Essential Black Metal Listening: ENSLAVED - Mardraum: Beyond the Within
By the turn of the century, Enslaved had produced a quartet of compelling albums, establishing themselves as reliable and unique purveyors of the blackened arts. Following Quorthon’s late-career lead, Enslaved eschewed Satan as sole subject to focus on Scandinavian folklore and mythology. For this, the band would earn the ubiquitous genre tag of “Viking metal.” Enslaved were, in actuality, quickly transcending the boundaries of black metal’s second wave. Mardraum is the Enslaved album that truly crushed all categorization, smashing minds and sailing off the edge of the known universe with aplomb.
Two years earlier, Enslaved had released Blodhemn, an excellent album marked by ripping riffs and curious compositional advancements. Roy Kronheim had recently joined Enslaved on second guitar, creating a compelling synergy with the band’s founding duo. Mardraum would exhibit the full force of that collaboration, producing some of metal’s most singularly strange riffs, transitions, and atmospheric anomalies.
Mardraum bristles with creative energy, pressing the boundaries of “epic” with soaring, eccentric, and memorable melody. Mundane guitar phrases contain extra syllables that render them alien, unspeakable, and worthy of awe. The odd and endearing clean guitars explore transcendent dimensions of triumph. When Enslaved are not mastering all that is monumental, they’re tearing down the universe with a pandemonium of churning, thrashing genius.
Ivar Bjørnson and Roy Kronheim are, ostensibly, playing the same guitar lines much of the time, but each seems to interpret the same riffs in wildly different manners. The result is a riotous sonic ride; each of your ears will be hard pressed to comprehend this glorious abuse of the stereo field. The elastic and ecstatic guitars seem to be herded by Grutle Kjellson’s busty bass lines. This curious rhythmic dynamic serves to shape Mardraum’s aura. Adding to the disregard of convention and sanity are moments of raunchy filth where the proceedings slow to a drunken crawl and careen about in a bluesy stupor.
Mardraum is marked by wicked rhythmic intricacy, executed with utter abandon. The guitars seem unconcerned with the percussive chassis in which they ride. Dirge Rep is a preeminent purveyor of organic drumming mastery, but his work is often obscured and overshadowed on Mardraum (see Below the Lights for his finest hour). His thundering battery does break through the wall every so often to evoke abject amazement.
The frequent gang-chants and clean vocals are passionate, unruly, and unchecked, providing a stark comparison to the composed and careful singing that would mark latter day Enslaved. Grutle’s filthy gurgle details the metaphysics of Nordic myth in a combination of Norwegian and English. His screams are, as always, expressions of unrepentant disgust.
Mardraum is an exercise in unrestraint and a virtuosic embodiment of chaos. Glorious sonic oddity and victorious idiosyncrasy make the album an endlessly listenable and enduring piece of black metal history. The Enslaved discography is marked by a dogged and pleasing pursuit of progress; perhaps no other band has achieved such success in the name of transmutation. Mardraum is the band’s greatest leap, an edifice that cannot be reproduced or revisited.
You can check out the album on Spotify here.