ENSLAVED with DARK FUNERAL, ABIGAIL WILLIAMS and ECLIPSE ETERNAL at the Opera House (735 Queen East), Saturday (January 13). $30. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Ivar Bjørnson is far and away the friendliest Viking I've ever spoken to.
Okay, I've never spoken to a Viking before, but the articulate, soft-spoken guitarist and founding member of Enslaved - one of Norway's most important and influential metal bands, whose music falls somewhere between Viking/black metal and psychedelic rock - doesn't sound like his band's travelling to North America for a round of pillaging and destruction.
Their long-overdue tour is an incredibly difficult journey, Bjørnson admits, for a band that averages three to four European tours for every visit to North America. Hopefully, the guitarist says, that will soon change.
Not that lack of demand was ever a problem for the long-haired, bearded Norwegian crew rounded out by bassist and only other original member Grutle Kjellson, guitarist Arve Isdal, keyboardist Herbrand Larsen and drummer Cato Bekkevold. They've managed to tap into the Norwegian black metal scene's strange, violent, dark romanticism and pique the curiosity of extreme metal fans here.
Bjørnson, however, tells me from his rehearsal studio in Bergen that it's taken a while for the fans to play catch-up.
"In the late 90s, North Americans were more concerned with the whole black metal thing. They were very attracted to the underground, much like Norway in the early 90s."
The guitarist has a right to talk about early-90s Norwegian metal with an air of authority - his band was in the thick of it. But they're not like other bands and individuals vying for scene points and cred by doing the usual stuff like, you know, burning down 500-year-old churches.
"Some people might find it boring, but I'm very happy that we took a step back and spent time in the rehearsal room and avoided that kind of attention. It's given us a longer road than some of our countrymen."
Ultimately, the decision to focus on the music was a good one. Since 1991 the band has released nine LPs, won a Norwegian Grammy for 2004's epic Isa (Candlelight) and was nominated for a second Grammy for their most recent disc, Ruun (Candlelight), a pounding storm of dark psychedelic metal and Viking mysticism.
Bjørnson has difficulty categorizing his music, but that's part of what makes the band such a likeable oddity, even to fanatical genre purists.
"We've always been sort of a weird cousin of black metal. We were inspired by the musical style of black metal, but we didn't really fit in with the lyrical concepts and didn't have an attraction for the satanic thing. You need a band like Enslaved to take a risk and try new stuff, and sometimes we fall on our faces; we've done that, and we're gonna do that again."
The end result is more akin to, say, Pink Floyd writing a concept album for Odin, but Bjørnson explains that the band's commitment to mysticism in the music is an absolutely essential part of the creative process.
"I think things started to happen when we looked at the runes [stones containing markings of mystical significance]. That's when both the music and the lyrics took an abstract turn away from the historical perspective and into a more personal expression of ideas and dreams."
Bjørnson carefully explains his band's attraction to the magical aspects of the ancient alphabet that's far more than a utilitarian form of written language. Their interest in runes makes their musical explorations more fascinating, not to mention confusing as all shit for the uninitiated.
"These symbols kind of express associations and patterns too foggy or abstract to put down in simple language. For Enslaved, runes have a musical function that lends vibes and inspiration to the songs."
After 16 years of thrashing it out, Bjørnson still sounds upbeat, perhaps uncharacteristically so for an important player in extreme metal.
"It's a good life because we always get great feedback. We've had points in our career where people have been disappointed, and sales have gone up and down. As long as you started out doing it because you made it for yourself, you're more or less unbreakable."