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It’s now two decades after their birth in Norway and ENSLAVED’s latest album, RIITIIR, will once again surprise even those who are familiar with their non-linear development. The band’s sound – complete with castanets (!) this time around - is more than ever their own; the underlying thoughts and influencing events more deeply engaged. RIITIIR embodies a lot more of what has come to be known as ENSLAVED: indefinable and grandiose, honest and unearthly, dark, harsh, and beautiful.
Formed in Haugesund, Norway in 1991 by Bjørnson (then 13 years old) and Kjellson (then 17) and named after black metal band Immortal’s demo track “Enslaved In Rot,” ENSLAVED recorded their first demo Yggdrasill in the summer of 1992. One year later, they released the legendary split-EP Hordanes Land with their fellow countrymen in Emperor (later released as its own mini-album). Completing their first full-length album, Vikingligr Veldi, for Norway’s Deathlike Silence Productions (Euronymous of Mayhem’s label) in 1994, their debut was successfully followed-up that same year with the highly-acclaimed Frost album on France’s Osmose Productions. Three years later, Eld marked a horizon-widening era for the band. The fury and blacker edges on 1998’s Blodhemn (translated: Blood Vengeance) surprised some fans. The 11-track Mardraum: Beyond The Within, released in 2000, was an aural nightmare of an album that sent shock waves through the extreme metal scene with its experimental, innovative approach. The ever-prolific ENSLAVED followed-up with Monumension in 2001 (marking the launch of a long-time collaboration with artist/painter Truls Espedal) and was shocked to receive such a widespread positive response to their “no rules” approach to extreme metal. Two years later, the band released Below The Lights, a perfect blend of power, tradition, progressive elements, and dark psychedelia which became the most important milestone in what was to become their progressive yet darker signature sound.
A line-up change in 2003 introduced scene veteran Cato Bekkevold (Red Harvest, Ashes To Ashes), Arve Isdal aka Ice Dale (Trinacria, I), and Herbrand Larsen (Audrey Horne) into the fold, and ENSLAVED began to climb to new heights with their live performances, adding strong visual elements by way of dynamic video art. This acclaimed new line-up released the extremely lauded album Isa in late 2004. The album catapulted ENSLAVED to the very forefront of contemporary extreme metal - both as studio and live artists. Not surprisingly, the band was honored (in absentia since they were on tour) with both the Spellemann Award (the Norwegian Grammy) for best achievement in the “Metal” category and the independent Alarm Prize for Isa. Never ones to fall short of new material, ENSLAVED released yet another highly-lauded collection of songs: 2006’s Ruun. Their review on Blabbermouth.net advocated that “[t]he metal world needs more bands this willing to throw out the rule book and go wherever their mad Muse takes them.” With their reputation of expanding the peripheries of their genre firmly in place, Ruun was awarded the Norwegian Grammy for Best Metal Album of 2006. The band celebrated in early 2007 with a world tour that began in the U.S. and Canada and took them throughout Europe to enormous accolades from their faithful and fervent fan base – which would have to wait another year before being graced with new material.
Recorded in the first quarter of 2008, Vertebrae was the band’s third studio album with the exact same line-up and was produced by band members Ivar Bjørnson, Herbrand Larsen, and Grutle Kjellson. Vertebrae’s elegant music was such a perfect blend of beauty and darkness that it went on to win the 2008 Norwegian Grammy for “Best Metal Album.” The praise for 2010’s Axioma Ethica Odini was no less fervent. Besides winning their 4th Norwegian Grammy for “Best Metal Album” in a row, the album also won Terrorizer Magazine’s Reader’s Poll for “Best Album of 2010,” ranked #5 in Decibel Magazine’s “Top 40 Extreme Albums of 2010” list, and repeatedly ranked in the Top 10 on “Best Albums of 2010” lists around the world. In Germany, Metal Hammer Magazine awarded ENSLAVED the “Album of the Year” title and the Dutch magazine Aardschok ranked Axioma Ethica Odini at #9. The album also debuted at #16 on the American Billboard Heatseekers (New Artists) chart. Following the completion of their North American tours with fellow countrymen DIMMU BORGIR and their “20 Years of No Compromises” anniversary tour with Ghost & Alcest, ENSLAVED were the first metal group to receive the Norwegian Artist & Songwriters Association Honorary Award for their contribution to the Norwegian music industry, presented to them by Norway’s Minister of Culture.
