Enslaved - Vikingligr veldi (1994)
A Viking Among The Giants
The early 1990's was a turning point in the story of Black Metal, with throngs of second wave artists crawling out from under the frozen ground of Scandinavia. Norway spearheaded most of this new revolution in Black Metal sound with material from bands like Mayhem, Darkthrone, Burzum, Emperor, and in this case, Enslaved. Personally, Enslaved was always overshadowed in my exploration of classic Black Metal in favor of Emperor, leading me to only check out their 17th studio album E released in 2017 until now. I hadn't realized how close and connected the second wave Black Metal scene was, at least in Norway, until doing my due diligence in figuring out what kind of climate this album was released under in 1994. Vikingligr Veldi comes after a 1993 split with Emperor, which explains the many similarities in sound, and directly in the middle of an absolute bombardment of insane Norwegian classic Black Metal releases. Emperor released their famous In The Nightside Eclipse merely one day before Vikingligr Veldi's February 22nd release, Darkthrone continued their reign over the scene with Transilvanian Hunger which released 5 days before, Burzum's pioneering Hvis lyset tar oss was released in April, and Mayhem's pinnacle release De mysteriis dom Sathanas followed in May of the same year. Since all of these groups are Black Metal titans, Enslaved is probably the least assuming and less known of the bunch, so how does Vikingligr Veldi hold up amidst the gargantuan competition?
The short answer is pretty damn well. The longer answer is that Enslaved's take on a more bombastic and theatrical style of Black Metal falls short of Emperor's signature atmosphere and complexity, but makes up some ground in terms of clarity and accessibility. While many other early 1990's Black Metal bands were recording their masterpieces on various root vegetables in abandoned, freezing cellars, Enslaved decided early on that the lo-fi style just wasn't for them. Vinkingligr Veldi has a loud and clear sound to it all while keeping the grinding Black Metal guitar tone mostly intact. Enslaved don't break any speed records on this album, with many riffs opting for a slower Black Metal chug, especially on the closing instrumental "Norvegr". Instead of trying to capitalize on chaos, each riff can be precisely heard above the blast beats of the drumming and uses slower but just as effective chord progression within the tremolo to create dramatic moments with the help of synths, acoustic guitar, and other symphonic elements peppered in throughout the album. These elements usually have more melody to them and serve as a stark contrast to the furious Black Metal tremolo picking that's going on in the background and while it can get a bit hokey on occasion, it's what gives Enslaved their signature sound.
While Vikingligr Veldi does a fantastic job of being a more theatrical and clear Black Metal experience, it definitely falls short on the songwriting aspect due to the four, 11-minute epics that make up most of the album. While there are a ton of good ideas in here, 11 minutes is a very long time to drag out the same tremolo picked chords with short, low quality symphonic intermissions before blasting back into the action. The album definitely has a flow to it, with there being enough slower and more impactful sections with less furious drumming to balance out the blast beats and enough memorable main riffs like on "Lifandi Lif Under Hamri" to connect the compositions in some way, but too much of it feels erratic and useless for what they were going for. For example, I personally don't think that "Vetrarnott" needed to be 11 minutes long, since the entire second half of the song is just a refrain of the first half with a few differences in the synth. For an album of this scale to function the time investment in the longer songs needs to feel like it's worth it, and even though the riffs and layering sounds fantastic, Enslaved don't do a whole lot past repeating the same ideas on most of these songs.
The Viking and mythological theme is still very well done though, with the album sounding less like a frozen wasteland and more like a communal or battle of the Gods. The higher production values obviously assisted with that, but Vikingligr Veldi still succeeds in merging a more theatrical and dramatic sound into the turmoil of Black Metal in a unique way compared to Emperor. The album slows down and gives some breathing room to these elements, allowing them to be more memorable rather than just part of the chaos. "Midgards Elder" has one of the more effective intermissions with its crushing chug riff, pounding drums, and strange but memorable warbly synth six minutes in before transitioning smoothly back into one of the previously used riffs. While each of the riffs they use are fantastic, they are just repeated and returned to way too much with too few modifications.
Enslaved succeeded in creating yet another unique and ripping Black Metal album that came out of 1994's Norwegian scene. Although a bit overblown, the production is crystal clear and easy to listen to, with even the bass getting some serious love in "Heimdallr". Vikingligr Veldi is simply a more appealing package at first glance with its fast, but not too fast, drumming and Black Metal riffs, suitably howled vocals used somewhat sparingly, and more epic sense of scale. It takes its Viking themes and spins them in a different direction than Bathory's Hammerheart did, trying to be a bit more subtle and stick to Black Metal's roots a bit more. Although this left them with songs that were a bit too long, I still really enjoyed Vikingligr Veldi and regret skipping over Enslaved when I first started to find out about Black Metal, since they absolutely deserve more time in the spotlight for a release that helped to diversify the early 1990's environment even more. It may not be as chaotically brilliant as In The Nightside Eclipse or as crushingly atmospheric as Hvis lyset tar oss to deserve its own genre, but I think Vikingligr Veldi can hold its head high against these titans as its accessibility and mix of influences creates an undoubtedly solid package that doesn't quite reach classic status, but deserves praise nonetheless.
