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Ever since the release of “Isa”, Enslaved have been constantly labelled as one of the most promising and exciting bands within the genre of extreme progressive metal, and it's certainly no surprise why. Many of those that were introduced to the band may well have been done so via the “Below the Lights” album or any other Enslaved material released after that point, but how many can honestly say they have attempted to find out just where these diverse, progressive stylings began? “Mardraum-Beyond the Within” and “Monumension” are not albums that come to mind when asked just what Enslaved's so-called “turning point” actually was, and it's a shame because these releases are far too often overlooked when researching the band's career as a whole.
The former album, “Mardraum-Beyond the Within”, has been described by no other than vocalist and bassist Grutje Kjellson as “the band's ultimate shift in musical styles”. The fact that the album's title refers to the idea of one stepping out of their own reality and into another, obscurer one, is not surprising at all, given that many of the band's lyrical content in recent times has depended solely on such themes as transcendence, shifts into other dimensions and spiritual energy. “Mardraum” itself means simply “Nightmare”, but alongside “Beyond the Within” you can tell the band deliberately named this album with that specific title.
Musically speaking, there is little to be queried here. If you're question is “Does this album differ completely from the band's releases within the decade of the 90's?”, the answer is quite plainly “No”. Although there are instances where the band do delve into experimental territory, the majority of “Mardraum...” does still partly rely on extreme metal influences, which is most probably why Enslaved are described as an “extreme” progressive Metal band, as opposed to just “Progressive Metal”. With such aggressive, fast-paced tracks as the hateful “Daudningekvida” (Deadhymn) and equally as menacing “Ormagard” (The Hive), the band certainly retain their black metal styles, but fuse them carefully with progressive leanings.
The album's true success does indeed come from the band's experimentation, and whenever you think the band are just about to to continue with their constant black metal barrages, the music stops being so aggressive and channels itself into a completely new form of music, often that of a psychedelic or melodic one. An extremely good example of this is the album's instant highlight “Entrance-Escape”. Beginning with a hypnotic, sprawling guitar effect and gradually becoming more and more sinister with its sound, these seven-or-so minutes of experimental metal never seem to bore the listener or indeed underwhelm expectations, as is well known of Enslaved's latter musical style. The shifts from fast, rampaging guitar work to melancholic, acoustic guitar leads are definitive evidence that Enslaved were now a band in a world of their own, unable to be copied by anyone else. Even the tense yet eventually hypnotic opener “Storre enn Tid-Tyngre enn Natt” (Larger than Time-Heavier than Night), with it's constant tempo shifts and excellently executed guitar solos (courtesy of no other than Ivar Bjornson), still manages to satisfy the listener's wishes and makes itself instantly memorable, hours after having been played.
Another important aspect of “Mardraum” is the vocals and voice effects themselves. This is most evident on the album's title track, in which the screaming voices and creepy narrative work contribute brilliantly to the concept of the song itself. “Nightmare” is a word that often arises in psychological themes and dealings with the sub-/unconscious, and listening to this track you can almost feel as if you're being pulled into a nightmare with the sprawling guitar work and haunting sound effects. That's basically how much work Enslaved had put into this album when crafting its very soul. Even when the clean vocals come in to cleverly compliment the harsher vocals, they are done so with such elegance and beauty that it's hard to be amazed by their true talent. Even more interesting is the fact that this is one of the first Enslaved albums wherein each and every member of the band sing together, almost like a choir, flowing well with the harsh, grunted vocals all the time.
It's important to note that “Mardraum-Beyond the Within” is not entirely an extreme progressive metal album, and one can understand this clearly when listening to the album as a whole, especially taking into account that the production is indifferent to that of the “Eld” or “Blodhemn” albums. Even the likes of the epic “Krigaren eg Ikkye Kjende” (Warrior unknown) or the insane “Det endelege Riket” (The ending Empire) have some essence of raw black metal to their sound, and although that may be down to the album's slightly fuzzy production, it still pays a slight homage to the band's earlier sound. However, this may be what annoys some when listening to “Mardraum...” as a whole-the fact that when the band use black metal influences to their full effect, they really don't seem to be different in any way compared to other Norwegian black metal bands. Thankfully, this is saved by the band's clever use of strange sound effects and clever experimentation.
It's a shame that “Mardraum-Beyond the Within” is often overlooked by fans of the band who were introduced via “Isa” or even “Below the Lights”, yet musically the album is both a decent mixture of the band's earlier, more aggressive sound and their experimental touches. I say “decent”, because the album is not in any way a flawless one, but is certainly a good place to start if you are wondering why Enslaved sound the way they do today, in 2013.
