Monday, 10 September 2012

RIITIIR: A review of Enslaved's new masterpiece.

Well, let’s face it, there will be very few metal albums released through majors that will find their way into this modest new blog driven by passion for genuine music stirring complex and extreme emotions.
I have been following Enslaved since their 1993 split with Emperor. At the time it was the latter band who excited me the most (“I am the Wizards” still remains sculpted in my subconscious), but the path that Ivar and friends forged for themselves in the last 20 years is nothing short of incredible. So the moment has arrived when they can fully afford to fly towards higher pastures, on the back of the enormous respect they have built within the metal community by continuously evolving their sound and by touring relentlessly, showin a particularly captivating human side. I wish them the best of luck in their new professional and creative adventure with their world-wide deal with Nuclear Blast.
I fully trusted Enslaved to turn on the fire with the follow-up to Axioma Ethica Odini: these guys are smart pros as well as open-minded intelligent artists, so they would have known how to handle this pivotal point in their career. RIITIIR (again, another splendid title!) marks indeed a significant progression from AEO (which left me dubious as I feared it might be the start of a descent towards more mainstream sounds) and, by Odin, what a stunner of an album it is too!
The musical and conceptual story that RIITIIR unravels is nothing short of mesmerizing and it seems to flow with much more ease in spite of the increased complexity of the musical score and lyrical content. The first thing I noticed with particular satisfaction was the much more refined and ad hoc clean vocal performance by keyboard player Herbrand Larsen, whose voice and melodies have become truly memorable. Secondly, Jens Bogren’s touch at the mixing desk worked wonders with the way the various layers are interwoven and the rollercoaster moods are juxtaposed, lifting this album to another level entirely. And finally, RIITIIR sounds more cohesive than AEO, which saw the more experimental stuff being concentrated towards the end: here we have of course moments that will take each of us to our own personal, most cherished Enslaved musical facet(s), but the overall feeling is far from a clever compendium of their best features. Listening to RIITIIR left me with the impression that the band has reached a point in their artistic and human journey where they actually can and want “let go”: the skills, the XX year long experience, the self-awareness of doing art with substance and the inextinguishable enthusiasm made it possible to sail through the vast musical ocean with a type freedom which does not necessarily translate in throwing in an irreverent rap (like Peste Noir or Blut Aus Nord’s latest) but in relaxing about the boundaries between extreme and melodic, metal and rock, like with a life-time lover’s embrace. Music will be there forever for Enslaved, and I feel RIITIIR is the start of another journey for them, as step to the next creative/philosophical level.
Depending on the depth of your musical knowledge, you will find a lot of magic moments that will remind you something else across the flowing, extensive 8 tracks which cover over an hour’s of pure aural delight (a 2LP worth of material, spread in a very intelligent and beautiful manner). The opener, “Thoughts like Hammers”, kicks off intensely with a mind-blowing few seconds-worth of mayhem (one of those moments you want to hear again and again) which instantly points the Viking sword at the listener’s throat, and that is a clear statement! I hear the first hint of the many syncopated/dissonant moments that will excite all the fans of “Nothingface” (the progressive metal masterpiece by the great Voivod), then it unravels into a dark journey through the mysterious beauty of man’s primitive consciousness: this is portrayed by keeping the mood smooth and fairly uncomplicated, painting sweeping landscapes with outright melody. Extremely easy to the ear, to me it feels like an introduction to a fascinating story; in fact it is with the following track, “Death in the eyes of Dawn” that I truly fall into the vortex of this spellbinding exploration of human rites. From now on I’d often feel like I am riding behind a flying Norn, witnessing the changes of the world (importantly, not just the northern lands) from Past to Present to Future: do prepare for an exhilarating journey which ultimately will have you lost within yourself.
“Veilburner” represents for me the most touching moment of the album: the cleanly sung melodies are amongst the most beautiful heard of late (Katatonia permitting). This is a new huge gem in Enslaved’s crown which I’m gagging to hear live. The track flows directly into “Roots of the Mountain”, possibly the truly outstanding masterpiece of the album: here I feel we have the most archetypal ritual of all, that of man entering the spirit of Nature by means of courageous exploration and communion with it. My inner eye begins a descent towards the roots of ancestral human consciousness: whilst looking for the source of life’s mystery, terrifying moments alternate to overwhelmingly beautiful ones, where the soul is flying towards the sky, eagle-like. (Ivar’s newly magnified sensitivity since becoming a father really will give us a lot of amazing moments from now on!). Suitably bombastic but never pompous thanks to a stunning chorus (again, Larsen does an incredible job!), the long piece is truly magnificent and majestic (wonderful guitar work!), and in its final moments and gives me a rush each time I listen.
Enter the captivating title-track, Riitiir: it is the perfect rollercoaster of groovy/melodic/aggressive, showcasing the great vocal variety this band boasts, reinforced to its maximum effect. Its ending is truly abrasive: this will storm our brains in its live rendering!
“Materal” begins with slow tribal drums and we find the kind of slowed-down, softened Snake-like vocal dirge before the tempest is risen regally over the ever present ritualistic drumming. The pace is sustained and the feeling eerie, until a solo cuts in and the track bends again into a melodic / menacing dichotomy.
“Storm of Memories” jumps at you with that Voivod feeling again, and then it turns even more intensely weird with layers of eeriness building the pathos,  before the gates burst open to some breathtaking, storming blackness introducing the tale of man’s prime existential longing, immortality.
“Forsaken”, by pointing the mirror right back at us, spells the only truth we seem to hold. The amazing krautrock synth gives the perfect feeling of uncertainty and mystery, which is followed by one of the awe-inspiring moments of this album: Enslaved do not need to play the grandiose “majesty” card too often, but when they let it loose, man it is magnificent! The intense emotional unfolding of this album is nothing but spectacular, because this colossal outburst of epicness turns, finally, into a sweetly delicate outro: this universal human journey does not end in arrogant triumph but rather with a melancholy feeling of frailty. The curse of man is so, but Enslaved’s all-embracing view firmly reaffirms our capability to draw from past (spirituality) and present (rationality). Strengthened by science and enriched by our noblest heritage: cannot this give us a new flare of hope?
This leads me to the lyrical content of RIITIIR. Here we have indeed another pivotal moment in Enslaved’s career. These brave modern-day Vikings have drank and metabolized their travels’ experiences, having read, talked, listened, felt, laughed and loved… and seem to have reached the gigantic landmark that all wise men and women seem to reach when they truly open up their minds and hearts: the magic circle of universality! Enslaved’s inner eye willfully focused onto the mystical facets of man’s ancient rituals and plunged effortlessly into the archetypal oneness that unifies all human consciousness.
Locality eventually leads to universality, it is inevitable. One might be proud to be a Viking, or wish to be one, but in the end, when stripped bare to our primordial consciousness, we are all the same… we are all nature’s own.

