Entering the Realm of Giants: Enslaved’s Grutle Kjellson Discusses “Utgard”
Enslaved have been one of my favorite bands for a long time. They’ve been a major fixture of my love of metal for around 17 years. I got into them right when their album Below the Lights was released and it served as a new frontier of musical astonishment for myself. I’d already gotten into some of the legendary names within the black metal scene, but here was a band that, in their contemporary work, was combining that sound with the music of progressive and psychedelic rock -- music I was also newly exposed to by the likes of legends in Pink Floyd and The Doors.
Many years later, I can admit that for a time Enslaved lost my interest a little with their subsequent contemporary work. However, their last album, 2017’s E, pulled me back toward my old favorites and boy, did it feel good to be excited again by more than just their early classics. That seems to now have only been the appetizer preparing my musical taste buds for a truly fine course: their latest album Utgard. Few things have been able to puncture through the general grimness and malaise that 2020 has clouded over so many facets of life for me, but this album certainly does its best to kick this year’s proverbial ass.
Utgard is a bit of a shift in different directions from where Enslaved were residing a few albums ago, in some notable ways, and yet it feels like an album that’s pulling strands and touchstones from nearly every album in their now rather expansive career. The band had been taking the epic-length nature of prog rock rather literally with their song lengths, which are now sitting far more comfortably in the four to six minute marks, all of which helps the songwriting to feel exceptionally tighter. The album is dark in tone but smooth, like velvet brushing up on skin, which is reinforced by some of the most lush clean singing ever employed by the band. The sweet voices seem to navigate the riffs and synth passages toward achingly beautiful hooks as can be clearly enjoyed on the lead single “Homebound.” While the electronic music influence on a track like “Urjotun” might be challenging for some fans on first listen, they should eventually recognize it's not only a continuation of the band’s previous cover of a song by synthpop group Röyksopp but also the all too appropriate lineage from Hawkwind’s storied halls, especially given the spoken-word-over-cosmic vibrations passage that precedes it.
Having been a fan for so long and thoroughly enjoying this new album I’m a bit overwhelmed with positive emotions, not only for the present but for all my nostalgia and history with the band. I’ve been fortunate to get to see Enslaved live numerous times over the years, perhaps at this point more than any other band personally. So, dear reader, let me share with you a few choice memories.
My first time seeing Enslaved was on the rather short Below the Lights North American tour in 2003 as it swung as far south as it would go by hitting the now-long-gone club Jaxx in Northern Virginia. I had only been to one metal show before (Ozzfest two years prior) in large part because my parents kept a pretty tight leash on my movements that only started to crack near the end of high school.
I tagged along with one of the few metalhead friends I knew then, who to this day is still a dear friend, as we made the trek from our suburban Maryland enclave to meet the Norse warriors preparing to bring the power of Odin upon our shores. All of which, I should add, was accomplished by straight up lying to my parents that my friend’s dad would be chaperoning us to the show, which he very much did not do but rather just dropped us off. That's something I don’t think I ever told my parents, so... “Hi Mom! Hi Dad!” Anyway, the show turned out to be barely attended: given the opening bands and crew there were maybe 40 to 50 people in a spot that could have held a few hundred. The unfortunate turnout at least proved a gift for me as I got to stand right up at the stage guard rail and bang my head to the, especially in my teenage eyes, Nordic gods bringing down heavy metal thunder upon us all.
After the show finished, I took advantage of their merch table holding a number of their older albums, which at the time couldn’t even be found at the local Tower Records, and rushed over the newly bought copies of Frost and Eld to be signed. Eventually I did bump into guitarist Ivar Bjørnson and while he began drafting his signature I blurted out in near tears, “I’m so sorry not a lot of people came tonight! You were all so awesome though. Please don’t make this be the reason to not come back to my country!” It's hard to recall now, but with a bit of a chuckle I think he responded back, “Oh, it’s okay. We play because we love doing it, even if it’s not a big crowd.” Holding back probably some sniffles I was heartened to hear that it might not be the last time I saw the band live -- and for sure it wasn’t.
14 years later and after many subsequent Enslaved shows, I finally got to see them play on their home turf in Bergen, Norway during my second time there for the Beyond the Gates festival. They were playing their first full length, Vikingligr Veldi, in its entirety, so along with all the other reasons for wanting to go that year their slated performance really sat as the cherry on top of temptation to go -- so go I did. I can’t recommend enough attending a metal festival in Bergen given the city’s beauty and the unique history it holds for metalheads, but unfortunately one site that’s now closed is the legendary Garage bar: at the end of the last evening of the fest where a decent walk away Enslaved had played their ancient work of viking black metal, I bumped into Enslaved’s own Grutle Kjellson there.
