Viking Tales: An Interview With Enslaved’s Ivar Bjørnson

For the better part of the ’90s, Enslaved’s debut album, Vikingligr Veldi, was considered (along with Frost, of course) a quintessential piece in any collection worth its weight in plastic and cardboard. Available only on CD (first without a barcode, then with) on Deathlike Silence Productions (then on Voices of Wonder), the pivotal non-black metal full-length transported listeners to fjords, snow-capped mountains, dense Nordic forests, and the worship of mythical gods. Like Blood Fire Death before it, Vikingligr Veldi was one of the few full-lengths to give non-Scandinavians a Nordic perspective via hyper-blasting, black metal-inspired songs. Now, some 22 years later, Enslaved have taken control of over the rights to Vikingligr Veldi and for the first time they’re reissuing the full-length on limited edition LP. Released on By Norse Music, a label owned by guitarist Ivar Bjørnson, Vikingligr Veldi sees its first-ever pressing on wax. The label has also assembled rare EPs, The Sleeping Gods and Thorn, into their first-ever retail pressings on CD and LP. To celebrate the release of Vikingligr Veldi and The Sleeping Gods – Thorn, we cornered Ivar Bjørnson for a little background on the releases and what the future will bring for By Norse Music.

Looking back on Vikingligr Veldi, what surprises you the most?
Ivar Bjørnson: [Laughs] Great question – no one asked that one before! What surprises me most, perhaps, is the actually rather complex dynamics we were working with there – a decade before the word “dynamics” even surfaced in our world. The songs are very horizontal and monotonous but still have subtle changes in dynamics within the songs and between the songs. There was a very clear vision back then that was not as formulated and familiarized as it would be today, but obviously it was very clear and quite mature back then already.

The band was quite young at the time. What were your primary interests outside of music? Most 15-year-olds aren’t at the forefront of a musical movement.
Ivar Bjørnson: You can say that again. My interests were basically music – I was playing in the school’s brass band a few years earlier, but by then school and band was all there was time for. I read some Tolkien and watched some sci-fi, but there was no time for anything else. I was not too bad a defensive player in soccer, and the coach was surprised when I tried out a few weeks and left to focus on music. What kind of young man on the countryside would not want to be good at soccer and pursue some wacky idea of being in his own band? Me, I guess.

Why didn’t Vikingligr Veldi get a vinyl release?
Ivar Bjørnson: There are good people in this world, and there are an awful lot of horrible people. Some of these acquired the rights to the Deathlike Silence Prod after Euronymous died right before the release. I can see how they did not prioritize the vinyl pressing at once, but at some point, it should have been given a vinyl release. Well, it never did, and every time we went looking for a way to release it on vinyl, the grave robbers came running with their lawyers. It took time to get to the point where we could take matters into our own hands.

And why did it take so long for it to happen? I guess, at that time, vinyl was on its way out. Voices of Wonder also didn’t have an appetite for vinyl.
Ivar Bjørnson: Yes, as I mentioned, I do have an understanding for the market’s fluctuating away from vinyl back then, but things certainly changed. The problem has always been that the acquisition was made with all the wrong motives; some kind of idea that it would sell itself on the back of the infamous Norwegian scene or something. Then as time progressed, this fantastic catalog was not given any attention or love; but it rather became a struggle to cling on to it like some cursed treasure. We, the righteous owners of our albums, had to wait for the right moment to take action – as I said they are fond of using their lawyers. Now we were, and still are, prepared to take them on should they want to do something about this release.

Yet, you already had the Hordanes Land EP out. What was it like to have a full-length out? Full-lengths are usually a milestone moment for almost any band.
Ivar Bjørnson: It was monumental already with Hordanes Land, but Vikingligr Veldi was another step up. Of course all the drama with Euronymous’ murder and whatever you want to call Voices of Wonder’s activities back then, did lay a dampener on the party, but it was still huge. Now we were a band releasing full-length albums! We were en route to world domination!

