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Victorious Vikings - 96%

Homo Sapiens Metallis, May 2nd, 2016

Black metal being outwardly obsessed with old ages and ruined castles in a type of almost contrived grandeur is definitely hospitable to any influence celebrating and chronicling one’s heritage and history. From the early days of Ulver, Storm and an army of other bands, scales, instruments, vocals and other aspects central to folk music were increasingly introduced into black metal’s ferocity and filthiness. This has led to a number of albums boasting quite bombastic, bewitching and formidable feel, but all of which always seemed to lean more towards the more brutal and bilious dimension, rather than completely monopolize on the haunting and heroic image it produces, with emphasis firmly resting on aggressive riffwork and accompanying drumming. It is always dilemma-inducing why not to amp up the folkish feel, and dial down the destructiveness to have the product sit more towards the less extreme end of the said spectrum. This could be the first album with such concerns actually addressed, where black metal used occasionally and intelligently in between larger and somber segues of folk music. And the effect is immaculate.

After the fitting folkish intro, the first actual track “Skuggsjá” displays the piercing potential of a such cathartic combination of sounds, with subdued and swelling chimes providing a foundation for the horns and percussion to fully build up the atmosphere and anticipation, with cleans and chorals making for a otherwordly outburst of emotion and drama. The entire duration of this song has you awaiting a more scathing sequence of chords and blasts, in traditional Enslaved psychedelic and multifaceted manner, but this never materializes, and the change is welcome. The lead vocals, which fall somewhere between the manly clean and a somewhat croaky shout are an irreplaceable recipe for this type of sound. The following track “Makta og vanæra, for all tid” is a monster of its own, clocking at over 10 minutes, and opening with ringing psychedelia and busy drums, all offset by the chilling chorals. The aggression returns mid-song with shrieks making one of their sparse appearances, again only to consolidate the cleaner segments, and not to enforce any unnecessary aggression. “Rop Fra Røynda - Mælt Fra Minne” also commences in a rather quiet and folksy manner, and manages to preserve this serene and monolithic momentum throughout, without sacrificing it for any adventurous and aggressive diversions. “Skuggeslåtten” also showcases considerable catchiness and simplicity, with a plain riff interspersed with some strings to once more afford the contrast between the clean and crude side of the sound. The tempo changes mid-song, but the song then proceeds in a likewise direction for a period, before reaching an actual climax, with horns and drums being coupled for a maximum display of bombast and transcendence. Another remarkable song would be the longest one “Bøn Om Ending, Bøn Om Byrjing”, opening with some bright guitar noodling and blaring horns, before drums descend into all of their restless rolls and gallops. To once more comment on the topic, the clean vocals again reinforce just how epic and prim the atmosphere is.

With Skuggsjá any dilemma is immediately closed: the balance and blend between the genres is fully achieved, without any possible vying for further restructuring and edification is eliminated. The all-out psychedelia and profundity of the album demands multiple spins to allow one to appreciate not just the unique nature of the elements themselves, but their harmonious and heavily dependent character, whereby removal of any single one would hamper the delicate and detailed identity of each song. Such balance is seldom seen in music of this type, with Enslaved obviously being a close competitor and instigator. However, with the focus moved more on the traditional themes, the psychedelic and progressive songwriting here is still shifted to more primal and simpler structures, it is just their inclusion into the occasional heavier and coarser component of the sound that awards it a progressive touch and taste. Technically and musically, the album is a perfect pastime, and it can be equally enjoyed as background music to a stroll in nature, or listened with care and close attention to absorb and assess its lavish and layered approach. 96 /100

A Piece for Mind & Mirror - 80%

PassiveMetalhead, March 23rd, 2016
Written based on this version: 2016, CD, Season of Mist (Digipak)

Skuggsjá is the brainchild of Ivar Bjørnson and Einar Selvik which is performed by each member’s bands: Enslaved and Wardruna. Originally “Skuggsjá” was to be a live presentation that would be performed in celebration of the 200th Norwegian Constitution where both members originate from. However after the success of headlining two European festivals and a hunger to reach a broader audience, Selvik and Bjørnson decided to record the piece in its entirety for a studio release.

In Old Norse, “Skuggsjá” translates as ‘mirror’ and not only does this term forge the conceptual depth of Norse tradition of the album but also reflects the musical content whereby ancestral elements and modern technology bond with enamouring results. “Skuggsjá” also represents the history of Norway from the beginning to present day which is sung featuring Scandinavian, Norse and Norwegian lyrics to narrate this historic adventure.

The impression of mirroring is resonant throughout “Skuggsjá”. The opener, ‘Ull Kjem’, is a short introduction that displays various moments of fragility and sadness through some pensive guitar melodies and innocent vocals from Lindy-Fey Hella. In turn, the album closer ‘Ull Gjekk’ mirrors this atmosphere by using similar inclusions; Hella returns and Ivar’s guitars remain rooted in tranquillity however the song makes an abrupt stop-as if the timeline of the album has reached to the present day. There are more moments of contrasting elements that establish the mirrored effect of past and present eras. ‘Makta Og Vanæra (I All Tid)’ has a conflicting behaviour as it is the first track on the album to establish the metallic template of Enslaved where Ivar also snarls viciously over the top of these violently executed rhythms but in contrast, Selvik provokes a storm of passionate chanting. Its textures like these where you realise this collaboration isn’t just a formulaic Wardruna + Enslaved= Skuggsjá; instead this is two minds connecting under one, new, visionary idea.

When you dedicate a record to your homeland’s ancestral past through the medium of traditional musical instrumentation and native language of that era then there are going to be moments of compelling visualisation aplenty. Whether it’s the slower pulsating dynamics of ‘Tore Hund’ or the unexpectedly quirky ‘Skuggeslåtten’-with both dancing fiddles and celestial climaxes, each extra piece breathes life into these songs that makes them all the more touching; none more so than the title track. Some songs even paint specific pictures: the lonesome violins and group chants in ‘Kvervandi’ conjure a sense of humble acceptance from an unavoidable fate: like welcoming Death with open arms.

There are no flaws in talent or production to “Skuggsjá”. In fact the only noteworthy ‘negatives’ are that this kind of art is such an acquired taste. This record demands total immersion and rewards you with a sensational listening experience. But, again, this experience seems primarily based around a live performance “Skuggsjá” is a transcending album but can only fulfil complete enlightenment to those that give it the respect that it requests to portray the depth of artistry it contains, otherwise it’s significance is lost.