Reaching the future, touching the trivial: Thorns and Enslaved

One thing I don’t often remark on is the catalogue of failures that characterised Norwegian black metal artists after the release of their classic canon. It’s tiresome to mourn, after such a burst of intense creativity a decline in standards was inevitable. But looking at the big four of Norway today is like observing a dysfunctional family at a Christmas reunion. Ihsahn as the socially distant, arty student, Abbath as the alcoholic dad playing pranks on the kids, Fenriz sulking in the corner lecturing people about the good old days, Varg camping in the garden with a book on eugenics. But while it is interesting to note how we got to this point, let’s take a look at two classic artists from this scene at a time when for the most part, metal of any colour was waning. It’s all too easy to chop this evolution into easily digestible decade long chunks, and that’s precisely what I’m gonna do by taking us back to the murky early 21st century.

Despite Snorre’s key role in the Norwegian mythos, his project Thorns has offered tantalisingly little material over the years. Largely due to his incarceration for being an accomplice in the murder of Euronymous. His sole full length is a self-titled release from 2001 that is such a black metal rendering of early 2000s pop culture it hurts; right down to sampling The Matrix. I suppose the most remarkable thing about this album is how straight faced it’s played. Aside from the desperately hammed 90s industrial edginess of ‘Shifting Channels’, the album is a pretty varied and accessible rendering of black metal after receiving a cyber sheen. Snorre’s clear passion for ambient music shines through, and provides the album with a more sophisticated thematic core than would otherwise be the case given the so-so nature of the actual black metal riffs that are present. They’re not terrible of course, but decidedly average.

However, the very generic nature of these black metal elements is also the albums greatest strength. They provide a blank slate onto which Snorre is able to apply his dark ambient and industrial leanings. This elevates both of the key elements that constitute this album’s style. Rather than writing a straight up black metal album, and applying the occasional techno breakdown and edgy samples, Thorns have instead written a minimalist percussive dark ambient album, and applied black metal guitar tones and riffs to extended sections of it. This means that however bland or unremarkable the riffs become, their development is dictated by melodic progressions more common to electronica. This becomes particularly apparent on the second half of the album with the two part ‘Underneath the Universe’, which is essentially an ambient piece with some percussion and guitars thrown in.

But even in the first half, through opener ‘Existence’ and Satyr’s guest appearance on ‘Stellar Master Elite’ (amongst others) they feel like idiosyncratic black metal works not because there’s anything remarkable about Thorns’ approach to the craft, but because there is an underlying synthetic framework that they are abiding by. The guitars follow the stop start requirements of minimalist industrial, and not the other way around. One could also cite the crystal-clear production of this album to illustrate this point. Although each piece is identifiable by one guitar line, multiple guitar tracks have been laid down to fill out the sound, to allow for focus and size in unison, a trait common to a lot of industrial that employs repetitive and percussive guitar riffs. These simple yet effective features elevate this album above others who have worked with the same raw materials. The angst, the lack of imagination, the poor stylistic choices which came to define industrial ‘metal’ of this era all had a grave impact on underground metal. But ‘Thorns’ clearly illustrates that with passion, respect for the art form and the knowledge of how to execute an idea, these all too low standards are not something inherent in industrial music itself, but simply the misapplication of aesthetics and good old fashioned poor taste.

Enslaved’s career reads like a checklist of decline, sitting at the very centre of extreme metal’s rise and fall as a serious artform. You can count their earlier works as among some of the best that metal has to offer. But these well-meaning but confused musicians conflated maturity with mediocrity, and diluted the artistic intent of their music with vapid and random flourishes ripped from the book of prog rock. The point is so tedious it feels superfluous to make it, but one can feel accusations of closed mindedness coming my way regardless. The failure of Enslaved by the late 1990s was not down to the fact that they moved away from black metal, or that they apparently experimented with their sound, introducing a strong 70s psychedelia into the mix; the problem is exactly how they went about this. 2001’s ‘Monumension’ is the least favoured of this era among modern fans of the band, but also probably the purest illustration of how honest attempts to learn and grow can quickly become derailed by the trappings of the trivial.

For that reason an argument could also be made for ‘Monumension’ being the most successful rendering of Enslaved’s sound at this time. It wears its failures on its sleeve, they are easily identifiable, one can isolate them and even enjoy the whole as a result. So let’s get the first point out of the way first: what went wrong for Enslaved? The problem is twofold: lack of vision and lack of integration. Things start out promisingly enough with the opener ‘Convoys to Nothingness’, which, despite the so-so death metal riff that drives us through the centre of this track, it has a focus, a narrative core, one that is carried through to the final peaceful refrain. But then things quickly devolve into random collisions of average death metal riffs, even worse technical thrash riffs, not aided by an abrasive guitar tone and flat drumming. There is no focus to the song writing, one is never sure what Enslaved are trying to convey to the listener. Or if some threads are picked up and an interesting idea shines through, it is quickly waylaid by a constant need to demonstrate the breadth and diversity of Enslaved’s influences.

Which brings us screaming round to the next shortcoming. Leaning hard on the prog rock aesthetic and attempting to marry it with whatever scraps were leftover from Enslaved’s Viking metal days. The influence of progressive rock on metal of any colour has a long and proud history to be celebrated. But this history has been marred by albums like this (and Opeth’s career) for the simple fact that they do not integrate these elements into a wider vision. That vision doesn’t have to be a replica of ‘Vikingligr Veldi’, but it does need to be something. What we have here is random and at best cheesy prog leanings working against the narrative arc of the music. They are not integrated into a wider vision. This is partly because there isn’t one, but what scant ideas we can follow through on each track are constantly sidelined by the need to ram the psychedelia aesthetic down the listener’s throat. This is in direct contrast to other more successful attempts to marry these styles (Nokturnal Mortum, Zemial, A Forest of Stars) that are bent on communicating vast and complex sonic journeys, and deploying whatever musical components they see fit to achieve this goal, some of which happen to be borrowed from Camel, King Crimson, and Yes. The follow up ‘Below The Lights’ may have presented a more coherent sound, but the ambitious vision found on earlier offerings from this artist was all but eviscerated for the sake of receiving ‘eclectic’ credentials. Given the rewards Enslaved received for this approach both within and outside metal it’s little wonder that they never looked back.

Thorns is the clear winner this week. In terms of black metal bands that attempted to meld the sound with non-metal genres it succeeds simply because the end result is far better integrated. The structure, moods, and overall presentation of the album is one that is well suited to industrial and ambient leanings. Whereas ‘Monumension’ is constantly distracted by its own influences. Despite this, I would say they both come across as sincere pieces of music, but sadly that has no bearing on success or failure. The closest analogy I could think of to demonstrate this distinction is to imagine people and their relationship to nature. Thorns is the equivalent of an indigenous population that has lived for many generations in their environment, they have an inbuilt respect for the natural equilibrium that sustains them. They understand its subtleties and its dangers as well as its great beauty. Enslaved is the equivalent of an American dentist on a big game hunt. Coming and going without a thought given to the rhythms and biodiversity of their chosen hunting grounds. Proudly shooting trophies that they think would make a good photo op, and putting no work into their acquisition. And the people clapped. And a new century of mediocrity was born.

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