I’ve always found the intro to “Lifandi Lif Undir Hamri” disquieting. What do you remember about putting that together?
Ivar Bjørnson: I find it to be a bit of an excitement build-up!  [Laughs] I remember wanting some sort of energetic build up to the start of the up-tempo opener of the album. The way I make intros is pretty spontaneous – it is about trying to focus how I want the album/concert presented and then keep an open mind to whatever the mind brings forward. This time it was “something thunderous, boiling and mystical”. Well, noise and feedback from guitars with the right effects and EQ deliver thunderous and boiling sounds – mystery is solved with backwards sounds. Back then it was such a cool process. We would record the intro onto at tape reel of its own and simply run it backwards onto another reel. Physical backwardness is more metal!

If there’s a dark horse song on Vikingligr Veldi, which song would that be? I’m always torn between “Midgards Eldar” and “Norvegr”.
Ivar Bjørnson: I would perhaps say “Midgards Eldar”, there is such a vibe in all the parts. The intro with the horns, the fierce verses and choruses; lots of dynamics all over the place.

If there’s one thing about Vikingligr Veldi few people know about what is it?
Ivar Bjørnson: Maybe that the wind effects (like on “Midgards Eldar” we just mentioned) were produced by hand: Grieghallen (Grieg Memorial Hall) Studios was located in the basement (in the later years it moved to the third floor of the complex). There were massive ventilation systems in the building. What we did was blast ventilation in this big room next to the studio recording room. Then we would open the door slightly and record the resulting sounds; and it sounded massive and huge. Lots of fun!

The Sleeping Gods – Thorn release compiles the Scion A/V and Soulseller Records EPs. These were rare one-offs for Enslaved. Is that why you put them together?
Ivar Bjørnson: Their kinship by similar circumstances surrounding their releases is definitely a reason. Another was “popular demand” – people wanted the physical version of the long-ago sold out releases, and that smart-asses were starting to sell them way above normal prices on the net etc (I am not against selling collectables at wild prices. Given that The Sleeping Gods was a give-away, it seems a bit over-entrepreneurial to grab a bunch of copies and then start to sell those years later – at least for my personal taste).  Finally; they are great songs, somewhat outside the “typical Enslaved sound” (if there is such a thing), and now I had my own label (By Norse Music). In sum: they had to be released as a full-length together!

The Sleeping Gods EP has some interesting and diverse moments on it. It’s almost a microcosm of what Enslaved were like from Below the Lights forward.
Ivar Bjørnson: That is a very cool way of looking at it. And that is what it is: a fusion of the “outliers” from the “main road” we have been taking on the full length: more “rock”-ish expressions, electronica, folk and so on.

“Synthesis” is killer track. There are some very dark tones happening there. Was this a one-off experiment with noise and electronic music?
Ivar Bjørnson: Thanks! Love it myself. For Enslaved, I am sure there will more like this here and there. This is more in the direction of my electronica band BardSpec. Enslaved will probably never be “normal”; at least not for many minutes at the time.

And is “Alu Misyrki” your tribute to Lemmy? That main lick is so Motörhead.
Ivar Bjørnson: Actually, the main idea was to pay tribute to first-era Bathory (exemplified by the song “War”) but if it can serve as a tribute to Lemmy also, nothing would please me more. Motörhead is also very high up on the list along with Bathory over bands that have exercised extreme influence on us. And we’re not afraid to show it.

Now that Vikingligr Veldi is out on vinyl through By Norse can we expect other Enslaved full-lengths to follow? What’s next?
Ivar Bjørnson: Yes, you can! I won’t screw my partners who is working on the press releases by revealing the release schedule before we’re supposed to do it, so I will limit myself to say that yes, more stuff will happen. Both with Enslaved and other exciting projects!

** Enslaved’s Vikingligr Veldi is available on LP (on limited edition vinyl) HERE. And Enslaved’s The Sleeping Gods – Thorn CD and LP are available HERE.