Drott’s Journey Into the Underworld and the Self: Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal On New Album “Orcus”
For nearly 20 years, if you ever attended a concert performed by Norwegian progressive black/viking metallers Enslaved, then you probably witnessed a long-haired, fairly ripped, and shirtless (or at least sleeveless) man wailing away on a guitar. He's the key musical figure of the group, providing most of the guitar solos and the type of lead guitarist showmanship that links the band to the rock god heritage of Jimmy Page and yet also has the stone-cold, ethereal cool of a David Gilmour. That figure, standing like a Nordic god of ice and riffs, is the one and only Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal.
Isdal, born in 1977, made his first mark in the metal world by joining industrial black metallers Malignant Eternal in 1998 where he eventually performed on the group’s last album 1999’s Alarm (and he still plays with the group since they reunited in 2017). His big break came simultaneously in 2002 when he helped found hard rock act Audrey Horne, and, more significantly for metalheads, replaced Enslaved’s Roy Kronheim on lead guitar. He left an immediate mark on the band, helping make mid-period Enslaved records like Below the Lights and Isa absolute classics, but he’s continued in the group to this day where he’s now the longest-serving member of Enslaved besides its two founders, Ivar Bjørnson and Grutle Kjellson. That hardly completes all of Isdal’s resume, however, as he’s contributed to numerous acts including Demonaz, I, Ov Hell, God Seed, Paul DiAnno and even more along with numerous production and engineer credits on albums across the Norwegian metal scene.
Some might feel this is plenty enough musical outlets for one person, but recently Isdal forged a brand new venture, this time with drummer Ivar Thormodsæter of Ulver along with cellist Matias Monsen. That project is Drott, an eclectic mix-up and curation of various forms of music—metal, progressive rock, post-rock, electronica, jazz, classical, ambient, folk music, and more—into a witch’s brew that goes down smoother than one might expect given the group’s lack of boundaries. It’s an essentially entirely instrumental performance where the only vocals that show up have no lyrical content, so instead press materials describe a story of a hero’s journey of a particular character, named after the group, traversing the underworld to encounter its lord, the purifier of souls Orcus, which gives the band's full-length debut its title. Reading the narrative does help turn the varied performance of the album into a convincing score for an imagined film. I might be suggesting that too strongly after listening to this album in full the first time immediately after seeing the recent film “The Green Knight,” another atmospheric hero’s journey, but regardless I think others will feel the same impression even without that cinematic thought put in their head
A few days after listening, I called in across the Atlantic and chatted with Isdal himself. We talked about how the creation and construction of Drott came about, what plans there might be for it in the future, plus the attempts to make plans in the future while keeping COVID in mind, and the finer points of non-rainy days in Bergen. I did mention my mental note for “The Green Knight” connection as well, and while I guess it's not available in Norway yet, Isdal seemed certainly interested in catching it when possible.
How long have you known your bandmates in Drott, Ivar Thormodsæter and Matias Monsen?
Well me and Ivar go way back actually, because we studied music together in a school like, I don't know, 25 years ago or something.
Yeah, that's a long time.
Yeah, so we started to play a lot together back then actually. The funny thing is that after I think two or three years that we knew each other and started hanging out my father actually found out that we are related.
Oh, wow. So cousins in some way?
Not cousins, what's called the next step?
Like a second cousin?
Yeah. Second Cousin, I guess.
So you'd have maybe the same great-grandparents?
Yeah, well actually I’m like a step behind. So Ivar and my father are like second cousins. So Ivar's son and I are the next step again, I think.
Gotcha. That's interesting. So with Matthias, have you known him for a long while as well?
No, I think it’s been like, six or seven years probably. I'm teaching part time when I'm not on tour at a sort of music production school. So that's actually where I met him as he started to work there as well and we started to hang out. So we actually have been talking about starting this band for almost five years now.
Oh wow. So I was gonna ask what finally brought you guys together but that seems to answer that, somewhat. The press release mentioned you started last year so I’d assumed COVID had something to do with it.
