Black Metal Cross-Country Skiing And Norse Mythology: IVAR BJØRNSON Shares How ENSLAVED Assembled 'Heimdal'

March 7, 2023

By David E. Gehlke

"Our albums are old enough to drive now," cracks guitarist, primary songwriter and one-half founding member of ENSLAVED, Ivar Bjørnson. Bjørnson is referring to the band's newest opus, "Heimdal", which is album number 16 for ENSLAVED. The script of ENSLAVED's early 1990s Viking metal origins that kept them out of the fray (and flames) of their Norwegian black metal brethren is now well-worn. Perhaps it is more interesting how Bjørnson and ENSLAVED have remained near the top of the extreme metal scene by following their creative whims — no matter how far off the grid it may take them. And indeed, there have been some daunting, challenging LPs to ENSLAVED's name (2001's "Monumension" and 2012's "RIITIIR" first spring to mind),but hand the Norwegians this: their risks almost always pay off.

"Heimdal" is rare in the ENSLAVED canon since it seriously acknowledges the band's early raw, untethered moments and draws in the electronic and psychedelia lurking ever since the turn of the century. Add in the potent clean vocals of drummer Iver Sandøy to pair with bassist/vocalist/other co-founding member Grutle Kjellson and it's a recipe for another dynamic and awe-inspiring ENSLAVED studio album. Bjørnson and BLABBERMOUTH.NET connected to discuss "Heimdal", the contributions of Sandøy and last year's Fire In The Mountains festival in Wyoming, which the guitarist helped curate.

Blabbermouth: Do you find any parallels between "Heimdal" and "Monumension", which came out in 2001? Both albums take their share of risks and have frequent psychedelic moments.

Ivar: "That's an interesting one. It's a little bit hard for me because of the lack of objectivity. Some of the melodic and proggy stuff — I can see that. But you have to give me a few weeks to consider it. [Laughs] It's not that often I sit down and listen to our albums. I think I need to do that more."

Blabbermouth: Some bands listen to their previous albums to ensure they're not copying themselves. It would be nice if more did it.

Ivar: "I steal ideas from other people. Why should I be embarrassed about doing it myself? I revisit bits and pieces. I get an impulse and want to hear a certain song or transition — things like that. There's a lot of listening to songs and trying to grasp their technical aspect, like the tablature. It's more about getting the vibe, especially with the very old albums. We did a few shows where we played "Frost". We're doing "Eld" this year. Doing these deep dives, not only learning them as a mechanical exercise but trying to remember what it was like back when I came to rehearsal with the riffs and we'd work our way through them. That's how we go at the old ones."

Blabbermouth: "Eld" has some long and complex songs. Did that form of songwriting rub off on current ENSLAVED?

Ivar: "The thing about song length is impossible. [Laughs] It feels weird to make songs within a certain timeframe. The ideal pop song is three minutes and thirty seconds. That is supposed to come from the time it took to make the vinyl etching go totally even in the production line. They had to use a rope and a weight was attached to it. From the top and all the way down, it was three-thirty. That's how the song length came about for hits. Thinking of those confinements, it doesn't make sense. Then again, if you have a song that's three minutes, why stretch it out? It's not good or bad. I try to avoid it when I write actively."

Blabbermouth: "Heimdal" is a very involved and varied album — there's a lot to dig into. Did you ever feel you went too far on some of these songs?

Ivar: "It took a while to integrate some ideas. I make quite a bit of electronic music on the BARDSPEC project. I love the '70s sequencers. I guess I like that side of the synthesizer, the sound of electricity, not so much the faux operatic stuff, which doesn't appeal as much. It's taken a while to take that into ENSLAVED fully. It always takes time to integrate these things. At the beginning of the band, we had extreme metal roots. But we both came into the band, me being a PINK FLOYD die-hard, and Grutle being into GENESIS, LED ZEPPELIN and RUSH. That's the interesting thing with 'Monumension'. It was one of the first times those things were allowed to flourish."

Blabbermouth: You are right. Those elements weren't around doing your Viking era.

