IVAR BJØRNSON Discusses ENSLAVED’s Heimdal, Band History & Revisiting Old Material
Enslaved‘s Heimdal is the epic masterpiece that is about to take you on the adventure of your life when it drops on March 3. Of course, the greatness of Enslaved is well-documented as they’ve already left a mammoth footprint on metal history. Remarkably, their impact keeps on growing. Enslaved have not only won five Spellemann Awards, or “Norwegian Grammys,” but they have also moved audiences across the globe toward a deeper understanding of mythology, culture, and existence in general.
Enslaved emerged in 1991 from what remained of the death metal band Phobia. Their name was given to them by Immortal‘s Harald “Demonaz” Nævdal. Although Enslaved will forever be associated with the second wave of black metal for obvious reasons, including the inspiration that they continue to derive from the guitar work of their late friend Euronymous, the group has always explained that their refusal to adopt Satanic ideology places them outside this category. These highly progressive Viking metal pioneers are constantly conquering new musical frontiers. Hopefully, everyone here already understands that Grutle Kjellson and Ivar Bjørnson are two of metal’s greatest heroes: This core duo has remained constant through several lineup changes. Enslaved‘s roster is currently completed by the marvelous talents of Iver Sandøy, Håkon Vinje, and Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal.
With Enslaved and beyond, Ivar Bjørnson has created some of the most stunning compositions imaginable. You’ve probably heard his work with Wardruna‘s Einar Selvik. Their collaboration began when the Norwegian government commissioned them to write a piece celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian Constitution: The breathtaking result, “Skuggsjá,” was later recorded as their debut album under the Ivar Bjørnson & Einar Selvik banner. We are truly grateful to have had the privilege of speaking with Ivar Bjørnson himself about Heimdal, the documentary series Heimvegen, Enslaved‘s upcoming tour, and more.
I really love Heimdal! It’s so beautiful and still so brutal — just amazing! Could you please tell me how the songwriting process unfolded for this particular album?
Yeah, it was a really intense time, around a year, I think. The idea for the album is just really powerful with the concept. I mean, Grutle was going back and forth on that, and I guess the music just came naturally. But it really took a long time this time. I really went into detail with every little thing, and the guys were really enthusiastic about the songs that were written. And then, it was really strange: You know, it’s the 16th album, and this kind of energy and enthusiasm — it was really like the old days. Everything just really came together. And yeah, it’s a bit of a blur… Once I started, it was just so intense, and I just knew that I had to keep going and plow through the album. It was really an inspired time.
This is your second album with your current lineup. The chemistry on Heimal is mind-blowing. Each member really shines through in such a strong way. I was wondering how much the other members contributed to the songwriting and maybe put their own spontaneous twists on the music in the studio.
Yeah. Of course, in the studio, they will be performing, and they have their unique style. I can never really do justice to their talent, but I think I did it respectfully. I think they understood that I had to go all the way in detail. So, I really wrote things down to… I was really particular and specific about everything — how it had to come together. But then again, I make the suggestions, and I’m a good guitarist. I’m a rhythm guitarist, of course. When Iver, who’s an amazing drummer and singer, and Håkon, the keyboard player and so on, one day suggest maybe to do things a little bit differently, of course, I listen. It would be madness not to do that.
They also had a lot of contributions with ideas. They saw that I was really going at it… Iver is especially good at bringing ideas to the table, not concrete, because that sometimes ends up a little bit clumsy, you know, cause it’s hard to… When it comes to songwriting, it’s all just feelings and wishy-washy weird stuff. So, he was more talking about concepts and like, “How about this kind of song?” You know, “How about this kind of theme?!” and so on. And that really sparked a lot of ideas, but then, it’s really just a blueprint. You know, it’s the blueprint for the house but really not the details. When the guys start working on the vocals, that’s when the songs really take shape. And that influences me also. So, it’s really a group effort, even though I’m sitting with the feather pen and being a bit of a pretentious composer writing all of this stuff. It’s just another job, you know: Somebody’s got to do it.
What did you find most challenging about making the album, and what was the most surprising discovery that you made along the way?