It was past last call and the bar staff were shuffling everyone onto the streets. Figuring Kjellson was in a good mood I decided to introduce myself again (we had talked before at a few previous gigs, though I don’t blame any touring artist for not remembering me) and congratulate him on the job well done. Barely a couple words in after getting his attention he looked at me and asked, “Wait… you’re an American?” Not being quite sure where my answer would lead me, I sided on honesty. His response was to grab me in a big bear hug and whisper into my ear, “I’m so sorry.” The dots didn't connect right away, but it eventually became apparent he was sorry about my country electing Donald Trump as its President less than a year before. We laughed about it and joined in with the conversations occurring around us, which included him egging on a trio of French fans to start singing “La Marseillaise” as if we were all taking shelter in Humphrey Bogart’s bar, seeking resistance to malefic forces laying siege upon the world.
It was a further pleasure, then, to recently get to chat with Kjellson about Enslaved’s new album. It was somewhat bittersweet as I had again intended to attend Beyond the Gates, where they were slated to perform all of Below the Lights. That's now been postponed to next year, and as we discuss below, may be postponed even further. Whether it be 2021 or a later year, hopefully the global pandemic will be controlled enough so our metal way of life -- enjoying our music in full communion with our brothers and sisters -- can continue and I can see the mighty Enslaved conquering a stage again. If good fortune can swing strong enough, perhaps the next bear hug will be on a far more joyful note.
Can you recall, during the writing of the album, how the title for Utgard and the concept behind it arose?
Well, it arose a little bit prior to the actual songs actually this time. Ivar and I were sitting in two separate living rooms on a Friday having drinks on our own and suddenly we started texting each other ideas for the concept. I can’t remember who came up with Utgard. I mean there were some other possibilities for a suitable name in the same vein. Utgard just describes a certain place in the north, in the tales from Norse mythology where the giants dwell.
So yeah, there were other names as well we discussed, but in the end we landed on Utgard and I cannot for the life of me remember who came up with that [laughs]. I think we will just blame those beers or whatever we were drinking at the time, but it definitely happened before we even started writing songs. So yeah, that was a bit unusual for us.
You just mentioned the concept behind Utgard being about the realm of the giants and elsewhere commented that it’s sort of a dangerous realm. You've likewise related the subject to Jungian psychology and the concept of Utgard certainly seems to have links to what Jung would call “the shadow.” So I’m curious how long have you had this interest in interpreting myth through Jungian psychology or other means of analysis?
A long time, I would say, even from the beginning. You see the Norse mythology is far more complex than we learned in school. I mean we didn't learn much in school other than some kind of burlesque tales about Odin and Thor, but nothing, nothing about what they represented. Those things are not present in the Norwegian educational system, so you have to find out for yourself by picking up books on the subjects and of course try to interpret your own versions.
Utgard can, according to Jung, be described as the shadow world therefore seen as the realm of wild thoughts and unsecure dreams, but it’s also the origin for the spark of creativity. It’s the more chaotic forces that you really can't control; chaos, humor, creativity, and spontaneity. So all those forces or feelings lie within the realm of Utgard.
So you would compare it, say by tying in Freud to Jung, the subconscious?
It's definitely the subconscious or the outer rims of your consciousness. If you look upon... let's say when you are awake, you are aware of what's going on and that can be seen as the world of the Aesir gods. When you fall asleep and have dreams, you can’t realize at first what's going on because the dreams are either chaotic or psychedelic, but I'm sure they mean something you know. That dream experience can be looked upon as the realm of the giants that surrounds your individual consciousness. These are symbols of, let's say, a universe that surrounds your inner self.
I’d like to ask about the recording and creation of the album. The band has gone through a couple of lineup changes over the years, but you definitely had a long run with a pretty stable lineup until the last album E. From there to now with Utgard, you've brought on Håkon Vinje [on keyboards and vocals] and Iver Sandøy [on drums and vocals]. I think a lot of people when they think about lineup changes, it's often an obstacle that needs to be overcome. However, in this case thinking in terms of how the albums have come out, and certainly as a fan viewing it from the outside, if anything it feels like they've helped the band evolve rather than having posed as an obstacle at all.
There were always a lot more opportunities than obstacles. I mean with Håkon, when it comes to musicians you don't hear about that many who have a dream of becoming a keyboard player [laugh]. Håkon is actually one of those because his father's a big Deep Purple fan so he grew up listening to Jon Lord and thinking that was the coolest thing in the world. So that's what he wanted to be. He wanted to play keyboards and the piano. That’s a pretty unique desire. When he joined he more or less was just thrown into the sessions on the recordings of E, but three years later he's much more comfortable in the band. His keyboard lines, his signatures, are much more evident on Utgard than on E. You can clearly hear that he has grown, developed, and evolved with Enslaved instead of just being a session member or newly hired gun. We couldn’t be happier.