For 2012’s RIITIIR, many elements of the recording process are similar to that of the previous few albums. Again, the team of producers came from within the band itself: Ivar Bjørnson, Grutle Kjellson, Herbrand Larsen – this time completed by Iver Sandøy (who co-produced 2010’s Axioma Ethica Odini, the 7” Thorn EP, and the 12” The Sleeping Gods EP). The core recordings all took place in Bergen, Norway: Ivar Bjørnson’s guitar, Grutle Kjellson’s bass, and Cato Bekkevold’s drums were recorded live in Duper Studios while Herbrand Larsen & Ice Dale recorded their vocals, keys, and guitars in Earshot Studios. Furthermore, Grutle and Ivar’s vocals, guitars, keys, bass pedals, effects, and percussion were recorded in Solslottet Studios and Peersonal Sound. At times, recordings were being done at all three locations simultaneously. The producers travelled to Fascination Street Studios in Örebro, Sweden, where Jens Bogren mixed and Tony Lindgren mastered the album. “This time it was all about expanding a winning team rather than changing it,” states guitarist / songwriter / founding member Ivar Bjørnson on RIITIIR’s creation process. “I have to personally admit that expanding the producer team to include a member from outside the band has had its massive challenges for me, but the result is without a doubt better than I had ever dreamed of. Once again, we have learned something about finding the ideal recording process for ENSLAVED, and for that I am eternally grateful to all the involved parties.”
The work of Norwegian artist, long-time friend & collaborator Truls Espedal once again graces this new ENSLAVED album – his 7th for the band: “ENSLAVED’s music is constantly evolving and expanding,” he shares, “and we early on decided that the artwork should reflect this. From my first collaboration with the band on [2001’s] Monumension and forward, we have slowly merged different aspects into the work to further expand and change things up a bit without losing the connection to earlier work. It still has a strong sense of symbolism, symmetrical compositions and references to Norse art. But there is an even bigger emphasis on realism on RIITIIR, which hopefully adds atmosphere to the finished work.”
About the finished work, Bjørnson admits that it’s difficult to describe, although the song lengths on the album were never premeditated: “It sounds like ENSLAVED, whatever that means. There are so many layers and different focal points. It has a deeper complexity than our previous efforts, but I do find it more catchy and moving. Then again, I am the opposite of objective in this, so again I’ll leave it up to the people outside the band to make up their mind. I’ve poured my work, dedication and inspiration into this (at one point, guitars were being written and recorded in my home studio, while I was waiting for the phone call from the hospital that would admit my wife and I to the Labor Ward to receive our firstborn), and I have a feeling that it has more of everything: the beautiful is more beautiful while the harsher is harsher. That it ended up being the longest album we’ve made so far was something we discovered by accident when we made the first rough mixes after the recordings. We forgot to think about length during the making and rehearsing of the album before recording it! We sat down and thought about it: did it mean we hadn’t been critical enough with regards to the time? Upon listening through the recordings with the proverbial scissors in mind, we couldn’t find anything we absolutely didn’t want to keep. I’ll take that as a good sign.”
ENSLAVED are known for having driving concepts in their albums, but what drives RIITIIR? Bjørnson elaborates: “The title is a self-made ‘Norse-ified’ version of the words ‘Rites’ / ‘Rituals.’ RIITIIR = ‘The Rites of Man,’ to put it in a formulaic and easy way. We’ve built structures that lay above the independent lyrics that we feel more comfortable with letting the reader explore, interpret, or simply discard themselves. Their meanings are entirely up to them.”
Whether you’re drawn into the genesis myth of the album’s opening track “Thoughts Like Hammers” or experience the stratosphere with “Veilburner,” enter some sacred grove via ‘Roots Of The Mountain” or long to leave your body after “Death In The Eyes Of Dawn,” ENSLAVED continue to explore their perception of place in the natural world and challenge the limits of their own self-knowledge, thus ever-expanding the landscape of their musical ecology. Like all albums before them, RIITIIR reflects the intimacy with where the band has been which leads us all, their listeners, to the place within ourselves that preserves the luminous fibers that connect us to the wisdom in the open air that, in turn, brings meaning to our mysteries, our memories, our landscapes, and our lives… if only we let it.