1 - Thoughts Like Hammers
2 - Death in the Eyes of Dawn
3 - Veilburner
4 - Roots of the Mountain
5 - Ritiir
6 - Materal
7 - Storm of Memories
8 - Forsaken

Saturday, 8 September 2012

ENSLAVED: Interview Part II

Not too long now before the release of RIITIIR: your wait will be rewarded! Just before publishing my personal thoughts on the album, here is a telephone conversation I had (exceptionally, since I do not do phoners as a rule)  with the great man Ivar back in August.

Great talking to you again Ivar: first of all, how is the little one?!
She is very well thanks. She has kept us sleepless quite a lot - you know what it’s like - but she is getting better now. She is 8 months old already!

Fantastic, time really flies! Shall we talk about RiiTiiR? It is a splendid album, pity I do not have the lyrics at hand as yet... After the first listen, it left me with an overwhelming feeling of having gone through a mind-blowing journey through the mysteries of the natural world where the awareness of being a privileged spectator of such power and beauty is really magnified. Humans are observers of a very large part of the universe compared to other animals, and what we see is baffling: these are the kind of “Thoughts like Hammers” that crush me when I long for answers that will never be satisfied. What is the track actually about?
I don’t like to explain our lyrics as they are very personal. They are best kept in an abstract dimension where each of you is free to apply your own interpretations and associations. From a psychological and philosophical point of view Enslaved lyrics are a deconstruction tool, but in this case the track does have a straight forward meaning: the hammer symbolizes how the use of a blunter object could be more beneficiary to explore the world in this day and age. I like the idea of a more forceful tool that would not merely poke through reality but in fact smash through it. I feel this is what is required to move forward: sometimes to see what’s behind the walls of our preconceptions, false ideas and so on, one must really use stronger means. From a mythological point of view, of course the hammer is associated with Thor and represents a more rational type of destructive force as opposed to the more devastating, blind feminine one, so this would be the most literal interpretation of the opening song.  It symbolizes a way to reset a pattern that sees pain as inevitable part of a creative process.

We spoke earlier about how you creative process work: what is your approach as far as lyrics are concerned?
I have enough experience now to know that when a certain feeling or atmosphere comes along, facilitating the setting for a creative output, and I have to catch it on the spot. I do not know whether creativity is a psychological or metaphysical process, maybe a bit of both, who knows… All I know is that I am fully aware when these particular feelings arrive, and I can recognize if the creative flood is to be placed in the “words” area or in the “music” area. You know what they say, the sailor has to wait for the wind to arrive, so I guess it is the same for me with a song.

