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In terms of consequential releases during the early 1990s, Enslaved’s second demo, named after the tree of life in Norse mythology no less, is towards the top of the list. Some say that the true spirit of a resistance is known during a movement’s darkest hour, and in a time that Metal music was starting to die from an onslaught of alternative rockers and pseudo-metallic posers, the vilest and most rebellious of art forms was born in Europe, and Norway was its focal point. But this particular release is unique in that it launches a double assault upon conventional wisdom of what Metal music was supposed to be, namely something that is raw and raging, yet highly apt and intelligent.
Through out this entire collage of fuzz drenched, frosty stream of tremolo melodies, power chords, fast paced drum beats, garbled wails and symphonic passages is a sense of unity that prevails over the lo-fidelity production. With maybe the exception of Emperor, who’s famed “Wrath Of The Tyrant” was the only thing to coincide with this and didn’t quite reach this level of technicality; there was no one that was truly reaching for this blend of extreme rawness and epic orchestral overtones. It is truly a reflection of how much freedom there can be within a new style of music when you are one of its pioneering members.
The complexity of the songwriting on here is also noteworthy, as it goes well beyond the epically progressive aspects of “A Blaze In The Northern Sky” and “Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism”, though it still shares some of the death/thrash metal root tendencies of both albums. The riffs are repetitive, but extremely busy and tight. Some comparisons could be made to mid-80s Slayer and late 80s Morbid Angel, but presented in the midst of a sea of atmospheric coldness that has a similar affect as taking a modern movie with special effects and putting it on black and white film. Factor in the heavily reverb soaked vocal track, which is almost as unintelligible as the early Mayhem demos, and you have an entirely different beast altogether.
Although the production quality of this demo is lower than the follow up “Hordanes Land”, this is a little bit more accessible to newcomers. The songs generally range from 6 to 7 minutes in length; the spacing of contrasting ideas is a little bit more symmetrical despite still being largely through-composed, and there is a greater presence of melodic lead guitar work to temper the rawness of most of these songs. “Allfadr Odinn” in particular comes off as just slightly more aesthetically appealing here than it does on “Hordanes Land”, due to a combination of greater emphasis on melody and keys in the mixing job, as well as a scaled back vocal presence.
This shorter song approach that the band had before 1993 does not translate into a less developed style by any standard. “Heimdallr” and the band’s title track “Enslaved” are equally as complex and loaded with just about as many ideas as their 10 minute plus epics on later albums, but at the same time they also stick in one’s memory more quickly, to the point of being catchy at times. Recurring orchestral themes bearing resemblance to early 20th century film score are found throughout, melding in perfectly with the jaded character of the raw Black Metal sound. A sound that bands such as Limbonic Art, Odium, and Mork Gryning picked up on a bit later.
The band’s quasi-progressive nature also has a member in congress on this album in the brief instrumental Ambient work “The Winter Kingdom Opus I: Resound of Gjallarhorn”. For a work with such a long title, the approach is pretty simple, bearing a bit of similarity to something Burzum was beginning to experiment with at this point. It is dominated by a fairly basic piano theme that occasionally intermingles with a synthesized vocal choir, presented in a reverberating fashion somewhat akin to what would be heard in a concert hall with almost no obstruction to all of the echoing sounds. The sheer thickness of the resulting sound is comparable to walking through a blizzard so thick with snow that the air itself seems to be made of it.
Naturally the historical significance of this is large enough to demand that any fan of the black metal style hear it, regardless of any personal biases either for or against merging the style with either droning ambient music or symphonic sounds. But the contents on here surpass any sense of obsoleteness or cliché, and should be treated as a masterpiece by a forefather band of an entire musical scene that is still very relevant today. It may not have the pristine modern production of the latest Dimmu Borgir album, but taken as a work by a band that was going basically on their own in then uncharted musical territory, words like essential or mandatory just don’t really do it justice.
Originally submitted to (www.metal-observer.com) on March 5, 2009.