Rank & Defile: Ivar Bjørnson Orders Enslaved’s Albums from Worst to Best

Few bands in metal have enjoyed a career like Enslaved‘s. Active for nearly three decades, the Norwegian black/viking metal masters have consistently employed a progressive, forward-thinking approach to their music while retaining their extreme roots. Fourteen albums and counting into their career, the Norwegian legends will embark on a co-headlining run of North America as the Decibel Magazine Tour 2018 kicks off tonight in Philadelphia.

To commemorate that, founding member and creative force Ivar Bjørnson ranked Enslaved’s catalog from worst to best. The Decibel Tour runs from February 15 to March 10; find all dates and tickets here. Read on to see where your favorite album ranked.

14. Blodhemn
This is still a great album, but for me the album furthest removed from what I perceive to be the spirit of Enslaved. I still think it is very possible to be into this along with the rest of the catalog, but for me it has some associations that make it a bit “odd.” We had a bit of a weird situation in the band with a line-up that I think liked Enslaved at some level, but where both new members wanting to pull Enslaved in directions according to their own wishes – and me and Grutle were simply not focused enough to keep it “together.” A weird time socially and musically.

13. Monumension
This is also a case of an album where the identity of the band is a bit blurred compared to the more solid and steady albums pre- and proceeding them. On Monumension, things were starting to stabilize socially, with the side-effect that the line-up at the time was dissolving, both as a group of friends and as a group of musicians. At times, this album is a golden arrow pointing towards the avant-gardish future of the band, and at other times it sounds like an experiment gone wrong. There’s moments when it almost feels like an attempt at twisting Enslaved into something it cannot be. I love the last song, “Sigmundskvadet,” as it opened an exciting new/old path for us. And “Convoys to Nothingness” is, along with “The Voices,” still part of our live repertoire.

12. Mardraum
My favorite of the the three [albums with the] “mid-era” lineup – there was still the “weirdness” in the band, but we had a moment of focus there, and I honestly think the opening track, “Større Enn Tid – Tyngre Enn Natt,” is one of our best tunes and one of my best lyrics. I also think Peter Tagtgrän did a fine job with the production – even though it is a bit extreme. There’s some cool tunes going on here, I wish we had prepared just a little more, there’s a tad too much sloppiness here and there.

11. Riitiir
It is ridiculous to be sitting here and putting albums this far down on the list, but also impossible to not take on the challenge. Riitiir is a great album like all the others, to me at least, so I hope for understanding that I am having to look at circumstances when “judging” them. And this album symbolizes the cracks in the iron fabric in the third-era line-up, which includes Herbrand Larsen [guitar/keys/clean vocals]. He started to have very noticeable doubts about the band and what we were doing – and I think he had problems admitting it to himself up til he had to make a decision to leave. It made for a frustrating situation for us all – we were all super motivated while it felt like Larsen tried to hold back the tide, so to speak. I think some songs on that album had a greater potential than how they came out because of this conflict between eagerness and reluctance.

 10. Ruun
Ah, top ten! Ruun is an awesome album, I think. It was an inspiring process recording it –  but I think I took the attempts at saving money a bit too far [laughs]. It wore me out physically and mentally, so it made it hard to focus and see the full picture, I guess. And I didn’t involve the others enough in the planning, I think. The songs are great and the recordings well done, but there could have been a little “extra” extracted I sometimes feel. Also, it works beautifully as Isa’s somewhat warmer and darker twin album. I slept on so many couches I forgot what a bed was. I might have gone overboard in my quest for realness there.

9. Vertebrae
This album is one of victory, of defeating problems and going deep into the concepts. The recording process was a bumpy ride; let’s just say me and Cato were not entirely in sync when it came to the concept of preparations; so we had to really work in the studio – which gave the album a weird but cool vibe. Engineer Mike Hartung really did an enormous job with the album, his patience is the stuff of legends. Then there’s the mix by the master himself, Joe Baressi – who more or less taught us to sound like we did on every album after this one. He came across the Atlantic to mix in a studio that was falling apart, but did a great job and made this a very unique experience. A good time for the band also! The 10-hour each way drive with backline to save rent was maybe a bit over the top, but makes for a good story.

8. Isa
The beautiful “comeback” album, which peaked much like Frost did exactly ten years before. After the ending of the difficult mid-era, this pummeled us into a new era, and the world around us seemed to share our excitement with this dawning. The new line-up was enthusiastic and it was great to see the band reborn in such strength. Contains classics and some unforgettable guest appearances by friends from Immortal, Red Harvest, A Boy Named Sue and more. We had a blast mixing the album with our friend Lars Klokkerhaugen, who passed away shortly after – the album is a good commemoration of his skills.

7. In Times
This was the swansong of third-era Enslaved, and with Herbrand Larsen. His drifting away from Enslaved was now at the point where Grutle took over most arranging of vocals himself, instead of the collaboration they had developed earlier. And it is this hard-headedness that is the backbone of this album – another return to just doing it and moving forward even though there are problems in “real life.” The concept is strong, and really was an interesting journey. The long songs felt like a return to earlier days, and the harshness and moments of almost black metal-esque rage underline that. Some people felt it took time (!) to get into it, and I agree – but once you get into it, you’re locked in!