Heavily contrasted to the point at which it often feels scatterbrained, Mardraum: Beyond the Within is perhaps the greatest evolutionary leap Enslaved has taken in their career. It's not the ONLY major shift in their creative tectonics, mind you, but in comparison to the potency and focus of its predecessor (Blodhemn), this almost feels like a different band. You'll recognize the vocals, and perhaps some of the guitar playing, and yes the interesting and introspective marriage of Norse myth and history to an individual philosophy, but otherwise the game is afoot. Ivar and Grutle just took a dive into the deep end, and though they've written far more accessible material later in their career, there would be no turning back from the eclectic circus they have seen fit to ringmaster.
Of course, this album probably arrived at the expense of a segment of their fan base, who mourn the passing of the band's more familiar, Viking/black albums in the mid 90s, but what can we really expect? Enslaved is an intelligent band which seeks stimulation in molding their sound into new patterns, and that's never going to change. They're not likely to write Vikingligr Veldi Parts II through VI, unless they become overburdened with nostalgia, so it's time to get used to the idea, or pack up and move back into the cave. Personally, I am rather happy to have been along for this ride. There have been few bumps in the road, but most of their modern records are nothing short of brilliant. What's startling is that Mardraum features the same personnel as Blodhemn, yet the production feels much more grisly and organic, the songwriting hectic to the point that it feels nearly improvisational in some spots. The proficiency of musicians like Dirge Rep and Ivar Bjornson is put to the test here, not in technicality, but in their ability to fluidly expand themselves.
Mardraum can be jarring, and can be a little difficult to follow along when not in the proper head space. Nonetheless, what I've always enjoyed so much about this is just sticking to a particular guitar line and engaging in the sonic adventure, like the turbulent, arching guitars that penetrate the heart of the broad opener "Større enn Tid - Tyngre enn Natt". This is a 10 minute stretch in which the band throw out all manner of contrasts, from the airy, clean guitar intro, to the more savage, chug-based riffing to the enormous, melodic mid-paced bridge. They've even got some sequences of noisy guitars where the beat drops out completely. In addition to Grutle's familiar rasp, the band incorporates death metal growls throughout this piece for variation, and the final result is a beautiful mess. More disjointed than anything else on the album, but quite intriguing despite itself.
Like it's predecessor, Blodhemn, I found myself attracted to some of the shorter pieces on the album, where a smaller handful of ideas were explored to great effect. Among these are the thrashing, intense volley of "Dandnigekvida (Deadhymn)" with its wild lead, or the warlike churn of the title instrumental "Mardraum (Nightmare)" which involves all manner of raunchy, almost funked out guitars and textured melodies and vocals. Other highlights include "Krigaren eg Ikkje Kjende (Warrior Unknown)" for the soaring bridge vocals, or the harrowing "Stjerneheimen (Starhome)" which features some of the most psychotic and forceful riffing I've ever heard from this band. Any fears that the band might steer too far away from their parent genre are assuaged here, for Mardraum is primarily a pastiche of extreme metal genres, but this is very certainly NOT the more straightforward, structured entity of years flown by.
If there's a complaint here, it's that the explosive level of rhythmic chops and ideas on the album are often too much meat for its skeletal framework. I mentioned before that it's a beautiful mess, but I was partially lying: this is ugly as sin. Most of the catchier moments come strictly through the clean vocals, as many of the constantly mutating, colliding riffs are dissonant and unfriendly. This is not an album like Below the Lights or Vertebrae in which you can soothe yourself, but more a whirlwind of primordial chaos which spawns ideas. We've all heard crazier, I'm sure, but not from Enslaved. The lyrics rule, and I really liked the choice of raw production, the crashing bass tones and the intense drumming. It really fits the aimless anxiety of the composition, and ensures that once again, these Norwegians have produced a rather unique product that they themselves would not even be repeating, a thriving if dizzying monument to strength and entropy.
Journeying through Enslaved's discography, it is rather remarkable how much they were able to change their sound, without changing their genre. Black metal has always been the root and heart of what these Norwegian metallers are all about, but as the albums went by, Enslaved went through several incarnations. 'Mardraum' of the most pivotal albums in Enslaved's development from a more primitive black or viking metal act to the progressive metal powerhouse they are today. After two fairly bland albums with 'Eld' and 'Blodhemn', I was beginning to tire of the fairly underwhelming viking metal that Enslaved was doing after their excellent first and second albums, which had been more black metal oriented. While this album lacks the polish or refinement of the band's later work, 'Mardraum' would see Enslaved experimenting quite a bit with their sound, and set the stage for their later, more progressive material.