We are at an important crossroads as far a science is concerned. We had recent news from CERN that the elusive Higgs Boson has been finally found, bringing us a little closer to an explanation of how the universe evolved. I associate “Veilburner” to the effort of piercing the “veil of Maya”, is that a correct viewpoint?
We actually had very interesting discussions with an Indian classical dancer, Rukmini Chatterjee (who did eventually some work with Vreid), and she explained to us the concept of the Veil of Maya. She saw some similarities between her own culture and the spiritual side of black metal, and indeed there is probably a connection to its more mystical side. I see this song-title more as a symbol of the willingness to have a dialogue. This is what is lacking within the more politicized areas of religion, where the priest is the only person who seems to have a dialogue with god, and the concept of faith is ultimately there to put an end to all raising doubts and legitimate questions from the rest of the people. “Veilburner” refers to that invisible barrier that is placed between man and mystery, which we keep poking at with perhaps too little conviction or we are actually discouraged to search beyond.

My mother is a wise woman full of tenderness and understanding towards people who need a religion as survival mechanism. She always tells me off for trying to discourage them to hang onto something, shall we say, rather opinable. “If they need the comfort of a god, let them keep their illusion: it’s all they have!” she keeps telling me. Are you also convinced of the necessity of religions, are they healthy for the human psyche?
Well I don’t know about healthy, but in general they are certainly helpful as they seem to be a source of happiness, serenity; they counteract our feelings of alienation, our sense of being lost. I think the most important thing is to try and keep in charge: religion must not manipulate you or make you feel unhappy, guilty or uneasy with yourself. When that happens there is something seriously wrong. There is an enormous amount of negative energy for example within Christianity, and I believe that one must keep a sense of responsibility in a Calvinistic kind of way, staying in full control always.

Like art in general, Music (to me very much a type of shamanism for the uninitiated!) is an extremely powerful tool to investigate the universe, known and unknown, from within. I experienced a wonderful child-like moment of awe and wonder throughout “Veilburner” and “Roots of the Mountain”: for me the latter is one of the most touching, shamanic moments in the album – the image of flying with the eagle is one of the truly quintessential human yearnings, and it is a moment that reaches the inner child within us. This is an approach to your music that others seem to share (my esteemed colleague Thor Joakimsson mentioned it to me recently): how do you react to that?
Oh, I think that it’s very cool! It makes me happy to know that we can touch the inner child within the listener: it is a part of ourselves that is extremely important as it sees the truth as it is, not through the infinite layers of our personal education, history, morality and so on… There have been several psychiatric experiments with LSD about this subject, the way “truth” is perceived. Our inner child is actually a way to stay in touch with a level of purity that would be otherwise lost. Imagine, when I was in hospital waiting for my daughter to be born I was so worried and anxious that I eventually found myself trying to communicate with the baby, talking to her as if I were a child too. This incredible experience of one of the most important moments in my life actually poured into the song, and I’m sure that when she becomes a teenager she will be highly embarrassed by that!

I’m sure she’ll be proud! Staying on the subject of wondrous experiences, we touched on the subject of contemporary art in Madrid, and you mentioned how you are finding installation particularly fascinating. Shall we share exhibitions experiences? I recall a moment of pure awe when I went to see an installation at Tate Modern (London) by Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. “The Weather Project” was a huge piece that touched on our most primordial emotions and actually spoke quite loudly to my “black metal soul”: there was a enormous, gloomy, crepuscular sun in a vast space which looked on its way to extinction, but most people seemed to look for a more reassuring interpretation, laying on the floor as if it were a park or a beach, unconsciously waiting for the dying star to turn on its habitual power. It was so ritualistic and I thought it exposed how small we are and how distant (perhaps unwilling) most of us are from understanding man’s fate…  What blew your mind recently?
Ah, it has to be this outdoor exhibition we saw a few months ago in Kumla, Sweden, not far from where we were recording, called “Konst på Hög” (in English something like “Art on the Hill”). It is located in an area where in the 60s a few industries were dumping their waste. At the time Sweden was being shaped as the perfect industrialized country following the U.S. model. Incidentally, the American government actually heavily subsidized this “growth” as part of their “cold war” program to keep communism at bay in Europe (ed. note: or, in other words, to create the right socio-economical conditions for their aggressive capitalistic politics, which has culminated in today’s profound financial inequality). Sweden was to become the perfect European country: prosperous and non-communist! All these industries kept piling this waste, like wood and metal scraps, in this area, creating a huge hill. Today they have made this a powerful symbol and it’s a great place to visit. They have even kept steam pumping though the pipes which looks really ominous amongst all the relics… And on top of the hill they have art installations which keep changing all the time, like for example complex buildings made of scrap materials that you are not sure whether they go upwards or downwards; and amongst them there were life-like statues of people that made it all look very surreal, like a picture frozen in time. From a Norwegian point of view, it was a very interesting perspective of how different the world was only 50/60 years ago.

