Enslaved at Islington Assembly Hall

Support: Wayfarer| Svalbard
March 6, 2024 at Islington Assembly Hall
Promoter: Action!

Tonight’s bands cover the dream of the American West turned nightmare, social decay in 21st Century dystopian Britain, and the dark myths of the Scandinavian north. Now that’s what I call a tour package. And tonight’s show is taking place in the Islington Assembly Hall: a listed, art deco building from 1930. Now that’s what I call a venue. 

When the opening tape is all low, twangy acoustics and slide guitar it’s clear that Wayfarer are opening this show. Tonight’s set is a condensed version of their latest album American Gothic, starting with opener ‘The Thousand Tombs of Western Promise’. Given that Wayfarer are all about bringing the sound of Denver, Colorado, to atmospheric black metal, that album could not have been more aptly named. This is black metal you can groove to and get lost in: expansive extreme metal with a twang.

“Good Lord, it’s good to be back in London,” states mainman Shane McCarthy and we sure feel the same. I caught them in the significantly smaller Black Heart, Camden, last year and this feels like a step up, touring alongside the mighty Enslaved: “A huge inspiration for us. That’s fucking crazy to me.” 

Wayfarer • IAH London • Photo: Talie Rose Eigeland

Wayfarer songs are miniature epics: sonic vignettes telling frontier tales of black-clad amoral wanderers doing whatever they need to survive out in the Bad Lands. ‘To Enter My House Justified’, lead single from American Gothic, is a stand-out for me, with its aggressive riffs, melancholy cleaner vocals (“Lay down your guns…”), and general sense of trudging through adversity with no respite. And those clean vocals sound especially good live, alongside the rasps and howls. Skipping a few album tracks, Wayfarer finish at the end of the album, on ‘Pale Constellation’, complete with honky-tonk piano, and crisp licks building to a churning climax. It’s a short-but-sweet set and there’s no doubt everyone is baying for more.  

Svalbard are Nuclear Blast-signed, UK extreme metal heroes and they’re met with the rapturous greeting they deserve. Must admit, I’d assumed Wayfarer would be playing this slot: I’ve seen Svalbard previously playing amazing support slots so it’s a pleasant surprise to realize how far they have come. (Perhaps the two bands will trade slots on the rest of the tour.) Kicking off with older track ‘Disparity’, it’s a shame the bass cuts out, leaving this dissonant anthem sounding slightly light – but the band blast on regardless.  

Many metal bands (outside hardcore anyway) don’t discuss what their songs are about; or they give you the surface, leaving the personal undisclosed. The opposite is true of Svalbard. As a statement the band prominently use proclaims: “no poetry, no ambiguity – just raw honesty.” So Serena introduces ‘Faking It’ – perhaps their biggest song – as about dealing with the difference between your online presence and yourself in reality. It’s a moving statement. As the chorus peaks, the crowd is frantic, circle pit in action, heads banging. Serena, beatific as ever, acknowledges this energy: “Enslaved are one of our favorite bands of all time,” she announces, “it’s amazing to be here”. 

Svalbard • IAH London • Photo: Talie Rose Eigeland

Svalbard are great at slowing down to build up to a massive heavy chorus, as we get with new track ‘To Wilt Beneath the Weight’ (“about when love goes wrong”), and classics like ‘Lights Out’ (“about being really fucking depressed”) and ‘Click Bait’ (about revenge porn I seem to recall).  “That’s my shit!” the guy next to me proclaims, segueing neatly into the “Fuck off!” refrain from ‘Lights Out’ which we do all (especially Serena) enjoy shouting. Rousing, moving, powerful are good ways to describe Svalbard’s live show. And you know what? – you can have fun too.  

As the ominous synth strains of ‘Title Music from A Clockwork Orange’ bleed into the Hall, I sense there’s fun at work here. While the opening to Kubrick’s masterpiece makes for a fittingly dark and atmospheric set intro, there’s an irony to framing Enslaved, the nicest guys in black metal, as Alex and his ultraviolent Droogs. 