[chuckle] Well, not really, because we talked about starting this band a long time ago, but both Ivar and I have been touring a lot and really busy with other bands. So it was kind of difficult to meet to practice or get started. So actually, I think, my New Year's Eve resolution in 2019 was that, “okay, this year we're gonna get started with the band.” We almost made it because we talked about release, or rehearsing during the Christmas holidays, because then everybody had time, but then Ivar got sick. So we started actually in January 2020, so it was a little bit before the COVID or at least before it blew up in Europe.
Do you think if the lack of touring and the opening of your schedule, if that hadn't happened would the project have still been on the same trajectory it's had up to now?
Yeah, I think so because when we first got started we didn't know what kind of music we were gonna play or anything. We just kind of started to play together and we recorded every rehearsal. We’d just jam for like, I don't know, 10 rehearsals or something, though we have some long sessions. I mean for a couple of days I think we just played for 15 hours. So when we listened back to it we found out we had a lot of good ideas and sketches for songs. Most of the material on the EP and also on the album was kind of made from those jam sessions. When we first started recording it went pretty fast because we play a lot of it live and then do some overdubs and work on the arrangements after.
Were the sessions that resulted in the EP and the full length very separate or did they all bleed into each other?
They kind of bled into each other because it was all recorded like in two sessions, and on the first session we also recorded some of the songs on the full length album. When we talked to the record label, By Norse, we agreed it would make sense to just release an EP first to kind of get started and then work a bit more on the album, add some songs that we kind of needed to make it have a better flow. So yeah, there could easily have been some songs on the album that could have been on the EP instead and the other way around.
The music is very interesting and wasn't exactly what I expected at first but it's definitely got its hooks in me after giving it a couple of listens. It's definitely got like, progressive rock and some dark folk to its sound but if you look at the press release it mentions a bunch of different things. How would you characterize the music that you guys made?
[chuckle] I don't know, to be honest. I mean it's like you say a mixture of a lot of stuff. I think a lot of it has to do with the different backgrounds we have. I mean even though I play mostly metal, hard rock, and progressives kinds of music I have always liked a lot of other music like jazz, folk music and other things. Ivar has played a lot of jazz music along with a lot of hip-hop stuff and pop. While Matias has played a lot of classical music. I think then we haven't really thought too much about what to incorporate. We just have kind of one room where if someone has an idea, and you’re not allowed to say no to it, you just have to follow the idea. See where it goes and what comes out of it. But I don't know how to describe it [laughs]. It's a mixture of a lot of things. Just a lot of music.
It's definitely different. For as much as Enslaved definitely has certain elements of progressive rock and some darker folk it feels very different from that and certainly compared to Audrey Horne. So do you feel this is a very different outlet for you creatively compared to those two bands?
Yeah, absolutely. Also the fact that a lot of this music with Drott is purely instrumental.
Was that a conscious decision that you guys didn't want to have much vocals? I mean except for like one part, I don't think on the album there's any vocals really.
Well there are some vocals on four tracks, but they're subtle.
Yeah, I’m not expecting it's all that long of a lyric sheet.
No, no. Probably no lyrics at all or at least none you can't sing along to. I think it was just because in the beginning we felt we had really good communication musically and the atmosphere when we played together was great. So we didn't want to bring in another person yet to say fuck things up or potentially make it more difficult to rehearse. So that's why I guess.Some of the vocals were kind of by accident almost because the girl that sings was actually a student of mine and Matias at the school. She was just dropping by the studio one day when we worked on the album and to have a coffee. She was sitting on the couch while we worked on a song and she started humming. We were like, "hmm, this sounds cool. Can you please sing it into the microphone?" and so it just happened like that. We haven't decided where to go next in terms of that. I mean we could bring in more vocals and that would be interesting as well, of course.
I mean, those are always fascinating stories where, well I guess the right word in English is serendipity, where something totally unexpected but very pleasant happens.
Yeah, it's been like that with this band because we haven't really planned too much like "okay, now I'm gonna do this and that." We just go with it. If something comes up, an idea or whatever, like I said, you just follow it and see what happens. So that's very different from how I work with Enslaved and Audrey Horne, for example, even though Enslaved have had some instrumental songs over the years as well. I think they're more like written out.