Then with Iver on drums we really got some groove, some 70's groove, into the band. I mean you can easily hear he's inspired by John Bonham at times and other excellent drummers from the 70’s rock scene as well. Iver has like… well, Cato [Bekkevold] was a very good and really among the best metal drummers ever. However, Iver has been playing all sorts of styles of music, everything from folk music to children's music and all the way up to extreme metal. So he has a broad variety of styles and inspiration he can pick from. That really, really gave us some extra energy. On top of that he’s also a very good singer and an excellent collaborator when it comes to making the vocal arrangements.So yeah, he has been a great companion there as well.
If I’m not mistaken, Iver worked as a producer for the band for a number of albums, correct?
Yeah, he's been around in the studio, played some session drums, and filled in live for Cato on occasions as well. He's been our, you know, one of our best friends for the last twenty years. He's been there the whole time really and wound up being an in-house solution. That was a really, really smooth transition. We’re absolutely super satisfied with the inclusion of Iver and Håkon. Good times.
How do you feel about, and I'm sure in some many ways it's sort of a relief, but the fact now you have three singers in the band? Has that changed the dynamic for the band?
Well, it just means that we have a lot more opportunities than we had before. Between all of us we have three really distinctive and different clean voices. You can easily hear on the album who's singing, apart from the sections where all the three of us are singing and the quiet parts that might not be that easy to distinguish. On the rest I will say it's super easy. All the different vocals really, really add different coloring to the riffs and to the whole effort. I think it becomes a lot more interesting. I’ve always liked variation and dynamics in music so having that opportunity to use three singers adds something valuable to the whole thing, I think.
I agree. For me, I think this album might have some of the best clean singing I've ever heard from the band. Even from when I first heard the lead single “Homebound” I was really amazed by the singing on it.
Oh, thanks. Cool.
So you're now two out of three performances through the Cinematic Summer Tour, a set of three distinct livestreamed concert performances coordinated with metal festivals you had planned to perform at pre-Covid restrictions. Which I have to say is a pretty creative way of dealing with the whole pandemic we're all dealing with. I've been fortunate to watch both and I actually caught, as well, an earlier performance at the USF venue in Bergen back in April. So for the first one of the shows, Chronicles of the Northbound, how was it to play a set that had been voted on by fans?
Oh, it was cool. I was a bit surprised that a lot of their picks were like safe bets. I think quite a few songs that we usually or recently played in our sets. That despite the fact that we gave them a lot of opportunities for other material. We had added 40 songs to vote on or something like that. We dug up a lot of obscure songs, as well as songs we haven't played much live or at all. From the songs they picked there was somewhere like two or three really old ones, like “793 (Slaget om Lindisfarne)” and “Fenris” while the rest were much more recent. Contemporary and really popular Enslaved songs like "Isa" and "Watcher" got high votes. That surprised me a bit but I mean it was a very cool fluctuation and dynamic in the set. After the voting, we started rehearsing it and we thought it was a really cool running order.
Admittedly I was a little disappointed some tracks didn’t get picked. I think I personally voted for “Convoys to Nothingness”, which obviously didn’t get included, but oh well. That said, it was quite surprising that “793 (Slaget om Lindisfarne)” was included because I don't think you guys have played that song much before.
I think we played it maybe five times before. Since 1996, one I think was actually on the only live show we ever did with Harald Helgeson [former drummer]. I think we played that prior to the recording of Eld actually. I think we then played it once in 1997 and twice in 2016. So yeah, it was the sixth time we ever played that song.
Was it difficult to get that song ready to perform live?
Yeah... I mean first of all it's a very long song, isn't it? [laughs] It's like super long. That's one of the reasons that we haven't included it in a live set much before. Imagine if you play a festival having picked that song and you're like, "okay, we're now gonna play a second and then the last song." [laughs] I think Aver Isdal [second guitarist also known as Ice Dale] played that song like two times in 2016 at the 25th anniversary. Håkon had never played it nor Iver either. So it was basically rehearsing a new song. Ivar and I had forgotten almost everything about that song, so we had to relearn it somehow [laughs]. But it was one of the coolest experiences so far this summer with those gigs. It was a nice place to revisit, to be honest.
Then of course on August 20th you performed all of Below the Lights. How did that go in comparison to the previous one? Also correct me if I'm wrong, but I think it's the first time you guys have ever played that album in full.
