Enslaved’s career is one defined by eras. They started as perhaps the most prodigious band of Norway’s second wave of black metal, releasing their Hordanes Land EP when guitarist Ivar Bjørnson was a mere 15 years old. That EP ‒ also combined with Emperor’s self-titled EP as a foundational split for the scene ‒ instantly defined Enslaved’s first era. Bjørnson, bassist/vocalist Grutle Kjellson, and drummer Trym Torson played an epic and atmospheric but thunderous take on Norwegian black metal, loaded with lyrical themes of Norse mythology.
The final album of that first, don’t-call-it-true black metal era is likely Blodhemn, a record that began looking to the next stages of Enslaved ‒ thanks in large part to some lineup shifts ‒ while still maintaining the atmosphere and overall “Viking” style. Blodhemn doesn’t have any of the Floydisms or prog-centric construction of records like Below the Lights or Ruun, but it brings intensity to the forefront more than any Enslaved album to that point, somewhat due to the heavier production of Peter Tägtgren and pummeling drumming of Dirge Rep.
But other than the production, Blodhemn still mostly fit in with what came before. The true shift came on the perplexing, brutal, relentless, and absolutely wild Mardraum ‒ Beyond the Within. While it retains the same lineup as Blodhemn (Bjørnson, Kjellson, Rep, and lead guitarist Roy Kronheim) in addition to the production talents of Tägtgren, Mardraum was so much bolder, so much heavier, and so much more unique than anything Enslaved had yet to produce at that point.
At that point or any point later, really. Mardraum represented the moment when being “progressive” started mattering as much to Enslaved as being “black metal.” This is where the proggy mindset and greater technicality really started entering their sound, at different times rooted in Pink Floyd, Voivod, or even death metal. With the 10-minute “Større Enn Tid – Tyngre Enn Natt” opening things up, Enslaved had no intention of hiding that fact. The tune may start with soft guitars and the usual epic/narrative feel, but is far more dense and labyrinthine than the band’s previous lengthy tracks. By the time the vocals finally come in at about the 4:30-minute mark, the song has already made several shifts in volume, riff intensity, and levels of bombast, giving the impression that those first sung passages aren’t starting a story, but continuing one that already had multiple chapters. Kjellson’s harsh screeches, which may never have sounded better than on this record, quickly answer, letting the listener know there’s equal parts venom and majesty to this story. The rest of the song then changes between deliberate riffs that seem to stretch the space, thrashy/rockin’ parts, and even more touches of the storytelling vibe (complete with some spoken word). It’s a helluva start, you might say.
But let’s get back to that b-word up there. Brutality is not something often thought of alongside black metal. It certainly isn’t thought of alongside bands that started in the raw, hypnotic, atmospheric Norwegian second wave. But Mardraum is an absolutely devastating record. Tägtgren’s production is a key reason for this, moving the guitar tones closer to something from his main band or his treatment for Immortal’s albums of the era. The riffs have a jagged edge to them that makes Bjørnson’s tendency to palm mute in rather forceful fashion sound like he’s really punishing his guitar, while Kjellson’s bass never sounded so thick and meaty (it’s the Voivodiest aspect of the album) and Rep’s drumming is thunderous, deep, and cacophonous all at once. The short version: this album sounds wicked.
It’s far more than just the production, of course. “Mardraum” means “nightmare” in Norwegian, and it’s hard to ignore that in the overall vibe of this record. This is as downright mean and maniacal as Enslaved ever got, coming closer to death metal than their original black metal in several areas. Chief among these moments are parts of “Ormgard” and “Stjerneheimen.” The former often drops into a total churn, with the harsh vocals delivering a deeper growl, while the latter doubles down on the intensity by adding oddball rhythms to riffs that are already pretty destructive on their own. Of course, like everything else on the album, these songs also paint an epic scope with widened dynamics, well-timed bombast, and plenty of melody, be it through clean vocals, a timely Kronheim lead, or simply Enslaved’s untouchable gift for engaging chord progressions.
Every tune takes the listener on a journey that is equal parts savage and majestic, whether they’re lengthy like the opener or as short as the ensuing “Daudningekvida,” which despite being only about 3.5 minutes feels as loaded with ideas as anything here. It took that progressive mindset, heightened riff complexity, brutal production, and all the little details (keys and varying solo tones and Rep’s controlled chaos drumming) to pull it off. Want more? There’s the tremolo-trill nuttery and weeping leads that call back to Vikingligr veldi in “Krigaren eg ikkje kjende,” the swirling riffs in “Det endelege riket” dancing around like knives caught in a tornado, the twitches, blasts, near-grind insanity, and wacky inside-out solo in “Æges draum,” the battle sounds in the (mostly) instrumental title track, the psychedelic feel of the album outro, and so, so, so (x100) much more. Mardraum is as packed with ideas as a technical death metal album, but in the hands of Enslaved, the songs still have room to breathe.