'Mardraum: Beyond The Within' opens with almost an overture of sorts; 'Stшrre enn Tid - Tyngre enn Natt' goes through a number of different ideas and sounds before the vocals are even itnroduced. From the opening minutes of this album, the listener is introduced to everything this album has to offer; heavy moments of blackened thrash metal, ambiance, quasi-psychedelic soft moments and plenty of atmosphere to go around. The vocals eventually come into the music, but as opposed to the raspy snarl I may have been expecting after hearing some very heavy opening riffs on the album, there are clean vocals, sung in the band's native Norwegian. The clean singing of Grutle Kjellson is fairly rough here, and works better as a chanting drone, rather than a voice that can hold much of a melody. Luckily, Enslaved appears to be aware of this and rarely uses the clean vocals for anything other than to give some added feeling of Scandinavian folk to their sound, amounting usually to a monotone delivery that does not harm the sound, but also never feels much in the way of passion.
The album is rough as I've said, a little long for its own good, and fairly inconsistent, but these are all byproducts of the album's sheer ambition. There are elements of so much here, and that really makes 'Mardraum' one of the more relevant albums in the band's discography. Hearing a primitive collision of 60's psychedelia and black metal here is great, and Enslaved helped to lay the foundation for a wider range of progressive black metal with this album. It is rough around the edges, but it is diverse, heavy, and full of surprises.
Mardraum - Beyond the Within was Enslaved's fifth full-length album and offered yet another reinvention and improvement of their already unique and mesmerizing style.
Overall, the lyrical concept of Mardraum brings to mind a Viking warrior who finds himself in a world where his familiar gods and culture are absent. He is confused and frightened by this unknown reality and begins questioning and re-evaluating his own identity and existence. This existential crisis could also be reflective of where Enslaved were at a creative standpoint at this time as this album stands enthralled upon the rainbow bridge between the vicious Viking metal onslaught of Blodhemn and the bizarre ethereal explorations of Monumension. As such, the chaos of Mardraum seems to represent Enslaved's own Gotterdammerung with its dissonant riffs, jagged rhythms, and soul-searching lyrics which led to their creative rebirth and progression as can be heard on their more recent albums.
"Storre enn Tid - Tyngre enn Natt" begins the CD with a jangly clean guitar melody that settles you into bliss until a harsh electric guitar riff startles you out of serenity only to be cut short before the clean guitar continues its lullaby. This brings to mind those occasions where you lie awake and sense yourself falling asleep only for your arm or leg to twitch just enough to shock you awake again. Soon, the electric guitars cut through the fluff to begin the song in earnest and thus conjure the nightmarish concept of this album. "Aeges Draum" begins with a groove reminiscent of the opening of Morbid Angel's "Dawn of the Angry" before morphing into a death metal assault. In an inexplicable shift at 1:11 this violent ecstasy becomes sullen apathy when the riffs make way for slow crashing chords as Grutle speaks in heroic clean vocals. As if that wasn't a dramatic enough change, an odd clean guitar segment plays a simple disjointed melody to further create a feeling of alienation. The song picks up again as waves of melody expand like heartbeats through a silent mosaic (the lyrics are great too) and leaves you guessing as to what Mardraum will explore next.
"Krigaren eg Ikkje Kjende" is the part of the story where the warrior confronts the shadow part of himself that he had avoided in previous songs as he attempts to slay an old man guarding a boat that he needs. Rich in symbolism, this is the song where it becomes apparent that all of the warrior's struggle has been internal and thus casts a new light on the psychological aspect of the lyrics in the previous songs. A restrained yet thrilling lead melody at 3:53 segues out of an equally rapturous clean vocal section before the song continues its earlier vein of brutality. "Stjerneheimen" then gallops and thrashes with passion and urgency before the soothing epilogue of "Froyas Smykke" brings this haunting, mystical journey to an end.
Enslaved's blistering execution of every aspect of the music is a monumental feat given the complexity of the strange accents in the riffs, thus the creativity required by the rhythm section to keep the songs flowing, and the raw emotion that must be conveyed in the performance to bring a concept as unpredictable as that on Mardraum to life. Weird, atmospheric, and brilliant, this is something that is not easy to understand upon the initial listen, but sounds better each time you hear it. Enslaved fans are already familiar with this wicked, distorted tower of an album, but if you're a fan of cryptic, mind-expanding, yet mighty metal and you haven't heard this yet, then this could be your new favorite CD.
Enslaved have always managed to kept themselves somewhat apart from the rest of Norway's metal scene thanks to a very skillful and original approach to their heavy art. Heralded among others as the forefathers of Viking Metal, the band took a more progressive direction with their 1996 offering "Eld" and the subsequent assault "Blodhemn", which also saw the band expanding to a four piece with the addition of guitarist Roy Kronheim and former Gehenna skinthrasher Dirge Rep. (now in Orcustus), along with founding members Ivar Bjørnson (guitars, keyboards and a whole lot of different stuff) and Grutle Kjellson (vocals and bass). The same line-up would resurface 2 years later as the winning team behind "Mardraum - Beyond The Within".