Yeah, rather than improvisational.
It certainly has a very soundtrack-like quality to it, like, “oh, this would go really well with a movie.” On that note the press materials basically provide a narrative where each song is a different chapter in the story being told. That narrative being Drott, the band as the character, descending into the underworld to meet Orcus, the Lord of the realm. Conceptually how did you guys come about this story especially since from what you said earlier the music kind of came organically first?strong>
Yeah, I think at least some of the songs came first because the last song “Orcus” was kind of one of the first songs we made. Also, I think the sketch name for us was like, well translated to English would be like the axis of evil or something [chuckle]. The drummer thought that up because he thought he was so evil or had this scary feeling. So then we thought let's make a concept out of that one, and then we had some other songs that kind of fit into it. And then we actually made some more to complete this journey or travel to the underworld. So I think actually, the “Psychopomp” was probably the last song that we made for the album but for the journey itself that's a pretty important song.
Well, a lot of the titles used for the songs come from Greek and Roman myth along with Jungian and psychoanalytic studies. Was that very much intentional in wanting to try something very much in mythology but at the same time very Jungian and related to the human mind?
Yeah, absolutely. When we first started digging into the concept and what we wanted to achieve or describe, that actually kind of came pretty fast and started to all make sense. It starts with you lowered down into somewhere on the first song and then you go into a maze or labyrinth. Then you come out and a kind of journey starts with the “Katabasis”, which describes a hero's journey to the underworld and coming back. So we kind of build it around that and after there you travel by the sea with the Psychopomp to the other side, a kind of quiet place before we get dragged into the most scary part of the journey with the murderers and stuff. It was fun and kind of a new experience to work like that, even though Enslaved has a lot of concept centered albums, which kind of is the same but maybe a little bit different than them since you don't have the lyrics to back it up. So we’ll have to use pictures and catch the atmosphere with the songs.
Well, another thing too with Enslaved is how they use the Norse and Viking mythology as a route to look at psychological ideas whereas in Drott you’re working with very much Greco-Roman terminology.
Yeah, actually at one point we were like, "are we using it too much?" [laughs] That wasn't intentional to just have like Greek and Roman but at the same time we didn't we didn't want the Norse stuff to be too obvious at least. For me it wouldn't be interesting since we already have been doing that with Enslaved.
For sure. Since the Greco-Roman myths are the ones certainly Jung used the most, the Drott album’s narrative definitely feels very close to a Jungian psychological outlook. Another aspect from reading the story in the press release is that it's kind of left open ended, with at the end Drott meets Orcus and I’m like, "Okay, well, what happens next?" [laughs] I mean, I suppose the idea of what happens next could be the next album or you want it to be open ended so your audience has to use their own imagination?
Yep. I don't know what to say. We've talked about that and we’ll just have to see what comes next.
Fair enough. The world is still trying to figure out how to deal with COVID, so that's a big unknown. With that in mind do you see Drott as a project you would like to play live or something you guys are just going to keep in the studio?
No, we definitely want to play live. We were planning to have a release concert for the EP and stuff, but at that time it was impossible. So hopefully this autumn or sometime before next year we can play. That's definitely the current plan. Of course we still need to figure out how to do it [laughs]. If it's just gonna be the three of us, if that makes sense, or if we have to add some instruments and musicians because there's a lot of overdubs on at least some songs.
So yeah, I imagine if it's just the three of you, you'd probably have to use electronic samples and things like that.
Yeah, I also bought a loop station. So we could use some of that but I don't know yet. Then again, we're a very organic band because everything is played on the album on either the cello or the guitar and we kind of want to keep that as well. So we haven't quite figured out how we're going to do it but probably we want to try first with just the three of us and see how that works.
Well I definitely wish you much luck on transitioning Drott to a live setting as I would love to see it.
Speaking of the pandemic, one thing that your other band Enslaved accomplished was the cinematic broadcasts, the three concerts you guys did, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching all of them. Some time now removed and now that you’ve recently released them as a collection of live recordings, what do you think about those performances now?
