Enslaved has really secured its position in the highest tier of metal bands in the world. Though they started out long ago in the second wave of Norwegian black metal, nothing they’ve done since the late 90s has really represented that fraction of their existence. Instead, they’ve become one of metal’s shining examples of a transition from the extreme to the progressive. While doing more to maintain their extremity than a band like Anathema or Katatonia have done, the band’s last full length Axioma Ethica Odini and their EP The Sleeping Gods both lacked extremity while pushing out the borders of the band’s progressive bona fides. I wasn’t sure of what to make of Enslaved‘s RIITIIR when it first arrived – but while the record is ostensibly different than the band’s previous work, that mellow, bong-water stain of ’70s progressive rock continues to push further and further from their black metal roots. For the better?
“Thoughts Like Hammers” opens the record off with a cacophonous introduction that lasts too long. At first I was taken in; the plodding strains that followed stunned me and coursed their way through my veins. The clean vocals that we’ve all become so accustomed to flow in and out of the picture like flashes of color that break up the sepia riffs before dropping the listener right back into IZZ-like stoner rock. “Veilburners” Yes vibe at the beginning and “power” chorus again broke the repetitive grays of my autumnal existence and made me grin. But only after about the fourth listen when “Roots of the Mountain” kicked in with its black metal riffing, blast beat and Below the Lights keyboards did it occur to me what I was missing. Where’s the heavy?
As I’ve listened to RIITIIR time and time again I have stopped being impressed and started being bored. There are moments throughout the record that really stand out – cool riffs that stand out like on “Veilburner” and “Roots of the Mountain,” the beginning of “Storm of Memories” is maybe one of the coolest sections I’ve ever heard on an Enslaved record before bursting into something that truly felt like black metal. But gone are the tight songs, the brilliantly subtle writing that could sustain a single riff for longer than one would expect based on the kind of groove and atmosphere the track had. Instead the record has 5 tracks over the 8 minute mark, and the other songs aren’t short either. But without the depth of material to support these songs, they often cause one’s brain to go out wandering.
And sure, when the band really nails those cool moments they totally nail it. I’ve listened to this record dozens of times and have been repeatedly impressed with various parts here and there. But this record – an hour and 7 minutes – could have had 22 minutes cut off it easily and been a fantastic record. The continued bloating of the writing means that the best riffs are only scattered here and there as opposed to being back to back kicking your ass. It means that the clean vocals, which were only used to punctuate songs previously, take up too much space with melodies that are forgettable and should have been left on the cutting room floor (see: “Storm of Memories”). “RIITIIR” may be the only “complete” track on the whole album – strong from start to finish with the subtle and cool writing with the tight-wound grooves that had me in awe of this mighty mountain of metal that is Enslaved. Other than that, every song has weak moments, riffs that overstay their welcome, atmospheric simplistic parts that serve no purpose (“Forsaken” is a great example of the latter).
And so it is my sad duty to tell you that this record just isn’t that good. Sure, there are good moments and there’s a great song, but all-in-all it suffers from bloat and unfocused writing. On top of that, the production feels so polished that there’s nothing really heavy about the album. Instead, it’s very much music to chill and zone to – and I don’t smoke pot, so I don’t really need music to chill and zone to. I am disappoint. Enslaved and I appear to have grown in different directions.