Because some of our readers may, in fact, be so full of vitriol that the combination of Justin Timberlake and Paxil just isn’t doin’ it for them anymore, we bring you our bimonthly metal column, “Angry Music for Angry People,” written by MetalSucks‘ Axl Rosenberg, a.k.a. Matthew Goldenberg. In this installment, he catches up with rule-breaking Norwegian black metal band Enslaved:
Sub-genre(s): Black metal, prog metal, Viking metal.
Best known for: Breaking black metal traditions without alienating their devoted fanbase.
For people who like: Black metal, but think corpse paint is so ’90s
Most interesting member: See “fun fact” below.
Fun fact: Bassist/vocalist Grutle Kjellson and drummer Cato Bekkevold met at a convention for their mutual favorite hobby: fishing.
Overview: Taking its name from Venom’s 1982 album Black Metal, the subgenre for which Enslaved is known has it origins in the band’s home country of Norway beginning in the late ’80s and early ’90s, part of a reaction to what was perceived as an increasingly mundane death metal movement. (At least, that’s the story if you believe Albert Mudrian’s excellent history of death and grindcore, Choosing Death.) As such, black metal seems to amplify death metal’s most intense qualities to almost cartoonish extremes: lyrics focus pretty much exclusively on Satanism and the occult, and band members traditionally wear a lot of spiked leather and “corpse paint,” facial make-up which is (presumably) supposed to make them look like corpses, instead of often giving them the appearance of fans at a Kiss convention. As if the “let’s play dress-up and be scary” mentality doesn’t make it hard enough to get people to take the genre seriously, there’s the fact that black metal bands and their fans sometimes don’t seem to understand the difference between a healthy expression of rage and senseless violence, and thus end up indulging in church burnings and murder. (Members of pioneering black metal act Mayhem, for example, have actually killed one another.)
The fact that Enslaved indulges in many black metal tropes while also bucking trends is what makes them so fantastic. Yes, Kjellson, like most black metal singers, employs a vocal style that sounds like he was just stabbed in the throat and is gargling the lyrics through blood. And his lyrics seem aimed squarely at the kids obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons; from “Lunar Force”: “Fallen, defeated, tricked by Beroc/ The lunar force/ Behold the sorcerer when you’re impaled by the sword.” But the band often forgoes super-fast riffing and double-bass drum blast beats for more traditionalist, stripped down, almost classic rock-style hooks that wouldn’t be out of place on the latest release by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Enslaved is also given to long passages of almost Pink Floydian-dreaminess with lots of soloing from lead axe slinger Ivar Bjørnson, which can often stretch the band’s songs into seven minute prog epics. Keyboardist Herbrand Larsen provides the occasional “clean”–you might almost call them “heavenly” or “ethereal”–vocals, offering some contrast to Kjellson’s screeching. Perhaps best of all, there is no corpse paint whatsoever.
At its best, Enslaved’s music has a slithery, weightless quality, leaving the listener feel like they’re floating, the aural equivalent of pressing your palms into your shut eyes to see the colors. (Man, the colors!) Other black metal bands want to scream to the heavens about the wretchedness of God; Enslaved seem more poised for introspection, provoking the listener into contemplating the evil inside us all.