6. Eld
Ah, a classic of an album that was years ahead of the world. When it came out, metal media would criticize it for being too “weird,” and some of them would actually go back and judge it to be a classic some years later [laughs]. Some fans were pissed because of the obvious non-Frost Part 2 vibe of the album, but for us it became defining. We lost the way a little in the infamous mid-era that followed but from Below the Lights on, I would say the Eld-legacy was honored and developed. It was a heavy period in terms of partying and mind-expansion (and some mind-shrinkage too, I am sure), so the details surrounding it all are a bit blurry. Pytten kept it together, and I think it is a very important album outside of just our own history. Opener “793″ is a classic, I dare say.

5. Vikingligr Veldi
This is an album that I admit to not fully grasping until last year, when we did the full rendition of the album at last year’s Beyond the Gates festival. I have always liked it, and it has fond memories, but re-studying the songs and rehearsing them with a line-up (our co-producer and “6th Beatle” Iver Sandøy did drums for that gig) — that got the songs in the krautrock-like monotony and atmospheric horizontal-ness. The live performance was a real awakening of how bright the inspiration shone when this was written; just as Enslaved was about to step onto the “world scene” in 1993 (it was recorded almost a whole year before being released due to all those unfortunate circumstances). The recording of the album was a lot of fun, with friends in the studio and beers at night!

4. Frost
This is the album that laid the foundation for everything we have been able to do since. It took us on our first tour, and it established us. We rehearsed like crazy, and planned every single minute in the studio to utilize every penny in the budget Osmose Productions gave us. So many great memories and an intense focus throughout the recording. Still to this day many judge us by the standards of this album, and I welcome it. We were quite determined to make our own sound with the album, and I think the strong connection between the title and the quality of the sound is something that explains some of the album’s lasting success. A bass combo amp with a simple distortion pedal doubled the guitar and gave this dense, icy sound. Good idea for a seventeen-year old kid! And then there’s the mask.. I seriously tried to do an “Executioner from Sodom album covers” thing, and had no idea about S&M. Well, I am glad it had made people laugh, thus making the album important in a public health aspect also.

3. Axioma Ethica Odini
This is perhaps the most energetic album in the collection thus far. After the tribulations of Vertebrae and the mentoring of Joe Baressi, we were full of will and power to make a new groundbreaking album. We talked with our friends in Opeth finding a producer, and they set us in touch with Jens Bogren and Fascination Street. We took over recording duties ourselves in our own studios back home in Bergen; we experimented and researched during day and night. I remember being in Arve’s [Isdal, lead guitar] studio at night with my brother-in-law with him moving two mics inches at a time; up, down, left, right – we had no technical insight but we kept micro-moving stuff until it sounded right. Then we took it to Jens [Bogren, mixing] in Sweden and it came out exactly like what we hoped for. A total highlight for third-era Enslaved with everyone carrying the weight and sharing ambitions and enthusiasm. And another step on the ladder for Enslaved on the world scene!

2. Below the Lights
With this album, I would claim I found my second layer of voice as a composer. A new way of transporting ideas and emotional abstractions from the deeper self and into the world via instrumentation appeared out of nowhere. The popular proverb “it is always darkest just before dawn” had no meaning before this album, but after, it is one of the closest things to actual truth I know of. The problematic mid-era lineup had dissolved but Dirge Rep stayed to finish this album; his finest work to date – something we still are very grateful for. The lyrics also took a turn for something more personal, psychological and went deeper into mythology and the esoteric heritage of the North. During this recording, we got to know Herbrand, who worked as an apprentice in the studio, and we managed to talk Ice Dale into doing leads for us – an arrangement he has not been able to escape to this date! It was all very intense and murky, but I remember fighting like a trapped animal to make this album match my inner visions, and Grutle fighting like hell next to me; experiencing that, we were able to pull it off.

[Ed. note: Below the Lights was inducted into the Decibel Hall of Fame in our April 2018 issue. Purchase it here to read the making of, featuring interviews with all members who played on Below the Lights.]

1. E
…with this, a third layer of the composer’s voice appeared. When the demos started coming in the spring of 2016, it was obvious for Herbrand Larsen that things were not going to gravitate toward the more accessible, and made it impossible for him to continue. This time we spent zero seconds doubting or despairing and just kept working in the belief that the right person would materialize. And so did Håkon Vinje appear – on the same day as Herbrand did his last gig with us. The songs are stronger, the performances better and Enslaved entered its fourth era – in which all the strengths of the previous three quarters are synthesized into the ultimate essence of Enslaved. It is actually so strong that I won’t even pretend to coy about putting our latest release on top of the list.

Need more Enslaved? The Decibel Tour issue [March 2018] is available and shipping now.