Ivar: "It needed a natural development, but also the lineup. Iver, who is not a new member but the newest, is very good at expressing ideas and communicating back. One of the things about 'Caravans To The Outer World', when I presented the idea of having two main songs with more experimental things, he said, 'How about instead of doing these intermezzos on the albums, maybe we do experimental vocals?' It could be like the 'Axioma' track [on 2010's 'Axioma Ethica Odini'] or 'Utgard' on 'Utgard'. Why not involve the whole band?' I thought it was a brilliant idea. In these intermezzos, we tried to, rather than using effects, play more and be more experimental as a band. It gave me some confidence and also expanded the territory."

Blabbermouth: Can you explain everything that went into "Congelia"? It ranks among the most massive in your career.

Ivar: "That was a tough one to write. I really love that song. It makes me really proud. I want to give credit to Iver. During the songwriting, the first song, 'Behind The Mirror', was written as the first song in the running order. 'Heimdal' was written as the last song. Everything else was written at the same time. I started writing and Iver referred to it as 'black metal cross-country skiing' blast-beats. It could be a metal guy cross-country skiing and he's keeping a steady pace. That mesmerizing feeling where the time goes away. It's not about sport or performance. It's more of a meditative thing. He said, 'How would it be if we used it as a platform?' Traditionally, I'm a black metal guy at heart. That's the stuff I love. I keep mixing it in with something else and the black metal elements are added, so why not use that as the foundation and keep the cross-country thing and don't divert for a second? That's how it ended up at seven minutes with the same riff. No fills. When we added these elements: heavy metal riffing, electronic sequencing, mixing those things with the dissonant black metal riff, it took so many different approaches to get it glued together. The first comment online when we released the video was, 'It sounds like a bunch of songs on top of each other.' I was like, 'Thank you, dude.'"

Blabbermouth: How are you divvying up clean vocals between Håkon (Vinje, keyboards) and Iver nowadays?

Ivar: "Ninety-five percent of what you hear on the album is Iver. Iver does them while sitting behind the drums, which makes them even more impressive. I have to give a shout out to Håkon. He's raised the band on so many levels. When he was asked to join the band in 2017 for 'E', we recruited him as a keyboard player. When he was part of the band, we told him we wanted him to do the clean vocals, like almost at gunpoint. It wasn't a nice thing to do, but he did an amazing job. When Iver joined the band for 'Utgard', that was Håkon's wish that Iver should take over most of the clean vocals. Iver does them live to perfection. He's an enigma wrapped in a mystery. [Laughs]"

Blabbermouth: The "Heimdal" concept brings you back to your roots. Heimdal seems like a pretty intriguing character within Norse mythology. How did you go about uncovering his various layers?

Ivar: "It felt natural. The beginning and the end were written, then everything else fell into place. This is the first time the concept has been fully developed before songwriting. I think it's fun. In album number 16, we've still convinced ourselves that we are finding exciting ways. But, self-deception, if that's what it takes, it's worth it. I just got the idea that something about Heimdal made sense after 'Utgard'. I remember when we were a new band and people splintered over the hypocrisy of Christianity stealing Christmas, the Yule, from the Heathens. I guess the Heathens did the same thing when they came. Instead of twisting them into their image, the Christians took what was already there and integrated it. And it didn't always make sense. And there was a contradiction."

Blabbermouth: You were part of the "Fire In The Mountains" festival last year in Wyoming. Granted, the pandemic delayed it twice, but would you do something like that again?

Ivar: "Absolutely. That was one of the best weekends I've had as a musician. I get sentimental and really happy thinking about it. We had been waiting so long to do it. I met the organizers in 2019 in Denver for a WALDRUNA show I was doing live production for at Red Rocks [Amphitheatre]. Sometimes it's fun to tag along with the really big bands. [Laughs] I met the guys there and agreed to do something in 2020. As you said, it didn't happen until '22. I invited friends and musicians in bands that I'm a huge fan of and everyone said yes. There was YOB, Mike Scheidt solo and WAYFARER, an excellent band. Steve Von Till [NEUROSIS] did a solo thing. It was more than I expected. The landscape, like the town of Jackson Hole, I didn't know what to expect. There were art dealers, which is where the rich people go. We didn't hang out there too much. We hung out around the festival. There was no wi-fi and no cellular phone reception. Can you imagine a couple of thousand people hanging out with no phones? I'm really happy that I had to pay attention to other things around me. At night, there were campfires and ceremonies. We had a visit from the Native American tribe that lives on that land. It was amazing. I'd do it all over again. I hope those guys have some memory loss, so they invite me to do the same thing."

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