Enslaved (and more) in Toronto, 20 Feb 2018

Enslaved / Wolves in the Throne Room / Myrkur / Khemmis @ the Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto, February 20th, 2018

Decibel Magazine has once again pieced together a North American tour to encourage the extreme metal faithful to leave their domiciles in the colder months of the year. Tonight sees a transatlantic tour alliance between Norwegian progressive black Vikings Enslaved and nature-fixated atmospheric black metallers Wolves in the Throne Room touch down in Toronto.

Atmospheric black metal live can be regarded as a contradiction; the music is supposed to transport you to a place distant from your current surroundings. This appears to be what Washington State-based Wolves in the Throne Room are combating by blessing their instruments with burning sage before their performance. Last year saw the bold Americans release sixth album Thrice Woven, a retreat to their polarizing ‘ecological’ black metal rather than continuing the ambient path bequeathed by 2014’s Celestite. The set commences with the opener of the new album, ‘Born from the Serpent’s Eye’. The lengthy composition is beautiful, otherworldly with an earthy tone but to be frank, the song is far from spellbinding and attention increasingly wanes as the song unwinds. This is not captivating territory for the group that popularized Cascadian black metal, a regression from their intriguing ambient efforts.

The venue’s sound is decent at best but even at its most optimum, it cannot drastically improve proceedings. Three guitars are functional but could contribute more to spellbinding endeavours. Wolves in the Throne Room employ keyboard more freely now than on prior metal records but not to produce anything that most black metal adherents have encountered previously. Tremelo picking, melancholy chords, hackneyed drum beats and ‘organic’ soundscapes contribute nothing alluring. Sadly ‘The Old Ones Are With Us’ and ‘Angrboda’, two tracks from the new album, round out three quarters of the setlist. The final song fortunately reroutes to second album Two Hunters with ‘I Will Lay Down My Bones Among the Rocks and Roots’, undoubtedly the highlight of their performance. This retains all the elements the other songs aired tonight did but with more rigorous feral energy and memorable guitar work that better suits the live realm. There is scant in the way of a compelling stage presence besides wine-drinking but at one point, the fans partake in a mosh pit. Brothers Aaron and Nathan Weaver are the core of Wolves in the Throne Room but in returning to their metal sound on their latest release, they decided to play safe and remain inside the box. The result pales compared to their more ambitious earlier years.

The change over between bands spans over half an hour, frustratingly. But Norway’s progressive black metal vanguards Enslaved are surely worth patience. One by one, they take the stage before turning loose ‘Storm Son’ on the excited audience. What begins as a melodic, naked and exploratory guitar lead from Ivar Bjørnson morphs into Enslaved’s later day signature prog riffing, courting headbanging and awe. Last year’s ‘E’ album is the band’s fourteenth and they are still rich with inspiration. This release also saw the loss of keyboard player and clean vocalist Herbrand Larsen, a long time member of the Viking army.

The intricacies of Enslaved’s metal cannot be distilled down in a single listen. Drawing DNA from prog rock, psychedelic rock, folk, jazz and more into their black Viking prog metal is done expertly, clearly the product of a craft developed over a discography as storied as their homeland’s history. A vicious ‘Roots of the Mountain’ is an example of the more violent black metal elements punctuating their later, more soothing era. Larsen’s keyboard and clean vocals are handled by Håkon Vinje, who does an admirable job – especially as he is one year younger than Enslaved! Growler Grutle Kjellson growls and rasps to a deceptively wide range while his bass stomps through the Phoenix Concert Hall. The music is unpredictable but magnificent, with ten minute songs vanishing in what feels like a matter of seconds.

Kjellson introduces a tune dusted off for the die hards: ‘Vetrarnótt’ from the 1994 debut album Vikinglr Veldi – the first time played live in Toronto. It brims with the same tremelo-flecked pagan atmospheres as Wolves in the Throne Room but sustains intrigue with punchy rhythms, violent Scandinavian fury and subtle folk melody. Understandably, this is the only song away from their modern sound that they include on their far-too-brief setlist. New songs ‘The River’s Mouth’ and ‘Sacred Horse’ are impeccable and the Norwegians back the songs with a dynamic stage presence befitting a metal act.

Finally, ‘Isa’ revs up the audience a final time, the only Enslaved staple that has endured the test of time and for good reason. It’s hypnotic, epic and intricate without appearing clichéd or gaudy. The congregation’s response is voluminous and rightfully so. Like fellow countrymen Wardruna did the week prior, Enslaved leave behind them yet another flawless show, retelling Nordic mythology and history without making the whole showcase feel like a tacky LARPing affair that lesser Viking/folk metal bands rely on.

Review by Elena Francis. Photos by Adam Wills.

Adam has been a photographer for Hellbound since day 1 and also has a hand in the technical aspects of running the site. Plus he's the man behind heavymetalhamilton.ca.