Vikingligr Veldi has always been a difficult album for me to approach, since I've ever placed its aesthetic importance well above the actual quality of its compositions. I make no secret that Enslaved have evolved into one of my favorite bands in the world, but what was happening back in these halcyon days of existence, where the Norse warriors were carving their runes into the roots of Yggdrasil, was not always so flawlessly compelling. One of two albums the band released in 1994, I've always admired the later Frost a great deal more than this album, and yet I don't think I could argue that this was a hugely influential piece on the large swaths of Viking folk/black aspirants that would follow in its wake.
Perhaps my primary quip with this record is in the length of the songs. Now, I realize that the very notion of historic and mythological lyrics and concepts like these implies a grand, almost Wagnerian treatment, but I can't help but to feel that each of the four bloated beasts on this album is in need of a beard-trimming. If Vikingligr Veldi were as progressive and eclectic as the works the band has produced in more recent years, then it might offer a more absorbing array of dynamics, but oftentimes in listening to this album the songs don't ever seem to escalate, but to simply sail along the same level of intensity regardless of the changes in riffs and rhythms. I'd not fault the album for being excessively repetitive. Sure, they cycle and recycle a number of the guitar patterns throughout each 10-11 minute opus, but never to the point that I felt that moss were growing on my ears. It's more that the central guitar riffs meander along in admittedly predictable patterns that lack the memorable sequences the band will later develop.
Grutle's vocals are also not one of the redeeming features here. They're adequate, but focused on a rather monotonous bark that almost always stays back-seat to the guitars and keys. I know there are some out there who have always felt this way about his rasp, and yet I really like the contrast it creates on their more modern efforts, not to mention the more varied inclusion of the cleans. Here, that's just not the case, and they seem like an afterthought over the streaming, melodic tremolo riffs. Where someone like Ihsahn was capable of whipping up a despotic storm of nightmares above the blasted surge beneath, these seem dry and repressed. That said, he's a pretty good bassist, and the rest of the instruments are so well delivered that perhaps they might be forgiven for this one, slacking factor.
As for the production, it's quite level, if not more level than its neighbor Frost. Both of the full lengths feature an airy grace to the synths and faster paced guitar rhythms, and yet they're always able to evoke this gathering darkness, a brooding storm hinted at even on the brightest and symphonic melodies. I've found that, without exception, the more orchestral and folksy sequences on this album have remained my favorite. Like the intro to "Fires of Midgard" with its synthesized horns and baleful acoustic strumming. Or the near 11 minute instrumental finale "Norvegr", which features a flux of clean keys alongside the rolling, fjord-like flow of the backing electric chords. Where Vikingligr Veldi is at its most nerdy and melancholy, I find it an entirely pleasant listening experience...it's only once faced with 7-8 minutes of straight charging riffs that some of the iron rusts off the helmet.
"Living Beneath the Hammer" might be the best of the core black metal pieces, if only because of the little glistening speed metal breaks and the quirkiness of the keyboard melody over the surge of the verses, but "Fires of Midgard" (beyond the intro) and "A Winter's Night" only rarely hold my interest for more than a few minutes; and while its appreciably shorter, I'm also not into "Heimdallr" outside of the wild, explosive lead. It's a pity, because certainly Vikingligr Veldi is far ahead of its time, not to mention one of the most solidly produced black metal records of its day, even more balanced than For All Tid or In the Nightside Eclipse. Clearly, for a trio, Enslaved had its shit together, and thus it's no coincidence that Trym's drumming and Ivar's lattice of tremolo melodies on this album have been aped time and time again by the less creative.
Truthfully, there's a lot to admire here, even if I don't find much of the actual music to inspire me to break this thing out when I can choose the band's other records. It was not as menacing as In the Nightside Eclipse the same year, but then, neither were these supposed to be anthems of narcissistic, Satanic devotion; but a tribute to the band's Viking ancestors and cultural myths that would persist until the present. I wouldn't say it's the worst Enslaved, since I admire this more than Eld (1997), but ultimately there's just something too disengaging about 11-12 minute songs that never really explode into emotional climaxes, no matter how polished and structured they might be. And that, in my opinion, has been the deciding factor in holding this back from the gates of greatness to the merely 'good'.
Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (look, and behold yourself)