A mere two months away from marking their 20th year as a band, Norwegian black metallers Enslaved are touring the US in support of their 11th and most progressively-minded release yet, Axioma Ethica Odini. The album is a brilliant amalgamation of styles and approaches, from straightforward blasts to atmospheric excursions no less heavy for their melodic achievements. As guitarist Ivar Bjørnson explains in the interview below, Axioma Ethica Odini’s structure is almost as important as the songs themselves, making it a complete listening experience like nothing since… well, since the last Enslaved record, Vertebrae, which came out in 2008.
That’s not to imply that the two albums are the same at all. If anything, Axioma Ethica Odini surpasses its predecessor in nearly every way, most especially in the area of production. Bjørnson, fellow guitarist Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal, bassist/vocalist Grutle Kjellson, keyboardist/vocalist Herbrand Larsen and drummer Cato Bekkevold recorded the album spread across several home and self-owned studios in the earliest parts of this year and mixed with veteran Swedish producer Jens Bogren (Amon Amarth, Paradise Lost, Opeth, etc.), resulting in a rich and practically flawless sound that at once captures the depth of intricacy and extremity in the component tracks. As a band with several genre landmarks in their catalog already—all the way back to 1994’s debut Vikingligr Veldi full-length—Enslaved may even now be experiencing their most adventurous moment yet.
Was there a reason you wanted to record this album in your hometown, your own studios, on your own like that?
Yeah. The main idea was, boiled down to a very simple thing, we wanted to create more of the sound and energy from the live setting. Put more of it into the album. It’s pretty similar. It’s been pretty similar, but we wanted it to be really two sides of the same thing, and to be able to explain that is very hard. We’ve been wanting to do more of the recording ourselves, but we had to acknowledge that our technical abilities weren’t up to the task of recording an album on that level. Now, I’ve had my own studio for a few years, and Ice Dale and Herbrand run a professional studio when they’re not playing in Enslaved and have recorded a bunch of albums in the last few years. Now we’ve arrived at the point where we felt we’re good enough to do it ourselves to see if that would take us closer. It was an experiment and it really turned out well. It’s the easiest recording we’ve had, in that we didn’t have to keep an eye on the watch all the time. No engineers getting calls from their wives, having to go home early. On the other hand, it was also the hardest, because there’s nobody to turn to and say, “There’s a weird noise on one of the channels, what’s going on?” You had to fix all of that yourself. Definitely a learning process.
The mix was something I wanted to ask you about, because it sounds so much different than Vertebrae. It has a much fuller sound, and you can hear less compression in the guitars. Is that something you wanted on purpose?
I think at the point where we came to the mix, things were already a little bit more energetic because there’s really a lot more thunder and fire in the guitars than on Vertebrae. It’s different material, so it’s going to sound differently, and then Joe Barresi and Jens Bogren are two very different people. Jens has basically been doing death metal, black metal, extreme metal, for his entire career, where Joe comes from the classic rock, from the time before he’s been famous, he was recording in the ‘70s and has a really organic feel to what he’s doing. I think it’s a little bit more metal-ish, the whole philosophy of Jens’ mixing. He’s really pushing the envelope. He’s really adding some extra strength to it, where I think Joe is thinking about a lot about recreating the instruments and how the band sounds, while Jens is a little more liberal, perhaps, in achieving the balance. The difference would have been much smaller if they had been handed the same kind of recording. I have to say that. One of the things Joe did was try and get more out of the guitars. They were actually a little bit weak—weakly recorded—in that way. Sometimes I think some people joined in a calling down of his mix, but actually what I think he did was try to add a little bit of beef to it. You can’t blame anyone. Actually, we could blame somebody, but we decided to just do something different this time and record it ourselves.
Are you conscious in balancing the influences of the band, between the more extreme and progressive sides? Does that come up when you’re putting the songs together?
Not really on a conscious level. It happens, but what I do try to do is these little reality checks from time to time to make sure the stuff being written… We keep repeating that Enslaved is without laws and boundaries and all that until we’re blue in the face, we still do have some things that make it right for Enslaved. To go all acoustic and flute-y, Jethro Tull-ish, running around the forest for an entire album, would be doing an injustice to the name Enslaved. I’m open to doing all kinds of music that I would like to do in other projects and like that. So yes and no. We try to keep things as natural as possible, but there is always checks and balances in the backs of our minds, making sure we don’t lose focus and go nuts. Conservative liberals, in a musical sense.
It seems like recording yourselves would be the culmination, but what have you been able to learn from the previous 10 albums that you were able to take and record this one?
The simple things. I couldn’t sit down and write a book of recording techniques. I would say it would be a fairly large booklet by now (laughs). It has to be good from the moment the band starts tracking it. I don’t get why people still think things are going to be corrected in the mix or even themselves out in the mastering and all that stuff. From the second you enter the door, everything—every cymbal, every guitar, everything—has to be really good on its own. That’s just moving problems. It’s easy to think, “Well, it’s almost good, I guess we can tweak the frequencies and if that doesn’t work, we’ll move the guitars forward in the mastering by pumping the mid-ends,” and all that stuff. That’s really just creating bigger problems for yourself. That was a really big focus this time. That’s a little bit of what happened on Vertebrae. The guitars didn’t get spiky enough for our tastes, and it was one of those things where we weren’t entirely happy with the way it was mic’d and everything, and we got this thing that it would be very easy to tweak in the mix. And when a guy like Joe Barresi says that there’s not enough to pull out of it, then you definitely have proved it. It’s very human to try and move ahead, but the unsexy part of recording is lying on the floor and moving microphones one inch at a time, one millimeter. You want to get in the control room, crank up the amps and start recording cool riffs and that stuff. But that’s an important thing. And then, I think the focus changed so much over the last 10 years. The producer fitting still has a lot to do with it.
Both Axioma Ethici Odini and Vertebrae were recorded in the wintertime. Is there something specific you like about recording during the winter, or is that just the way it worked out timing-wise?
It’s actually a really good observation, as we’re stuck in this pattern. The music is normally being made in the summer, and I start handing around the demos of the songs in September, because in June and July—between the festival gigs—that’s when I tend to take my portable studio and just go somewhere, a cabin or wherever, and stay in the woods and write stuff. That’s why we rehearse and arrange things and record after the New Year. I think Ruun was the exact same way. I remember almost crashing driving the drum kit over the mountain, on the eighth of January or something like that. Maybe it’s about time to record something… though it’s pretty fitting for a Norwegian metal band to be recording in the winter, I guess.
Is there anything you’re looking forward to for the US tour?
We try to always do as much as we can on these tours and if there’s anything special in the town we’re at, see it, or maybe someone made some scientific discovery there, found some new apple or whatever. To put it mildly, I’m a beer enthusiast, so if there’s a brewery in the town we’re coming to, I’ll get in a taxi and go there, do the tours and of course buy a lot of souvenirs from the brewery and sample beers. Last time we were in Chico, I went to the Sierra Nevada brewery, me and the merch guy were actually the only people on the tour. We had three employees showing us the entire brewery. Everybody there were big dudes, like myself, beer bellies and long beards. It was a really good atmosphere. We ended the whole thing by sampling all 16 kinds of beer. It was a lot of coffee drinking before that night’s show, but it went fine (laughs).
Axioma Ethica Odini is available now via Nuclear Blast America. Enslaved hit Terminal 5 in NYC with Dimmu Borgir on Nov. 8. More info at myspace.com/enslaved.
JJ Koczan one time witnessed the march of the giants, but it’s probably better if he doesn’t talk about it. firstname.lastname@example.org.