Are you more scared of the future now that you have a child?
Well not really… There is nothing you can do! Sometimes I’d love to be able to be here in 100 years to see what’s going on: who knows if it will be a society where progress and rational thought has finally prevailed or a Mad Max type of world? Probably a bit of both.

Continuing on the subject of art, your good friend Truls Espedal does very direct, somber and yet very touching art. I especially like the pieces where he explores the relationship between humans and other beings: I remember a painting where a man and a bird look extremely vulnerable and lonely, and yet it is the bird that seems to reach the human being to bring him comfort, in the subtle form of silent but deeply resonant  forgotten knowledge that could be the key to saving him… How do you interpret his art?
The feeling I get from Truls’ art is that his study of anatomical detail of the human body gets him closer to his psychological state. You get a sense that he truly understands the human psyche… I always say this, but it is truly unnerving the fact that he seems to see things in the same way we do, as if he lived in a parallel world to that of Enslaved’s! All we have to do is describe something to him, mention which books or films we liked recently, and he’d know them already and would eventually come up with an image that reflects exactly what we wanted.

I read an interview you gave about the excellent new Enslaved tribute album from Pictonian Records, so I won’t ask your impressions again. I loved in particular the re-interpretation by Asmodée, which sounds almost Voivodian! How big a fan of Voivod are you and have you met them?
I am a BIG fan of Voivod: they were one of the first bands that made me discover a new way of exploring music. I think their philosophy is more important to me than their music nowadays, as I do not play those old pivotal albums that much anymore. I have met them twice, once in the US and at Roadburn in 2011: they are very pleasant people and we hung around together for a while.

In the past, the support of a major did not help Voivod to reach a wider audience, possibly because they were too ahead of their times. In the case of Enslaved, your success has been constantly increasing, and now you have finally signed a world-wide contract with Nuclear Blast. What sort of new audiences are you hoping to reach?
Times are very different nowadays: people are connecting much more, relating to information more thanks to the internet, so we have changed our way of thinking drastically. Now we can reach cross sections of all kinds of culture, let alone music: if you are after a certain kind of “emotion”, you can reach several types of bands within different genres who explore those feelings, as well as books, art and so on… Everything is wide open, we only need to press a few buttons! The audiences we want to reach are those that need more than entertainment from music: we go much deeper and explore an array of emotions and lyrical content. We are very aware that we won’t become like Metallica, but hopefully a lot more people will be able to make an informed choice about what to listen if we become more visible.

Returning to RiiTiiR, the last track is sublime and surprising: it starts with an eerie avant-garde sounding piano that makes me think of pre-WWII times, and it ends in a very sweet, melancholy vein. Can you tell me about the meaning of these aesthetic choices?
At the start of “Forlorn” it’s actually me playing. I was trying to achieve a mix of old and contemporary classical music sound to symbolize the necessity to blend old traditions with modernity. As far as the ending of the song, that was the fruit of practical thoughts entirely. After we completed the previous seven songs and we had this track almost ready, we stopped and looked back to see how we felt about the entire work as a whole, only to realize that there seemed to be a piece missing. “Riitiir” is an intense emotional rollercoaster, almost in a manic-depressive kind of way, and it felt natural to end it with a quiet, introspective moment to clear the mind of the listener.

I thought it was you becoming all tender because of your daughter…
Haha, of course, that too!!

Talking of which, a personal question, if I’m allowed. The arrival of a child is a mind-blowing moment as the couple watches their own genes taking a new physical form in front of their eyes: from then on they will experience the strongest form of unconditional love that a human being can feel. Will your creativity be affected by being a father, with the great joy and worry that it brings?
Oh it will have an extensive effect on me because you start worrying about this person’s health and future… It makes you feel more anxiety as you try to prepare the child for life as best as you can, but at the same time the tenderness and the love also become so magnified. So, yes, my emotions and my existential worries will definitely move onto the next level because of this powerful life-affirming event… Some people are convinced anti-lifers, you get to meet a lot of them within the black metal scene of course, and I do fully understand their point of view and respect the fact that there are serious issues that need addressing drastically, but I have the feeling that this wave of hate towards life is getting weaker now: people are realizing that these extreme viewpoints are perhaps a last resort, and there are still other avenues to explore, who knows. Even if it has not been easy to get some sleep lately, I would recommend to have a child to anybody haha!

Will you be able to stay at home a little longer before embarking on one of your mammoth tours?
We have played a few festivals throughout the summer, and we have some dates scheduled for October/November in Norway. Our big tour will be in March I believe… we’ll be off to the USA and South America, a place that we have never visited before: I am very much looking forward to that!