No song breathes, rocks, or straight up rules as much as “Entrance – Escape,” which despite only being the third track feels like the centerpiece. The tune opens with a big flirtation with psychedelic space rock: nothing but Kjellson’s gargantuan bass tone, drums, and sparse, loose guitar in the background, resulting in a bit of an unbalanced Hawkwind vibe. Little time is wasted bringing a sense of impending doom through a rather large (planet-sized) riff that bursts through the eeriness but can’t snuff it out, as the singing maintains the feeling that everything is somehow drugged or between sleep and wakefulness, grasping for comfort but not willing to give it back. Then the damn tune explodes. A big ol’ rock-your-face-off drum pattern and swinging-balls riff reset the entire vibe, bringing an unabashed swagger that Enslaved simply never really brought before this moment. A barrage of Kronheim solos ‒ both weirdly muted in the background and taking brash charge up front ‒ fly all over the place, with some fun whammy bar action edging just outside the lines of good taste. After the track goes through another phase of quiet, soaring clean vocals, soloing, and a wailing whammy pull/falsetto scream pairing, it’s clear that this lineup was ideal for this Enslaved phase and this Enslaved record.
One more note about “Entrance – Escape” (because why not take up that much space with one tune?). The song is significant because it’s the band’s first written in English (the back cover pretty hilariously has it translated into Norwegian where the other songs are translated into English), but the actual words are interesting as well, almost as if they was meant as a statement about Enslaved’s musical evolution. Have a look and decide for yourself:
I am not in there
I am not taking any part in this
There’s no comfort where you are
And I won’t give you anything
I am close to them mentally
But I am in between realities
There is no directions for where I am
They can’t find me cause I am not in there
Alright alright… it’s far more likely that this is some obscure tale of Norse mythology fitting within the broader story, but knowing where their career would go from this moment, it’s easy to assign this meaning to it after the fact. And even if that wasn’t their intention over 20 years ago, thinking about it this way now is kinda fun, and fun is okay! “I am in between realities” is particularly fitting.
Regardless of the intent behind that song, Mardraum is unmistakably transitional. With its combination of prog technicality and scope, trippy passages, and truly violent metal, it’s also an album of contrasts, even more so than its follow-up Monumension, which went further into Floyd terrain but greatly eased off the extremity. Perhaps this contrast is why Mardraum seems like a bit of an outlier in Enslaved’s career. It certainly seems somewhat underappreciated. Consider the following:
- Mardraum songs make up a paltry 0.8 percent of all Enslaved setlists recorded at Last.fm. Yes, there’s the obvious caveat that their touring frequency and the frequency of people obsessively entering setlists has grown since the album’s release, but that’s still a very small number, only beating Blodhemn in appearances.
- Over at Metal Storm, the album has an average score of 7.9, tied with Blodhemn as lowest for any Enslaved album. Axioma Ethica Odini leads with an 8.8. (Other score aggregators were referenced, but Metal Storm’s system had by far the most votes.)
- When ranking the Enslaved catalog for Decibel in 2018, Bjørnson placed Mardraum 12th out of the 14 albums they had at that point. He had much nicer things to say about it than Blodhemn or Monumension, but still felt they didn’t prepare enough for the recording.
To this fan’s ears, Mardraum is not some outlier or inferior record, but one of the band’s best. Its status indicated by the points above is more likely a result of Enslaved touring much more, developing a more accessible sound, and becoming much more internationally visible in the years (decades) since its release. Perhaps a lot of fans don’t love Tägtgren’s production for Enslaved (whereas I’m a big Hypocrisy fan). Maybe all that technicality makes it a chore for the band to play live. It’s all just a matter of taste, really, for the band and fans alike (for evidence that there’s no accounting for taste, observe what I think is a rather middling album, In Times, outscoring seven albums in those Metal Storm rankings). Ultimately, Mardraum sounds less like other Enslaved albums than any other Enslaved album, and is probably rather exhausting on initial listens for anyone initiated with something as atmospheric as Eld or escapist as Vertebrae. No matter how vicious or exhaustive, however, it’s still based on the eternally recognizable foundation of Bjørnson’s riffs and Kjellson’s snarl, meaning it still sounds 100 percent like an Enslaved album.
Besides, Mardraum was not meant to have the wide, prog-arena appeal of something like Axioma. It is The Nightmare, after all. It’s a confounding and inspired explosion of brain-scrambling brilliance that twists and pummels and carves and mystifies for nearly an hour. No other band has ever come close to replicating the unique energy and devastating combination of styles achieved on this record, not even Enslaved. That they never even really tried makes this album all the more special in their expansive oeuvre.
Mardraum might be the link between Enslaved’s two more distinct eras, but it belongs to neither. It is an era unto itself. It is between realities. It’s also flat friggin’ awesome.