I did not come to black metal in the normal way. Sure, my entrance into the genre was about the same as most people’s I’d guess: Burzum, Darkthrone, Mayhem, Summoning. But it’s only been in the past few years that I’ve begun to appreciate the works of Slayer, Kreator, Venom, and (early) Metallica. Instead of an escalation of riffs and noise, I came to black metal through the avant-garde tradition, particularly the American minimalists. This may seem paradoxical, but there’s an album out there that will teach you that maybe these two poles aren’t so different after all: Enslaved’s 1992 demo, Yggdrasill (which was reissued on vinyl by Peaceville in 2011).
Wanting to approach black metal from an avant-garde classical position requires some suspension of disbelief, but I think it’s important to approach music the same way that you would approach a piece of visual art: on the surface, Francisco di Giorgio’s Architectural Veduta and Mondrian’s corpus could not be more different, but they share with one another a certain geometric resonance, which is apparent through time and space. That means something. So when you listen to Yggdrasill don’t think about church burnings or Vikings – approach the music on its own terms.
The first thing that strikes you is the wall of sound. It’s been joked that “kvlt” black metal not only sounds like it was recorded with tape deck buried in a trashcan but that all of the instruments are also, in fact, trashcans. But there is something deeply revelatory about the experiencing of this type of musical sound, beyond simply the ethics of lo-fi and other concerns. From the first second of “Heimdallr,” you hear something that will be a constant companion throughout the record, more or less discernable: tape hiss. You could say without much exaggeration that the tape hiss forms a weight that flattens the music, reduces it to its most basic experience, like a flower pressed in the pages of a book. The recording becomes monolithic in one dimension, to crib slightly from Sunn O))), where the wall of sound barely lets the listener tell the difference between the instruments. The record becomes overpowering in a profound sense. This flattened music takes on a symbolic quality and makes one think about the flattened wall of ambient sound that we are surrounded with on a daily basis. And this was, of course, one of the concerns of the great minimalist composers: the noise of the world. Enslaved, with this demo, unleashes a profound piece of music that recalls the ultra-loud experimentations of La Monte Young and the tradition of natural field recordings.
Of course, even without all this, the music is pretty damn great, too, from the synths of “Heimdallr” to the organ solos to the piano denouement rounding out the appropriately titled “Resound of Gjallarhorn.” This album is not just interesting as an historical document or a great example of lo-fi black metal, but it can and should also be appreciated as a philosophical statement – even if Enslaved did not intend it as such.