It is not hard to accept one fundamental axiom of the post-black metal Norway that I have referred to recently: Enslaved is easily Norway’s finest band. From the beginning the band has always been strong; grown-ups in a room filled with angry teenagers. This sense has not lessened with the passage of time. While certain members of the scene will forever be singing their equivalent of Alice Cooper ridiculous teen hits as 45 year olds (or older, like the man himself), Enslaved will continue to push the boundaries of black metal with a mature and progressive sound. Starting with the release of Below the Lights in 2003, Enslaved has produced four modern classics of “progressive, psychedelic black metal.” The fourth of this string of amazing albums was Vertebrae, which was released in 2008 and landed the band a tour with Opeth as well as more recognition than they had ever received worldwide. And with good reason: it was the best record the band had written to date.
I never had the good fortunate to review Vertebrae, but I can easily say that it was a perfect album. It advanced the sound of Enslaved, while staying on the trajectory the band had been on since 2001/2003. The record had a still greater progressive feel due to an unusually large amount of clean vocals that the band had written, something that differentiated the album from its predecessors and gave it a unique feel all its own. The production was thick, but organic (if loud) and the song writing had the kind of energy that you get from a band that is in the middle of their prime, not a band producing their eleventh full length. For whatever reason the writing on that album burrowed right into my Angry Metal Heart and set down roots.
And really, Axioma Ethica Odini is more of the same when it comes right down to it. The sound that has been articulated here is quite similar to the Enslaved that we have grown to love (and/or have loved for a long time). The tracks are mid-paced, and chuggy with the occasional bursts of speed and blasts that indicate the band’s history. For example, the track “Ethica Odini” breaks out of the gate in a much more simplistic style than we’ve heard from the band in a long time (“it is perhaps our most repetitive song in 15 years,” says Grutle Kjellson), but instead of upping “the black metal” they stuck with the vocal approach that made Vertebrae such a huge success with new fans and old alike. Another track that stands out is “Waruun”, which starts out with a classic Enslaved riff reminiscent of “Havenless” from Below the Lights, and continues into the trademark clean vocals, again.
So, from those descriptions, you can see this as the natural outcome of the band’s movement forward. Stepping back a bit from the progressiveness of Vertebrae, without abandoning it entirely, certainly the tracks “Giants”, with its heavy keyboards and clean harmonies and “Night Sight” with its very 70s prog intro (a little Wishbone Ash and a little Yes?) maintain the progressive trajectory. And all of this is really embodied in “Lightening”, which I think is one of the finest Enslaved tracks ever written. It starts out beautifully, with a heavy groove/prog part with a fantastic delayed lead that really just rocks my world and contains probably the band’s finest vocals on the whole record. But after this intro it jumps into heavy, powerful black metal riffing which contrasts with a chorus that I cannot describe as anything other than ethereal: it just floats over the tribal drumming and keyboards creating an indescribable atmosphere. There is very little “weird” or “progressive” about the song in the traditional sense, but the structure is perfect in its simplicity and melodic nature. It is a pure moment of musical ecstasy that really pulls up the end of this album.
But it is this final track that also casts a pall over the rest of this record for me. I was expecting this whole album to be as phenomenal as “Lightening” was. But instead, of the 9 tracks, 3 of them (“The Beacon”, “Axioma” and “Giants”) leave me cold, and others are good but they don’t have the same kind of kick that Vertebrae did. There is just something here that doesn’t feel like it’s clicking. Like somehow that x factor just didn’t fall into place somewhere along the line and I am left with the feeling that despite liking this album a lot, I could just as easily go and pop in Vertebrae or Below the Lights and be just as (or more) pleased. This could be the outcome of excessively high expectations, I admit. Enslaved is one of my favorite bands in the modern era and I guess I’m feeling a bit disappointed that I wasn’t laying flat on my back after the first play through. Instead, the record has had to grow for me, something that can be either good or bad (as, for example, both my favorite Katatonia and my favorite Opeth records were growers that I was disappointed with at first). But my gut instinct tells me that while the vocal approach on Vertebrae just sort of “snuck up on” the band, it was a more conscious effort on Axioma Ethica Odini, making it feel more forced; a feeling that I had a hell of a time ignoring as I was listening to the album.
Of course, given everything I’ve read about this record online, everyone is making it out to be the best thing since the beginning of the creation of music. I’m not sure whether or not it’s wise to buy into the hype, but it’s hard for me to deny that this record still contains some very high quality material that will definitely please long time (and new) fans of the band. But I was hoping to give this album a 5/5 because I love the music this band has created so much, but I just can’t. Four outta five it is, but let’s not kid ourselves: Enslaved is still basically the only band from the original wave of black metal that’s still doing anything this original or interesting.