One of Enslaved's finest albums and their best within the more pure realms of black metal.
Enslaved had already displayed what they were capable of on the Hordanes Land half of the Emperor / Enslaved split release a year earlier than this. We're talking long black metal tracks with Viking inspired themes, with keyboards adding atmosphere to already epic sounding riffs. I distinctly recall picking up Terrorizer magazine back when this was released to find Vikingligr Veldi given a rating of 0 out of 5. Considering the magazine was really my only source of information on metal at the time, I can't explain to you why I still grabbed this the next time I visited the metal store in Sydney. I guess there were not really that many black metal albums to choose from back then and I decided it was a risk worth taking. Damn it, I don't think they've ever got a review more wrong than that one as this album is one of the finest in Enslaved's long and distinguished career. I think that was an important lesson to learn. That I should never rely on one source for recommendations, which is why I find Rate Your Music to be of so much value.
There are only 5 tracks on Vikingligr Veldi but 4 of them go well past the 10 minute mark so there's plenty of value to be had. This also gives each track plenty of breathing space to get under your skin and believe me, these riffs will dig their way in. The production is great, allowing each instrument to shine through without any taking over proceedings. As mentioned in many of the reviews for this album, there's a lot of repetition in Enslaved's early work which I think is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, they created some great riffs and when combined with extremely solid drumming and Grutle's high pitched screams, the repetition makes for some truly hypnotic sections. But then occasionally the band push the boundaries of what is reasonable, such as on the track Vetrarnott where the same riff continues for what appears an eternity. For the most part though, I think they got it exactly right, changing things up enough to keep boredom at bay while returning to strong themes and catchy melodies regularly.
It's tough to pick highlights on a 5 track album of this length, but I think Lifandi Liv Undir Hamri would be my personal favourite. That being said, a mention for the 11 minute instrumental Norvegr should definitely be made. This track manages to have quite a melancholic feeling to it due to the acoustic instrumentation, beautiful keyboard work and Grutle's moving bass lines and finishes off the album very nicely indeed. All up I'd say Vikingligr Veldi is a very fine album from a band that refuses to stay in the same place for very long. They'd release another very different album within just a few months and this evolution would continue onwards and upwards to the very progressive, yet still majestic ground that they populate in modern times.
I have armed and readied myself for another battle through one of the most evil sinister genres in the music realm, black metal! Unleashing an awe-striking onslaught assault, Enslaved's debut Vikingligr Veldi (Viking Empire) is a 50-minute offering of 5 epics, all 11 minutes each except one that is 6 minutes long (simple math). This album is definitely not for everyone, instead for anyone (like myself) who likes intense epic chronicles or Viking/black metal fans (which I'm not). The pieces are placed together in a spectacular debut! The tempo and riffs don't change a lot, which means sections might stay the same for an insanely long time without losing ambient atmosphere. The album still has fury wilder and heavier then even Burzum, with unrestrained aggression. The long compositions are never boring, end properly, and leave you hungry for more.
Brilliant songwriting (all in different Scandinavian languages), great production, and inspiring musicianship blend together perfectly. There's an overpowering wall of sound that is unbelievable for high-school/college-age trio at that time. Also at the top of the game is the production staff including Enslaved themselves, Pytten, Padde (Old Funeral), and Davide Bertolini. As a result, the production shines loud and clear, except for the vocals that are muffled but still having aggression coming from the depths of Hell. This is what 90s black metal production should be instead of just annoying reverb with buzzing guitars and no bass.
"Lifandi Liv Undir Hamri" (Living Life Under the Hammer) is a long beginning of these black metal Vikings' journey. It goes fast with aggressive moments worth headbanging, while having slow breaks with harmonic bass. "Vetrarnótt" (Winternight) picks up melody from buzzsaw guitars, speeding through the typical black metal blasting. It would be OK if it wasn't outside my non-satanic comfort zone.
There are the usual black metal tremolo guitars, drums, bass, and vocals in "Midgards Eldar" (Fires of Midgard), but it took 3 minutes to build up the instrumentation during an intro filled with acoustic and epic synths before unleashing the chaos.
Taking fast speed through wild display is "Heimdallr", the sole 6 minute track of the album and the angriest cut, re-recorded from the "Yggdrasill" demo. An instant classic for fans of black metal! The classy instrumental closer "Norvegr" (Norway), named after the band's homeland, showcases what the band could do without using any vocals. You might just call it the "Viking black metal Crusade"!
Vikingligr Veldi needs enough attention for appreciation. Pretty much every song has high skill, passion, and timeless atmosphere. If you can't decipher the Scandinavian-language lyrics, that's fine. There's always lyrics sites and a rare special edition booklet. Though I'm not too crazy for Viking/black metal, this is one of the best of that genre!
Favorites: "Lifandi Liv Undir Hamri", "Midgards Eldar", "Heimdallr"