On New York By Norse, Enslaved, and Loving Metal

New York By Norse

Like many people, I found heavy metal music as a teenager. I didn’t have an older sibling or cool uncle to show me the way. Music was something that I mostly engaged with on my own terms. I’d buy a magazine and look for even the bands who had taken the time to advertise. I’d buy an album and read the liner notes to see if any bands were thanked. While my earlier discoveries were culled heavily from the rosters of labels like Roadrunner and Century Media due to the prominence and accessibility of such labels, I found my way to black metal at the age of sixteen. While classics from then-defunct or inactive bands like Emperor and Burzum were highly visible and relevant to me, one of the records that grabbed and shook me heavily was, at the time, a new release.

I don’t remember how I came across Below the Lights, but its influence and impact were immediate and undeniable. Like a first kiss or moving into a place that just feels like home, listening to Enslaved’s 2003 masterpiece was something that simultaneously electrified my being and brought me a strange sort of calm. I think it’s a universal experience that many folks born in the latter half of the eighties had. While I worked to retroactively discover Enslaved’s formative albums and to follow their ongoing output, the presence and scope of that album and the time at which it came makes it as much a part of my musical DNA as any other album I can name.

Nearly fourteen years after making this discovery, I’ve had the chance to interview Ivar Bjørnson, Enslaved’s founding guitarist, twice. A few weeks ago I received an email from the Consul General of Norway inviting me to a reception as a precursor to New York By Norse, an event celebrating Norwegian art and culture. With curation handled by the By Norse crew, (Bjørnson, Simon Füllemann , and Einar Selvik of Wardruna), the two nights were both educational and emotional.

Einar Selvik
Einar Selvik at the Norwegian Consulate

At the consulate, I was fortunate enough to casually mingle with serious metal industry names alongside members of the Norwegian government while enjoying complementary craft beers from Brooklyn Brewery.  I’m still not sure if anybody understood how I got in, but I’m not about to challenge that decision. After a short while, all in attendance were treated to a brief explanation of the By Norse mission and origins along with a musical demonstration and history lesson from Einar Selvik. After growing quite familiar with the lush and often bombastic sounds of Wardruna, I was delighted by the raw passion that came through when he performed his music in such a stripped and direct setting. While Enslaved were supposed to be in attendance, flight delays kept them from appearing until the official By Norse event later in the night.

Later the same evening, the first night of New York By Norse began at the Scandinavia House in Manhattan. The setting of a seated venue in a formal environment might have seemed an odd place for a group of heavy metal fans, but the crowd sat in hushed awe as Selvik spent nearly an hour explaining his personal journey from extreme metal to his historical endeavors with Wardruna. It was especially illuminating to hear talk of pre-Viking era Norse history as the foundation of his personal interest and the ways in which he chooses to interact with his instruments and the space in which he creates. As a means of accompanying his own talk, he shared a few more musical performances on replicas of early Scandinavian instruments. While the sounds were inevitably earthen, the experience was otherworldly in its beauty and span. While his performance was followed by a set from Bardspec, a project of Bjørnson’s, I was unfortunately forced to leave before that time due to obligations to a day job that is far less sexy than “professional music writer.”

Last night, after escaping the confines of the aforementioned day job, I made my way to the Gramercy Theater in Manhattan for the second night of New York By Norse. As a slightly late arrival at the ancient hour of 6:15PM, I missed an initial showcase of renowned artist Kim Holm’s works. I was instead greeted by the static burst of noise as the audience was treated to a teaser of a documentary celebrating Enslaved’s 25th anniversary. Watching founders Bjørnson and Grutle Kjellson talking about their rather ordinary origins and childhood passions was endearing and relatable as a fan of extreme music and the context provided was fascinating. While the half-hour or so of footage was enjoyable, it primarily heightened anticipation as I sucked down a $9 tallboy and waited to see the legends take stage.

Enslaved

With pretty much no delay, Enslaved took the stage at 7:30 and cut right in with a set of classic material from their earlier years. While the band is over twenty years removed from much of the material they shared in this first set, it still came across with an urgency, professionalism, and sense of fun that made every moment a delight. While songs like “Heimdallr” and “Eld” were essential cuts that sounded every bit as impassioned and innovative as the band’s newest, more progressive-leaning material, the highlights were the deep cut “Allfadr Odinn” from the legendary Hordanes Land EP and an unexpected performance of “Havenless” from Below the Lights. I’d been speaking before the show about how great it’d be to see “Havenless” but how impossible it’d be to pull of the choral singing. With surprise appearances from Einar Selvik and Iver Sandøy to round out the vocal aspect of the song, it was every bit of a ride in the live setting as it was the first time it confused and overwhelmed my teenage ears.

Enslaved
Enslaved with Einar Selvik

After a brief intermission, the band returned to the stage to deliver a set of more modern material. With a wonderful mixture of fan favorites and deep cuts like “Return to Yggdrasil,” Enslaved highlighted the potential for even more diverse and melodic material to crush and excite in the live setting. Before departing from the stage, they shared a very special treat with the audience, inviting Selvik and Sandøy  to the stage once more to perform a song from this year’s Skuggsjá record, the monumental “Bøn Om Ending, Bøn Om Byrjing.” As an encore, the band returned with two more songs to close out a night of high spirits and deep history. When they took the stage again to the haunting keys of “As Fire Swept Clean the Earth,” I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. The very song that helped birth my passion for a band I’ve loved for well over a decade was possibly the best way for a show to end. Following it up with a track from Enslaved’s recent In Times album, “One Thousand Years of Rain” helped bring my musical adolescence and current place in life together in a beautiful way.

Skuggsja

 

While Enslaved’s history and my own are not one and the same, it’s hard to follow a band’s music for so many years and not feel like it becomes a part of one’s own identity. In witnessing it live after so many years and watching the band explore so many parts of its own transformation, it felt like hearing some of my own parallel journeys documented in a musical format. Enslaved has spent 25 years capturing the spirit of a musical genre based on innovative and challenging attitudes. From the energy displayed on stage last night to the seemingly boundless enthusiasm that both the band and their fans share, it’s not too hard to imagine we’re in for another 25 years of creativity and shapeshifting from these talented Norwegians.