There’s a lot to be said for a band that evolves and grows over time, one that brings in new elements, thus transcending the limitations of its origins. But there’s also quite a lot to say about drawing the knives and going right for the throat. And though Enslaved has become renowned in metal circles for records like Isa, Ruun and RIITIIR, there’s no denying the power of the band’s early output. Frost and Vikingligr veldi are both crucial contributions to the canon of second wave black metal, but there’s something uniquely fascinating about any band’s primordial work, and 1992’s Yggdrasill is no exception.
The title alone invokes images culled from Norse mythology, a subject that would prove to be the band’s imaginative goldmine. In case you don’t know, “Yggdrasill” is the name given to “world tree” which stretches out to the heavens and is visited upon by the Norse gods. And it’s influence as an idea in fantasy reaches all the way to the Tolkien mythos (see The Silmarillion). In 2015, “Norse” or “Viking” metal is a well-established schtick, one which is often reduced to silliness and references to “battle” and “glory” unmoored from the cultural backdrop from which they emerged. In their use of Norway’s unique Viking Age (~781-1100) history, Enslaved has always found a way to captivate without resorting to camp, and to revel in their heritage without succumbing to the neo-fascist tendencies of certain other black metal acts.
With it’s raw production and excellent use of melody to carry the music forward, Yggdrasil stands both with and apart from the foundational works of orthodox black metal. Like Darkthrone’s post-Soulside Journey work and Emperor’s Wrath of the Tyrant, the record is incredibly raw, but lifted to the point of glory by the riffs and the tempo arrangements. And like those two bands, the origins of Enslaved lie in Norway’s short-lived but creatively volatile death metal scene (e.g. Old Funeral, Phobia, Thou Shalt Suffer) which by 1991 would morph into what we now associate with it.
And though the crisp and clear production on their modern work has its value, there’s something undeniably satisfying about such a dirty sound. Like the classics from other Norwegian (and Swedish) bands, the production is more a product of lack of professional recording resources. And yet, it’s the sound we most closely associate with “TRVE CVLT” black metal. A fortunate accident of metal history you could say.
Actually, the record isn’t really considered a full album in Enslaved’s discography, more of an early demo. But it would see an official release in 1995 on a split alongside Satyricon’s The Forest is My Throne.
And like the record it shared that release with, Yggdrasill contains some of the most engaging pieces of raw black metal, all the more impressive considering the band’s youth (the founders were all in their teens at the time). With its organ intro and infectious tremolo riffing, “Hal Malr” is my personal favorite here. But the fist-pumping attack of “Allfǫðr Oðinn” is equally triumphant, aided by the effective use of synth as well. The vocals are much of what you expect from this sort of black metal, but are executed in that style of screech and scream that’s much imitated nowadays, but rarely bested.
But the band stood out early on. As the instrumental track, “Resound of Gjallarhorn” shows, the band was very adept at creating suspense and drama even without the use of screaming and pounding drums. And though it begins to approach the borderlands of cheesiness which Gehenna wound up placing at least one foot in with The First Spell, the blaring use of synth “Heimdallr” grabs your attention in a way that almost makes you smile at the band’s fearlessness here. Here was a band at its beginnings, before they became lauded for “branching out and doing things beyond dumb early black metal that’s so played out now, bro.” Oh sure, I’m still a fan; I even put RIITIIR up there with my favorites of 2012. But as we’re here to celebrate the essential canon of black metal as a genre on its own, there are few collections more enthralling than what a handful of Norwegian teenagers put together on Yggdrasill.