Written by Enslaved’s Ivar Bjørnson and Einar Selvik of Wardruna, for the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian Constitution, Skuggsjá is the history of Norway from the beginning to present day. The music highlights the country’s Norse heritage via the use of folk instrumentation and celebrates the traditions and intellectual concepts of the nation. There is a blend of proto-Scandinavian, Norse and Norwegian in the lyrics that tell this unique story.
So, how is it, then?
The record opens with “Ull Kjem”, seven minutes of moody, mysterious music that builds to a climax that blends those elements of the old and new in a release that provides pure catharsis for the listener. It is a ravaging of the ear drums, a kicking of the aural tuchas and reflection of pure Northern ingenuity. The 10-minute-plus title tune which follows takes us on a similar musical and emotional trajectory, but lays waste to the expectations that this a mere fusing of Enslaved and Wardruna, that this is anything less than pure alchemical magic captured in these measures and explorations that somehow encapsulate the ages in this vessel of sonic majesty and mastery.
But it is the blending of the new and the old music of the nation that is one of the most intriguing parts of this story and those blends can perhaps best be heard on “Makta Og Vanæra. For All Tid”, with its superb vocal layers and impenetrable bed of heavy, heavy guitars.
Elsewhere, “Tor Hund” brings together the past and present but also, sonically at least, casts us into the future with sonic architecture that seems cribbed from some future, superior civilization where music is more expressive than even in our own time. Those seeking their pure metal fix, though, only need to hear “Rop Fra Røynda - Mælt Fra Minne”, which so seamlessly blends tradition with the groundbreaking that a new hope for these kinds of collaborations is forged.
Drummer Cato Bekkevold is spot-on in his role there as he joins in a cast of extras that includes the renowned fiddler Olav L. Mjelva, vocalists Grutle Kjellson and Lindy-Fay Hella as well as Eilif Gundersen who plays the birch bark lure as you’ve certainly never heard it before.
And those attached to the more ethnic elements of music will find great solace in “Kvervandi” and “Bøn Om Ending, Bøn Om Byrjing”, which comes replete with dreamy landscapes, foreboding and a heart-pounding rise of the hammer toward the stars.
If those outside Norway are taken with the story and want to know more, you’re in luck. We recently caught up with Ivar Bjørnson who tells us more about what it was like to be inside the music.
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“Ull Kjem” is a beautiful piece of music and very dramatic. What mood were you trying to capture when you wrote it? Was it difficult to get those emotions into the music?
I wanted an introductory atmosphere that could serve as a door into the album. An old, mysterious door overgrown with growth and moss. The song is both a prequel to the album musically and conceptually. It is from the perspective of Ull, a Norse god that was worshipped in Scandinavia before the gods we know as the “Northern Gods”, and he continued as a part of that pantheon when they “took over” from the pre-Norse gods. I wanted to give it a feeling of a sort of time-lapse, to summarize a long period of time in a short piece of music. I also hear a sadness in it, of a time lost. Paradise lost.
There are a number of traditional/folk instruments on the record. Were there any that were more difficult to record than you thought they would be?
One of the real strengths of this project is Einar’s fantastic know-how on everything authentic and acoustic. He has been part of building many of the instruments himself: skinning the hide of the animal to make the drums and so on. My impression is that for Einar it is the absolute connection with nature that is the quintessence, it is not so important that it has to look and sound exactly like something else – if he has to choose between archeological/ academic accuracy and what art demands, I am pretty sure which one he would choose. So except from the ancient fiddles being hard to tune, I think it went very well!
What was the most difficult part of the record to write?
It was pretty much a good flow from beginning to end. Once the music started flowing it simply did not stop. Me and Einar did discuss this during the writing and concluded that it was a way we were very similar; once the inspiration and motivation is there – there is pretty much no stopping us from creating and writing, we work till we drop. The most challenging aspect for me personally was to keep in mind a certain inclusive spirit in what I wrote. There would be no point in writing parts and pieces that would not give room and opportunity for Einar and his companions to shine.
I love the guitar tones on “Rop Fra Roy”. It’s a nice blend of heavy electric guitars with the folk/classical instruments over it. How long did it take you to find that guitar tone?
That is a guitar tone that was developed as we were working with the material live. In many aspects the fact that we did this live first was really good – being able to experiment with the guitar tones and various expressions and effects were definitely one of the most positive by-products. On that specific song I am using one of my favorite pedals; the TC Electronic “Alter Ego”, which sounds amazing with my Gibson 7-string Explorer (which is what I am using on the album together with my customized Futhark-guitar).
Olav L. Mjelva plays some great fiddle here. He’s probably not that well known in the United States. How did you know that he was the right person for this project?
Having Olav to play with us live and on the record is quite the catch, I tell you! He is one of the world’s best Hardanger Fiddle players – no less! He has been elected Folk Musician of the year, and I actually heard him on national radio just before this interview! They had discovered some ancient folk-tones that they were presenting. So he is quite the celeb in the world of folk music all over. It is an honor to have him “on board”; and it certainly does not hurt that he is great guy to be around. And he knows how to party.
Do you remember the reaction to this music when you debuted it? How did it feel to have completed it and present it to the world?
I have to admit that the debut at the celebration of the constitution’s 200nd anniversary is kind of a blur. Things were quite pressured timewise, we had a huge production that had to be coordinated and built on stage and so on. Miles and miles of lyrics that had to be known by heart – not even always in modern Norwegian, but also in Ancient Norse. So I remember sensing that there was a sort of a positive fog over the crowd but I couldn’t really register anything concrete. Afterwards I was thrilled to hear that the response was immense, and when we did Roadburn 2015 next I was more relaxed and could see the proof as we played.
Both of you have successful bands and this record is something that fans of both groups will like. Do you hope that people who hear this music before anything else will find the music of Enslaved and Wardruna?
Of course, that would be great! Yeah, finding the Skuggsjá album, liking it a lot and then finding two more bands you like as a “bonus side-effect” would sure as hell make me happy! One of the things that I am most proud of with the Skuggsjá album is the fact that it sounds like more than just “Enslaved plus Wardruna equals Skuggsjá”; the end result is more than simply the sum of the products. So there is no direct way to decipher how the two separate bands will sound, people will have to check it out for themselves! I really hope they will, as I think they are in for not one, but two treats!
Norway has made so many important cultural contributions to the world, especially through literature and music. What do you think the most important things people outside of Norway can learn from your country’s history and from the Norwegian spirit?
I am not sure we have that much to teach from our history; we have the same flaws, and the type of tyrants shaping history as they see fit. What is good I guess is that we have been early in separating state and religion – for real, so that we don’t have crazy evangelists or Islamists (they’re all equally crazy) running the country; you don’t have to please any particular religious pressure-groups to win the elections.
Also we are quite far in terms of women’s rights. Then again we are quite far in terms of reactionaries, misogyny as a result… Concerning culture I think the one thing we can teach the world is to have faith in and appreciation for things out of the ordinary. We suck at mainstream music (except from the new DJs, but that is more a matter of young morons being really good at playing music they haven’t written to others; I count that as a being in the service industry, not culture) but are good at ambient, weird electronica, fringe jazz, black metal etc.