"Beyond" is indeed a term which suits the album pretty well. Beyond Black Metal, beyond Viking Metal, beyond Enslaved's previous outputs in any way. This is one of those albums which elude the grasp of any definition and stand tall and proud as something of their own. Obviously, the band took (yet another) considerable stylistic turn with this, and inevitably disappointed several long-time followers. However, "Mardraum" is not an album which should be easily overlooked.
Despite the severe musical detour Enslaved retained the old Icelandic language for their lyrics - except for one song - but once again they added English translations in the booklet - and an Icelandic translation for the English song. Great move, because these lyrics are worth much more than just a casual reading, dealing with abstract themes which fit the music perfectly. Enslaved have never been that "Hail Satan" kind of band, but this time they surpassed themselves.
And then there's the music, of course. The first word that comes into my mind to describe it is "otherworldly". Intricate, non-conventional, obscenely varied, this is art from beyond for the beyond.
"Mardraum" (which translates to "Nightmare") opens with the choing clean guitars of "Større enn tid - Tyngre enn natt" ("Larger than time - Heavier than night"), an immense epic which evolves several times in its first minutes alone before the "actual" song begins at around 4:30. Enslaved's trademark heaviness is brought to the extremes here, thanks to the top notch Abyss Studios production which gives an even sharper cutting edge to the guitars and power to the drums, leaving at the same time a distinct bass sound and the vocals just at the right level. Oh yes, the vocals. As the first verse kicks in, we are greeted by Grutle's dual voice chanting, which in turn switches to his trademark shriek, and then all over again, while the music paints a desolate landscape with an almost doomy palette, slow and incredibly heavy. Then comes the chorus, still slow but pushed forward by buzzsaw tremolos and double bass drum drive, with Grutle shining by turning his deep growl to a fierce scream at the very end of every verse, before the speed really grows for a powerful middle section, with the dirgelike slow tempo coming back in for the final. The song clocks in at some seconds over 10 minutes, but it's far from drawn out. In complete contrast, "Daudningekvida" ("Deadhymn") is a flat-out headbanger, completed by insane leads and a great work from Dirge Rep. In just two songs Enslaved have shown ideas and influences which would be enough for other bands to fill a full length. But it's only just begun...
"Entrance - Escape" ("Inngang - Flukt") is the only song with English lyrics, another slow and abstract epic with a percussion driven middle section and the Bjørnson - Kronheim duo experimenting a lot of guitar sounds and techniques, while Grutle shines both as a vocalist with his clever harmonizings (the song, although mostly instrumental, is sung entirely with clean vocals) and as a bassist, his distorted licks being the real subterrabean force beneath the cool surface of the song. "Ormgard" ("The Hive") opens with a bizarrely filtered intro to explode into a pummeling symphony for razor sharp strumming and more double bass earthquakes. "Aeges draum" ("Aege's dream") manages to create that unreal feeling by alternating aggressive assaults with sombre interludes; the contrast the band creates by turning a clean guitar riff to a full speed attack shows how much care Enslaved have put into arrangements as well as songwriting. The tile track comes next, a real nightmare for pounding percussions, fierce guitars and distant screams.
This abundance of experimentalism is counterbalanced by "Det endelege riket" ("The ending empire"), a groove injected crusher where Enslaved show they haven't lost their old drive, the excellent solo section after the second chorus being probably the catchiest moment "Mardraum" has to offer. "Ormgard II - Kvalt i kysk høgsong" ("The Hive II - Strangled by purity") continues the brutality, although it inevitably seems to lack a bit of a direction after the quite accessible "Det endelege riket", but it's a very well crafted number anyway. The brutal factor is brought at its peak by the blasting "Krigaren eg ikkje kjende" (translated as "Warrior unknown", although title literally means "Warrior I do / did not know", which fits the personal and inrospective nature of the lyrics better), which destroys anything in its way before giving may to more relaxed riffs and more clean chantings. "Stjerneheimen" ("Starhome") doesn't match the aggression of the previous numbers, relying more on its outworldly atmosphere although the rhythmic drive is extremely effective. The short and very good instrumental "Frøyas smykke" (Freya's necklace") ends the album with a further touch of melodic elegance.
What more could I say about one of the greatest albums I've ever heard? Approach with care, as it's of course very weirdand hard to get into, but don't skip it without some good listens; you'd be missing an unique experience.