Some years ago Metal Hammer published a list of top extreme metal albums. On that list was a copy of Napalm Death’s seminal ‘scum’ album prefaced with the words “ever wonder what searing, uncontrollable hatred sounds like?” or something to that effect. I always liked that description and it encouraged me to head out at that time and discover napalm death for myself but it seems so much more fitting here, listening to the rampaging ‘heimdallr’, the opening tracks from Enslaved’s ‘Yggdrasill’, a vicious, untamed beast dating back to 1992 and the band’s formative period under the watchful, scaly eye of one Euronymous – a man who heard the potential deep within these icy blasts and helped the band to reach a wider audience.
‘Yggdrasill’, recorded over a brief two-day stint at Micro Music, represented the band’s second demo and although the music is raw and seething with youthful passion, what is all the more remarkable is that all the band’s intelligence when it comes to crafting complex compositions is very much in evidence, albeit buried beneath a wall of tinny, frosty fuzz and distortion. This re-release, then, is of vast importance to the black metal fan tracing the lineage of Enslaved, or, indeed, of black metal itself and a lot of work has gone into the package to make sure it is definitive. Featuring the original five tracks of the demo, plus a bonus track in the form of ‘enslaved’, the package also comprises a typically informative inlay with liner notes from both Grutle Kjellson and Ivar Bjornson providing a historical perspective upon the music, archive photos from the period and full lyrics – for the Enslaved fan it is a veritable box of treasures and it’s even available on vinyl!
The music is nothing short of remarkable. A blurry smear of corpse paint and black metal fury, the guitars still whip and sting the listener today at a remove of some twenty years, while the drums have more power than you might expect from a low-budget demo. Best of all are the terrifying vocals which sound as if they have been torn from the maw of hell itself – so much so that the initial white out of ‘heimdallr’ is all but overwhelming if you approach this album unprepared; it is no surprise at all that Euronymous promptly gave them a deal – the promise is seared into the very fabric of each song. What makes these songs special? It’s hard to say exactly – it’s a feeling rather than something one can define. There is an atmosphere to this music – a barely contained fury that threatens to spill out of the recording and into your own life. The urgency of the pounding, orchestral keyboards, the thin reedy bass, the scorched earth vocals and the furious, snarling guitars – it’s a sense of deep foreboding, of a darkness rising that captures the mind, spirit and imagination immediately. The songs here are lengthy – only one drops below the six minute mark (‘resound of Gjallarhorn’) – and yet, even before signing the band were developing massive, complex progressive structures upon which to frame their horrifically vicious take on black metal and the end result is a series of tunes that work initially thanks to their primal, deviant thrust and then continue to require your attention thanks to the multitude of hidden depths which only reveal themselves after familiarity has dawned. ‘Allfodr Odinn’ for all its bombastic fury is actually very traditional metal with a decent opening solo and riff waiting a full minute before descending into high-speed terror tactics. And yet even as you settle into the idea that you’re in for warp speed brutality along comes a shift in tempo and attitude destined to knock you sideways if you’re not prepared for the sudden mood change that is thrust upon you. Regal, disdainful, it’s music that conjures up all manner of emotions and it sounds remarkable.
What makes Enslaved’s early demos so impressive is their ability to encompass you in a wall of sound that is simultaneously hypnotic and threatening. Like being caught in a snow storm and staring at the flakes transfixed by the beauty there is, nonetheless, the underlying tension that if you don’t move on you will freeze despite the apparent splendour of the scene. There is great beauty in Enslaved’s music. Huge swathes of melody are shot through the band’s blackest of hearts and the keyboards perfectly augment, without over-sweetening, the black metal fury that the rest of the band are whipping up around them. On ‘Hal Valr’ – a slow-burning track of epic proportions – the bans don’t even appear for some time, allowing the organs to lull the listener into a false sense of security before unleashing a torrent of extremity upon the unfortunate listener’s head. At nearly nine minutes it is the longest track here and yet it passes in the merest blink of an eye before we enter the deranged ‘Niunda heim’ which is one of the most stunningly furious tracks ever laid down by a metal band. Unrelenting and fervid, it is only when we reach the funereal ‘resound of Gjallarhorn’ that we are allowed to take stock of our predicament. A short, neo-classical interlude it originally served to end the demo and now provides the gateway to ‘Enslaved’ a fitting, and suitably brutal l close to the album that is laden with oppressive atmosphere and raw-throated howls of torment.
With ‘Yggdrasill’ Peaceville have once again allowed black metal fans to revel in the dark origins of a band that have gone on to quite remarkable heights. Best of all, these demos show a band already very much in control of their own sound and destiny – there is no compromise or sense of uncertainty here, just an icy confidence backed up by the passion and fury of a young band desperately wanting to place their stamp upon the world and succeeding on every level. If Enslaved had only ever released this, it would have been an unmitigated triumph, but that this proved to be only a stepping stone on the path to greatness is even more gratifying. This is a remarkable and essential release for any black metal fan.