#22: IVAR BJØRNSON (ENSLAVED)
MetalSucks recently polled its staff to determine who are The Top 25 Modern Metal Guitarists, and after an incredible amount of arguing, name calling, and physical violence, we have finalized that list! The only requirements to be eligible for the list were that the musician in question had to a) play metal (duh), b) play guitar (double-duh), and c) have recorded something in the past five years. Today we continue our countdown with Enslaved’s Ivar Bjørnson…
Enslaved arrive at our feet as a package deal: woozy synths and atmospherics; Pink Floyd-ian touches; Grutle Kjellson’s harsh, phlegmy scream; and the back in forth between prog-flecked black metal and black metal-flecked prog. But considering the band’s individual achievements, none come off better than Ivar Bjørnson, founding axeman. Their metamorphosis into what they are today — a truly great metal band you could at best arguably call “black metal” — would have been impossible without him. The bold steps between Frost — their debut full length — and their latest — the dense masterpiece Axioma Ethica Odini — are like listening to someone grow up, taking in more music and life experience. Along the way Enslaved always flourished, and there isn’t a band in black metal with more interesting, bizarre, and pleasing guitar work than them. Ivar was at the helm for that the whole time.
Consider the True Norwegian Black Metal guitarists: on one end, you have the punky sloppiness of Darkthrone and Euronymous-era Mayhem, and on the other, the rigid perfectionism of Emperor, Immortal, and Satyricon. Enslaved began in the middle and wound up shoving both sides aside: while guys like Ulver certainly did their part, Enslaved proved that black metal could be more than blastbeats, melancholy guitars, occasional folk instruments, and stuff about vikings (though they obviously didn’t shy away from that…) Ihsahn and Immortal’s Abbath still write technically demanding metal riffs and Darkthrone are somehow more metalli-punk than ever, but Ivar and Enslaved evolved at an alarming rate, becoming something different altogether, sometimes changing from album-to-album. But there’s never been stylistic whiplash, even when drawing from influences oceans away from eachother. His guitar has been the adhesive that’s held it all together, and by doing so, probably helped to ensure black metal’s survival after the bodies, church ashes, and bad PR started piling up.
Even on Frost and Eld, Bjørnson’s fretwork was more advanced than his peers: the mighty “793,” especially, shifts back and forth between folky, seasick strumming and harsh black metal riffs in a way that hints at something more ambitious (the track’s sixteen minute length spells it out pretty explicitly, though). Breakthrough album Below the Lights — featuring incendiary blackened prog barnburners like “As Fire Swept Clean the Earth” and anthemic “Havenless,” a mid-paced, headnodding chug that features some of the most brilliantly disjointed riffing of the band’s career — illustrated what they could really do, still close to their harsh black metal roots but awash in outer-genre beauty. The band had burnt through their overtly metal leanings but still had more to say. They kept saying it beautifully, from the expansive Isa (featuring Bjørnson’s five-hundred foot tall chords at the end of “Neogenesis”) and the dark and tightly wound Ruun (the title track’s henpecked Morse code riff is oddly effective) to the rampant accessibility of Vertebrae and bold density of Axioma Ethica Odini. There’s no greater joy in the band’s late-period run of greatness than Ivar’s guitar work, unpredictable and familiar at once. Although each album holds surprises, there’s never ambiguity over whether or not it’s still Enslaved.
My favorite of his riffs, though, are the most bizarre: the deceptively stupid one that comes crashing into Ruun‘s “Fusion of Sense and Earth” like a nu-metal guitarist with a head injury, the ethereal ones peppered all over Vertebrae before the band sours and gets harsh, and the violent fit “The Beacon” throws about two-thirds of the way through the song. They’re definitely odd riffs that may not sound great out of context, but in it, they’re essential. Though obviously the rest of Enslaved is nothing to sneeze at (the band have pretty decent taste in drummers, and Ivar’s been sharing his guitar duties with Ice Dale for the better part of a decade), it’s hard to imagine it — and its general broadening of what black metal could be — without Ivar. Were that the case, it’s entirely possible black metal would still be in its room with the blinds closed, hunched over a book about vikings, and playing the same six or seven chords over and over into a boombox with the “record” button pressed. Sometimes you need to help perfect something in order to properly rebuild it. Ivar Bjørnson pushed the boundaries of black metal so far that they’re in the blurry distance, only recognizable to those looking for them.
THE LIST SO FAR