I think some of the ideas this time like “Congelia,” the second song — that was Iver sort of challenging: “How about a song that’s built on the pillars of old black metal but in a new way and so on?!” That was challenging because I had to write something I hadn’t done before, and I hadn’t heard anything like that before. Trying to make these things fit on top of each other — that took a long time. So, that was challenging, I think.
And the most surprising was how fluid the whole thing became when we started playing it together. It was really a positive surprise that we had been working so hard for the past few years playing live that we really hadn’t stopped and noticed that we had come a long way since. Yeah, just a few years back. That was really cool! When I was in the studio listening to the other guys recording their stuff, it was the first time I’d taken a break in a very long time, so I was a bit of like a roughed-up caveman, you know, coming out into the light and like, “Oh, there’s people in the world again!” And just hearing them do that with ease, you know, and elegance — I had to pinch myself at times. Like, “This band is pretty awesome!”
Yes! Awesome beyond belief! Obviously, “Heimdallr” was one of your first songs, so what made you finally decide after all these years to dedicate an album to Heimdal?
It was just the right time. Suddenly, he was just there, you know, several hundred meters tall. And his presence — it was impossible to ignore. It’s been in the focus; it’s been around the corner; it’s been sort of in the background or the foreground. And now it’s just… We had to do that now!
Was there a source of inspiration for the album that maybe fans wouldn’t have expected?
Now, they’ve come to expect the unexpected, I guess. I think maybe it’s more about the mix. I don’t really believe in guilty pleasures. I just either like stuff or don’t like it. But in a song like “Congelia,” you can hear influences at the same time from Darkthrone, maybe some ’80s heavy rock or ’70s Led Zeppelin, and some Jean-Michelle Jarre influence, you know, the popcorn synthesizers. I think now it’s more about… a cross-section of music. I don’t think we’re able to shock anyone anymore. Maybe people don’t know that I’m a big Pet Shop Boys fan. That’s the only thing that I can think about.
I really enjoyed the series Heimvegen! Could you please tell me a little bit about what it was like to be a part of that?
Yeah, that was the weirdest thing. We haven’t really done documentaries. It’s a weird mindset to think that your talking history is something that should be in a documentary so… And we don’t feel like we’re an old band. But I guess we were just waiting for the right thing to appear. And then, this guy who lives where we started the band, Haugaland, came and said that he had an idea for a documentary. And we said, “Yeah, as long as we don’t have to do a bunch of stuff, or come up with ideas, or be exciting or whatever. We’re just us, you know.” And he said, “No, no. We’ll just go to this pub, and we’ll have a chat. If you can spend a day with me, that would be great.”
So, we did that. We talked for hours and hours. And then, we took a few more… You know, we called him. Sometimes, Grutle was going fishing, so then he called him to see if he wanted to tag along. There were a couple of days like that… And then, we didn’t think too much about it. But then, he appears with like twelve episodes, and it was pretty amazing! I was pretty impressed myself. It was like, “Hey, this band has a history!” We just needed the right guy to get the perspective. He worked so hard. It was just one guy doing everything. He would finish the subtitles just half an hour before putting it online every Saturday morning. It’s amazing!
Yes, it certainly is! So, of course, in a figurative but still very real sense you’re a cultural ambassador of Norway. What has been the most rewarding aspect of spreading awareness of Norwegian mythology and identity?
I think it would be when you go around, and it doesn’t have to be far — if it’s in the Nordic countries, or if it’s Asia, whatever — if you can inspire someone to be interested and appreciate their own cultural back history, that’s what we want to do. It’s not about… I think it’s a good word, “ambassador”: We represent something, and we sing about it. We talk about it. But it’s not missionary, you know. It’s not like we want to convince anyone that it’s better than anything. We just want to say we do believe that part of the world’s problem — where people are feeling lonely, or insecure, or all this anxiety — is because we’ve removed that link to our history, or what’s holy, what’s special, and so on. And we do believe that that can be solved as simply as… It’s a misunderstanding that discovering and going into your history is something that will make you hostile: It’s quite the opposite because if you feel secure in your own identity, it’s much easier to understand people with different identities, I think.