Enslaved • IAH London • Photo: Talie Rose Eigeland

As the overlapping guitar lines of ‘Kingdom’ (opener from the latest album Heimdal) ring out, you just know this is going to be a sick show. They might have been doing this for over 30 years but Enslaved have not lost their energy – or their vision – in any way. ‘Homebound’ from the COVID-era album Utgard makes for a nice change of pace, while ‘Forest Dweller’ – clearly a fan favorite from Heimdal – develops organically: Ivar plays shimmering acoustic chords, while melodic verses and woozy synth lines build to an epic climax.  

Apparently they’ve never played the absolute monster of a track ‘Sequence’ from Utgard live before, which demonstrates quite how much quality material Enslaved have written over the years. It’s good to see Håkon Vinje, Enslaved’s keyboard player and backing vocalist, come into his own here, playing a low, dirgy solo at the end which sounds great. 

Enslaved • IAH London • Photo: Talie Rose Eigeland

Enslaved are a compelling live band for many reasons – stage presence, an endearing penchant for self-deprecation, energy, great sound, supreme musicianship, I could go on – but especially because they always work to make each show unique. Whether it’s playing three greatest-hits sets across a weekend, amazing collabs with Wardruna and co., or mixing up the set-lists with tracks from across their extensive repertoire, you never get the same show twice. Tonight is a case in point as… after a short delay… a “special treat” appears on-stage. “Maybe it’s not such a surprise guest,” Grutle quips, “as there’s this modern thing called internet.”  

Yes indeed, some fans had guessed who walks on-stage next: An army of phone cams follows Jo Quail – London’s beloved virtuoso cello player – as she waves her way onstage, cradling her distinctive electric instrument. Given her collab with Enslaved on the deluxe version of Heimdal, no it’s not much of a surprise – and the room somewhat explodes with applause because everyone was really hoping this was going to happen. They play ‘Congelia’, of course, with Jo on stage-right beaming like it’s the highlight of her career. I’m too close to the front to get the nuances but Jo’s contribution to the track is subtle yet powerful: mirroring the guitar riffs, with deep, low bows at the top of the neck; adding texture and atmosphere with high staccato notes; picking up the guitar melodies and running with them. It’s a glorious – the drums sound massive – and we’d all love a few more with Jo on-board.  

Enslaved feat. Jo Quail • IAH London • Photo: Talie Rose Eigeland

But Enslaved know their audience. It’s time for some old-school black metal to keep the old-timers happy and ‘Loke’ is as fast and ferocious as it’s always been, whipping up a pit beside me. “We’re going to walk a little further down the old-school path,” Grutle announces. “It’s older but…golder.” It’s ‘The Dead Stare’ from Under the Lights, with some insane pull-off riffs that actually sound kinda like Wayfarer. 

…And it’s at this point in the set it all gets a bit hazy as the crowd gets more intense. Grutle dishes out an amazing evil laugh; someone’s waving their phone screen around in front of me (I swear they’re ordering Deliveroo!); Grutle quotes Blackadder, confusing and amusing in equal measure; and suddenly everyone has their arms in the air for the distinctive Norwegian chant of ‘Havenless’. I always love it when they play this track: it’s such an epic crowd pleaser, effortlessly mixing catchy riffs, super-tight proggy staccato rhythms, and electronic meanderings. They finish their set with the title track from Heimdal, showcasing the choir they can achieve with almost the full band singing together… 

Enslaved • IAH London • Photo: Talie Rose Eigeland

…and of course we call for an encore, with Iver Sandøy taking to the stage for a drum solo that mixes a tasteful display of technique with an amusing call-and-response game. Yet more super early tracks from Yggdrasill and Isa give Ice Dale (“the best [and only] lead guitarist in Enslaved”) a chance to showboat some killer solos, Les Paul raised behind his head, and Grutle the chance to crack more Blackadder jokes. The last chord of ‘Allfǫðr Oðinn’ lasts for several years, a fittingly rock-star ending to yet another perfectly selected setlist.  

Wayfarer, Svalbard, Enslaved: Now that’s what I call a show.  

 

Enslaved • IAH London • Photo: Talie Rose Eigeland

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