Lights» which was well received and gave Kjellson a chance to show off the quality of his clean vocal style. Arve Isdal was all over the stage, a live wire. The band were feeding off the energy of the crowd. «Absolutely brilliant, every single one of you!» said Kjellson at the track’s close. He was beaming from ear to ear. «Congelia» was next, a dense knot of a song played with striking accuracy, the tension almost tangible. Then came time for a «real sing-along song – most of you know this one». Kjellson was right. As soon as the «Havenless» chant began, the crowd joined in, their arms in the air, just like the band. The set was nearing its end – it was good to see the bond between band and audience so obviously. Towards the end of the track, Kjellson cried out – a call to arms, or perhaps just a call for allegiance. They had that.
«Heimdal» was the penultimate track, and though not the last, it felt like the whole set had been building to this moment, because it was huge. The pace was perfect, the guitar solo from Isdal was everything it is meant to be, a strange mixture of chaos and uncomfortable melody-making, sounding like a collision of tunes on the wind or a detuned radio, eavesdropping on the mind of Heimdal the Great Communicator. Towards the end of the song, where it reaches a lull, a friend of the band came on a delivered a kind of prayer. It did not seem to be dedicated to any particular god but was an evocation of something universal – repeating «We are children of Earth; we are children of stars». Dr Brian Cox would probably agree. The ancient and modern side by side, once again.
Looking across the crowd, as the song reached its energetic climax, you could see people dancing, reeling in the crowd, turning in large circles, bouncing off one another. It had been that kind of night.
«Tired? No? What about an old banger?» Bjørnson then played an old ’70s rock riff «No, not that!» snapped Kjellson with a smile. «That’s for the covers bar in Horten later.» Bjørnson played it again, and then feigned disappointment at his friend’s refusal. They closed, appropriately, with «Allfǫðr Oðinn», – «Odinn, Father of All» – taking us back to the beginning in their output, their 1992 demo tape «Yggdrasill», where Heimdal also makes an appearance. Even then, Enslaved had shown their capacity for musical sophistication bound together with the raw power expected of black metal. We had all come full circle. It was also fitting in the context of the festival, to close with a song whose lyrics stem from the mythology of the culture which we were there to celebrate, reflect on, even indulge in a little. 5/6
Text: Alex Maines
Photography: Anne-Marie Forker