I mean, at first it was very strange, because we did the first one kind of right after the lockdown started. I remember I was actually on tour with Audrey Horne in Europe when it all happened. It became impossible to continue so we had to cancel the end of the tour and just go home. Then we were in quarantine for like two weeks or something. So I remember when we planned the video concert they gave us some dates and I was like, "okay, I can only do the last date here because I'm in quarantine,” and we obviously had to practice some before playing. It was all kind of strange at that time. I remember thinking that because everything was so strict, for example at the venue we had to have separate toilets for each band member and we couldn't be near the production team. So it felt pretty strange and even when playing it was weird because between the songs it was dead silence with Grutle just talking to a camera [laughs]. So yeah, it was all very strange. Then we had some time to plan the other performances with the production, camera crew, and everything. So those were quite fun and I think they went really well. I definitely look back at it as something I'm proud of and I'm glad we were able to do that during the difficult time. I think we ended up with something really cool with the releases and hopefully the fans appreciate it as well since we can't come out on tour just yet.
It was definitely nice seeing you guys perform some varied sets, including all of the last album Utgard and before that all ofBelow the Lights, which is an all time favorite of mine. The production you had for that performance was quite something in my opinion. I think I actually interviewed Grutle not too long after that and mentioned to him how struck I was not only with the performance but the production work that went into it.
Yeah, I think it looks really good. We also had some help for those sets, especially for the Below the Lights set with the Beyond the Gates, as we were supposed to play the whole album that year at the festival.
I was actually supposed to attend that festival, so those tickets are now postponed to 2022 where you guys are still performing. With luck I hope it happens this time.
I certainly expect that to happen next year. They’re actually doing this week a mini version of Beyond the Gates festival but with local bands along with stricter capacity and other rules. Though next year in Norway it should be possible to have a more traditional festival again.
Yeah, hopefully. I'm really looking forward to the sets in Grieghallen and it just sounds amazing with the full line-up. You, Mayhem, and Emperor all performing together on the same day and of course on another day Mercyful Fate and Candlemass are playing.
Yeah, I'm really looking forward to that so fingers crossed.
Yes, exactly. While speaking about Beyond the Gates, that's a very important festival in Bergen. And I think you and all the other guys in general live in the Bergen area.
Some of us live in Bergen, but actually none of us, in Enslaved or Audrey Horne, are originally from Bergen. Well maybe a couple of the guys in Audrey Horne are from Bergen. If not, we're from places around. I live in Bergen but I'm originally from an island like two hours away. Grutle is almost from the same place as me but a little bit further.
Have you lived in Bergen for long though?
Yeah, for like 21 or 22 years, I think.
That’s definitely a long time. I've visited Bergen a number of times for music festivals like Beyond the Gates and it's probably one of my favorite cities I've ever visited. Now that's as a tourist and visitor but as someone who's lived there for so long I want to ask what is it about Bergen that really attracts you?
Well, it's not the rain to be honest [laughs].
I could use that here [at the time I was living in southern California].
No, Bergen is really beautiful. At least I love it in the summertime. I also like the difference we have between summer and winter, even though it feels like we have more autumn the whole year, but yeah it's a really nice and beautiful place. I like the fact that you can go on different mountains here. All the nature and stuff is awesome though there’s also the fact that it is raining a lot here, which makes it not always so good to be outside. That does make it easier to focus on music, I guess.
Instead of outside playing sports.
Yeah because that's everyone in Bergen. At least that's from Bergen or the west of Norway, where it actually rains that much. When it's sunny outside, we just feel like we have to go outside. When it’s bright outside then working indoors or staying in the studio just kind of feels wrong because it’s like, “okay, now it's finally sunny and it's not raining. We have to go outside!”
It’s a use it or lose it situation.
Yeah, it's strange because a lot of the guys I know and play with that are not from like the west of Norway, more from the east or south, they never understand that. They're often like, "it's probably gonna be sunny tomorrow as well", but really you never really know. So we have to go outside today [chuckle].
Orcus released September 24th, 2021 via By Norse Music.