Yeah. That's the first time we've ever done that. I think some of the songs from that we have only performed like once or twice before. There's a couple that we have performed somewhat often, like "The Crossing" and "As Fire Swept Clean the Earth,” but the rest of the songs have more or less been performed just a few times and that was many years ago. So it was obviously a challenge as well. Maybe more so than the Chronicle set because the majority of those songs everybody is pretty familiar with. In that way Below the Lights was also mostly rehearsed from scratch and had that "new songs" kind of feeling. Still, it was cool. It was a little bit more static performance. More lights, cinematic feeling, and conceptual than the first Chronicle set, but it turned out great. We all had a great feeling when we ended the show and when I saw it actually the day after, it.... to be honest, I didn't think that it was too shabby. I think I might have liked a couple of seconds of it, to be honest. [laughs]
I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's one of my favorite albums from you guys and I was supposed to attend Beyond the Gates. So I'd been looking forward to seeing you play it, but...
Well, somehow you did. You know?
[laughs] True enough. Following along how you described it I was really taken aback by how cinematic the presentation was. I really thought you guys did a good job along with whoever collaborated with the visual presentation. Even just how the floor was set up with the fabric that was on covering the ground. Then of course all the projected visuals happening behind you. Obviously part of it was the album art but also a kind of wavy oceanic look to it. Also the lighting perfectly embodied the album cover making the viewer feel like they and the band were inside it. Can you recount how that was all worked out?
Yeah, that was pretty much in line with what we desired. It really suited the vibe of the songs and the art of the album cover as well as the kind of pulsating but still static darkness. Something is constantly lurking in the dark on that album art and that's what we wanted for the visuals. A lot of people were involved; light techs, management… though I should mention our usual light techs weren't able to be there because of travel restrictions. It was a much bigger production than the first set.
We wanted a certain setting and wanted it to look more or less like a movie to the album’s soundtrack or whatever. While the first set was somehow more an adaptation of a normal concert. Of course nothing is normal nowadays [laugh]. That was what we tried to achieve. I think it would be pretty boring if we did the same thing like we did the last time. If you're going to play an album in their running order you have to do something. You have frames to work inside much more than you usually have with a normal concert. I think we were onto something at least and we're so glad that people enjoyed it.
Has there been any thought yet, whether for one or all the performances, about any home or digital release for fans who might want to watch it in the future?
I read some comments and it seems the fans would like that. That's obviously something that we have to discuss and consider of course but we don’t have any actual plans at the very moment. We still have the recordings though so we'll see. That would be cool and will at least be a memory over this crazy, crazy year. Or years. We don't know and that's still the scary part.
No, it's true. I mean it was recently announced that you were going to perform next year's Beyond the Gates and hopefully that does still happen. Like you just said though no one really knows when things are going to be coming close to normal again. With that I wanted to just ask about how you feel in the situation right now with making plans for next year or even later in this year in terms of performances? At the same time, I'm sure in the back of your head you’re thinking that all of these are still a risk.
I mean you have to make some kind of plans. You have to make at least tentative plans because the minute it ends you have to be ready to do something. If you don't plan anything at all, I mean... it actually takes more than five minutes to set up a tour or a gig [laughs]. So you have to do something and plans have been made, we just don't know if they'll come through. We all hope so of course because this is pretty tiring for everybody and especially for the segments we are working in like the music industry. I don't feel that sorry for ourselves really, but I feel a lot more sorry for all the music clubs, rental companies, and stuff like that. People that work as stagehands or techs. They have nothing, absolutely nothing right now. What are they supposed to do? They can't rig up a show that's not gonna happen. That's not the way it works. It's crazy.
Even further with bartenders and janitorial staff.
I live in Los Angeles and have friends who work in film production. They're in quite a bind because for quite a while there's just been no work. A lot of the studios and even smaller production groups are still trying to find a safe way to do things, but it's still up in the air.
Exactly. I mean are there any safe ways of doing things before a vaccine comes around? I doubt it. It's really horrible, but what can you do?
Switching gears a bit, Enslaved has at least since done a number of really well-crafted music videos and you've now got two new ones accompanying Utgard. How does the band usually approach the process of making a music video compared to everything else creatively the band does?
In the 1980’s and 1990’s, music videos were one of the main promotion tools for music, but in the mid 2000’s it really really disappeared. People weren’t making that many music videos for a long while. Apart from like lyric videos and things that are made in a rush and don’t really represent anything at all beyond the actual song and the lyrics. So I was happy that after an absence of maybe 10 years I decided to make music videos again because I think it's a cool thing.
I grew up watching music videos and for many bands I ended up listening to it was a video I saw first that was a gateway. It was really an important thing to do. We'll always enjoy doing videos, but on the past recordings since Vertebrae there was no budget to do one or at least not a priority for the record label. I'm actually glad it's back as it’s a great way to check out bands. We're gonna release even one more this week actually [“Urjotun”, released on Aug 28th and featured above]. So three videos for one album. That's cool. I really, really welcome back the concept of music videos. I've been missing that. Though fuck cheesy YouTube videos on a handheld phone. That's not good for anything, you know. [laughs]
For even more, check out what Enslaved’s Ivar Bjørnson has been listening to this year.