That’s so beautifully said! The events at Grieghallen during Beyond the Gates looked amazing last year, and the festival is going to be amazing this year as well with your upcoming performance! Beyond the Gates has made a tradition of having Enslaved perform the classics: You’ve already done Frost  and Vikingligr Veldi . What have you learned by revisiting these albums in that way?
Yeah, surprisingly a lot. I would say that Heimdal owes also quite a lot to these projects that we’ve been doing the last few years because, with this new lineup, we’ve done more than just listen to it at home and then meet and play through them. We’ve really tried to recreate them as the band we are now. And they’re very potent. They have a lot of power because they’re made without a lot of the surrounding energies and baggage that you have when you’re starting to get old like we are now. It just inspired me so much to listen to the way that we were writing when we were 15.
When you are 15, you don’t think about tomorrow, you don’t think about later tonight even: You just think about the rehearsal room, the guitar, the force of the music. And we did a lot of things that were above our pay grade, so to speak. It was good to listen to that and be reminded that that’s part of why we are what we are — that we’ve never cared about even our own limitations. If it’s too hard to do, you should still try. Sometimes you fall on your face, and hey! — you get up and try again. So, yeah, they’ve been really inspiring. I’m looking forward a lot to Eld . I think it has a lot of undiscovered treasures.
That performance is going to be incredible. So, Heimdal was self-produced. And that obviously turned out perfectly! But in the past, you’ve worked a lot with Eirik Hundvin, “Pytten.” I was wondering what your fondest memory has been of that long collaboration and friendship.
Yeah, he’s definitely one of the most important people in the Enslaved history and very important personally for me too! Actually, we had a talk at Beyond the Gates last year, 2022, about production and thinking… What was special with him, and I think that’s also part of why we self-produce, is that his understanding of how to produce a band was to try to find out the core, the identity of the band, and then sort of amplify that into a recording, a novel recording. He never corrected, you know, or thought that this is wrong and should be fixed.
There’s so many unique and strange bands that came into the studio. This was in ’90 when Old Funeral was the first band to record there. It was the first that a lot of people had heard about this music. He had never heard it before; he just thought it was great. It was something fresh, and the last thing on his mind was to cut its wings or to mold it into some kind of shape. He just got this extreme kind of curiosity like: “Where do you want to go with this?” Or a band like Molested who’s like insane! And even, you know, when Emperor showed up, Ihsahn brought his computer — he was very early on with his symphonic sounds and so on.
And Pytten is always just really curious like: “What is this? What is the sound? What’s the core?” And, of course, that had a disadvantage: If your band sounded like shit, you would probably come out with an album sounding like shit. And so, it’s got some stuff that came out that sounds horrible, but that’s the band. And then, you have Mayhem‘s De Mysteriis , which, for me, is the ultimate extreme metal production. And yeah, so I think that he’s inspired us to have that curiosity and also have that desire to preserve the core ideas.
You’re about to embark on your North American tour in April with Insomnium and Black Anvil. They’re both amazing, and they seem like really great people as well. What are you most excited about in regard to that upcoming adventure?
It’s going to be really special because of these last few years that things just stopped and because of the way that people have kept the lines of communication open. They’ve supported all the online stuff with that, stayed in touch, and just been supportive. We really want to just come over and deliver the tour of the century. We’ve been working so hard at this, and we really want to present Heimdal in the best possible way. So, yeah, it’s going to be something really special.
The US is always… The first time we were there was ’95. We were quite early going over there. Since then, there’s been a special relationship. And also, with Canada. So, I really can’t wait! Let’s just hope nobody invents a new pandemic next month. No, I feel pretty safe. Everything’s arranged for it. And, you know, I’m also looking forward to meeting other bands! It was so fun this summer going to the festivals and just meeting people again. So now, we get to hang out with Insomnium. We toured with them in the UK before. Great guys! So, that’s going to be fun — meeting friends! In every city I have people I know. That’s going to be awesome!