In Vain hails from Norway, famous for its black metal, its fjords, its oil, its social democracy, but certainly not its progressive death metal. It’s actually a little strange that the land that brought us Borknagar, Enslaved, Ulver, and Solefald has never really produced its own Opeth or In Mourning, instead outsourcing that to its less affluent and pampered neighbor to the east (that’d be Sweden for the geographically challenged). Without getting too much into regional politics, it’s safe to say that given how high on the hog these Norwegians live—exploiting their Swedish workers and guzzling crude oil at the state’s expense—it’s surprising that none of them have wandered into the melodic, progressive death metal genre. They certainly have access to enough subsidies for the arts to do so if they wanted to.
That is, of course, with the notable exception of In Vain. Ænigma is the third record from what could be termed as the death metal answer to modern Borknagar. And actually, the band is a bit like a quasi-supergroup. While largely made up of unknown musicians, In Vain is actually the other part of Solefald‘s live act, and they’ve also featured former Green Carnation and Blood Red Throne members. Their albums have also been huge undertakings, often featuring dozens of guest musicians and plenty of orchestration, and while their 2007 debut The Latter Rain was well-received, 2010’s Mantra left a lot to be desired… mostly that Norwegians would stop trying to play the blues (one can be certain they’d appreciate it if Georgians didn’t try to play Norwegian folk music).
Twenty-thirteen sees In Vain back in the game with a beefy slab of progressive death metal, produced by the very capable Jens Bogren (yet another example of Norwegians exploiting Swedish labor). Gone are the dirty Southern blues (thanks be to mighty Oden) and in are guest vocals from Lazare (Solefald, Borknagar, a.k.a. the reason the debut Ásmegin record is so fucking good) and Cornelius (the other guy from Solefald). This contributes to what is easily the band’s best record ever. A solid showing of technique, diversity, smart writing and amazing vocal performances.
Ænigma takes the listener through a vast array of styles and feels, from acoustic Norwegian folk music to meloblack feelings on “Hymne til havet” to In Mourning post-death melocore (how ’bout that genre?) on the proggy “Culmination of the Enigma.” The obvious nods are given in the direction of Opeth and Barren Earth on “Floating on the Murmuring Tide” and “Image of Time,” and I can’t shake the feeling that Galder, of Old Man’s Child, didn’t write the opening riffs on “Times of Yore” and “To the Core.” All of these songs have an epic intensity to them, with luscious keys and thick bottom ends that will crush your skull (figuratively, of course).
It is the band’s ability to bridge these gaps with a variety of different styles, both compositionally and vocally, that makes Ænigma such a fun record to listen to. “Floating on the Murmuring Tide,” floats through Old Man’s Child-style blackened death, nears a Barren Earth-like keyboard soaked acoustic part, calls up late Bathory with well-placed vocal chanting, soaks the song in noir saxophone and manages to get it all done 9 minutes and 17 seconds without ever losing its entertainment value. But where Ænigma could be stronger is in terms of hooks and songwriting. While the songwriting is good, subtle and layered, there are times when in the longer tracks when a dropped repetition or a rearranged part might have tightened things. An hour is a long record, and since the songs peak with Lazare’s amazing guest performance on “Image of Time,” which is only 3 tracks in (though it should be noted that the main riff on “Rise Against” is pretty darned amazing), there’s a feeling that things could have been held a bit shorter.
When it’s all said and done, though, In Vain is doing us all a favor by staying on their toes, getting better with every record and putting out a damned fine album in Ænigma. Looking forward to letting this one grow on me and see what happens at the end of the year.