By: Angry Metal Guy
Enslaved is Norway’s biggest and most successful (currently active) metal band. They have garnered a following of intensely loyal fans who adore their every release with the fervor of the newly converted. In fact, I once counted myself a huge fan. There was a string of records that Enslaved released between 2000’s Mardraum: Beyond the Within and 2008’s Vertebrae which are practically unassailable. Not every one of those albums was perfect—Isa and Ruun were both only great records when sat side-by-side the excellent Below the Lights and Vertebrae, but they were consistently addictive listens from a band that could do no wrong. And I, along with everyone else, lathered Axioma Ethica Odini with praise, only to declare it one of my biggest disappointments of the year in 2010. I meh’d the hulking RIITIIR, and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯’d its follow-up In Times, declaring it a testament to the excesses of the modern recording industry. In sum: Enslaved went from being one of my favorite bands in 2008 to being a band whose newest release almost didn’t get reviewed by me. But with all the ranting and raving about how E is the best album they’ve put out in a while, I couldn’t keep myself away. So brace yourselves and break out your flame-retardant clothes, because I’ll be seeing you in the comment field below.
Contrary to what you may have read, E is nothing revolutionary for Enslaved. Instead, it is a marked continuation of the band’s post-Axioma material. The songs are long—averaging in at 8 minutes and 19 seconds—with the opener and closer pushing the 11 and 10 minute marks respectively. They tracks tend toward being slow burners, often giving ample space to the repetition of individual ideas, and the layering of clean vocals, keyboards, and soundscapes. For example, “Feathers of Eolh” sports an outro with an awesome 5/4 riff that goes on for a minute and 54 seconds. During this time they slightly change the feel, increasing the track’s intensity while lacing the sound with Melotron, and chants which drive for an almost ritualistic fervor. The album’s final track continues this trajectory as well: a lilting introduction (in 7/8 time) and Perdition City saxophone.
When E is at its best, it is groovy and ethereal. “Sacred Horse” is one of the album’s finest moments, with a hypnotic “outro” making up the back half of the song (literally, it’s over three and a half minutes long). Like the aforementioned “Feathers of Eolh,” the simple idea accrues layer after layer of sounds—tom heavy drums rumble with the bass underneath it like a slow boil—before breaking into a genuinely black metal rendition of the riff for 20 seconds. And while fewer and further between than one might like, moments “Axis of the Worlds” demonstrates that Enslaved hasn’t forgotten how to write groovy riffs. Just under the surface, there’s a sense of the Enslaved that I grew to love in the early 2000s.
When E is at its worst, it suffers from Advanced Progressiveness Syndrome™, which is the idea that if you ham-handedly shove melotron into your songs, use blues scales and make them really long, they will be “progressive.” What has resulted is that since going more “progressive” Enslaved has increased the length of their songs by nearly 2 minutes and 15 seconds on average.1 This leads to a lot of tracks that overstay their welcome by minutes at a time. I’m not sure that Enslaved has increased its “riffs per minute” measure, I think they’re just taking a lot longer to get anywhere than they used to. When this works, you’ve got “Sacred Horse”; entrancing and inspiring. When this doesn’t work, you’ve got “Hiindsiight,” which feels burdensome and collapses under its own weight.
Despite some of the frustration that I have with the excesses of the band’s current sound, E is a record that does mark the band’s most engaging work since Vertebrae. The tracks are a bit shorter, the groove is a bit more present, and the album is a bit more bite-sized at 49 minutes.2 While I still think the whole of the band’s vision is hampered by an Industry Standard Production Job™, there’s plenty to like here. Definitely check out “Axis of the Worlds” and “Sacred Horse,” which could both show up on end of year lists for great songs.
By: El Cuervo
I’ve been continually mystified across the past several years over my complete and utter ambivalence towards Norway’s Enslaved. I love black metal. I love progressive rock. I love other progressive black metal. And yet Enslaved eludes me despite probably being the most notable example of it. It’s even worth adding that Opeth, with whom they’re frequently compared, is one of my favorite bands. I’ve invested a decent amount of time across a decent number of their records, most notably Vertebrae, but largely haven’t bothered with repeated spins. That changes now as I actively wanted to commit time and effort into one of their releases to hear if it stuck; I therefore signed my name next to the promo for E.
For what is a nominally black metal band there isn’t an awful lot of it left on E. Blackened passages pepper most tracks but a progressive, chunky, riff-based style is most commonly utilized. There are a few nod-alongs here as the leads tend to have a good groove. The more overt progressive elements include, for example, a particularly jazzy keyboard on “Sacred Horse,” liberal saxophone on “Hiindsiight,” backing strings on “Storm Son,” the flute on “Feathers of Eolh” and the noodly guitar intro to “Axis of the Worlds.” The record is certainly not monotonous on account of each track using slightly different tools. The song-writing and structures fit the progressive image too, with a flowing style used across expansive tracks of which five run to eight or more minutes.
I appreciate the man-sized cojones in opening with, and releasing as the first single, the longest track: “Storm Son.” Stretching to nearly 11 minutes, it’s a sprawling demonstration of all the elements which come to fore across E. Opening with natural ambiance before moving to progressive prettiness, it goes on to traverse passages of heavy grooves, Viking chants and reasonable blackened blasting. The epic chants arising around 7:40 which reprise over the ensuing few minutes make for a decent payoff over the track’s duration but I have a definite gripe; these separate passages feel very separate, as if they could easily be on different tracks. The song-writing stitches them together without real unification. And touching on payoffs, “Sacred Horse” and “Hiindsiight” both utilize builds which would be effective if only their payoffs were fulfilling. It only lasts for 20 seconds on the former and a climax isn’t even hit on the latter, with the crescendo weakly petering out. There’s wasted potential across E and I’m left with an overall dissatisfaction.
There are good, appreciable parts to each track. The swirling outro to “The River’s Mouth” is cool and the opening couple of minutes to “Sacred Horse” are probably the record’s best with the jazzy keyboard layered over a nifty riff before the transition into an ascending black metal lead. But when reviewing an album one must consider it in the round, not just from moment to moment. I like parts but I don’t really like the whole, and as such, I feel no compulsion to return to the album after my reviewers’ duties are completed. I emphasize that I don’t actively dislike E but my absolute ambivalence remains. There is a distinct lack of emotional attachment for me and I’m struggling to glean on overarching personality conveyed through the music. Some passages are fairly repetitive such as segregated sections on “Storm Son” and the conclusion to “Feathers of Eolh” so I’m surprised that even in these parts so little sticks.
The great Enslaved-appreciation project has not, for me, been demystified despite my best efforts and repeated listens. E is competent in the sense that it’s a professional package and individual parts are reasonably good. But my overall response is firstly my familiar ambivalence; secondly, and due to dedicated observations for review purposes, the problems I note above. I’m now satisfied that I’ve truly given Enslaved a fair shake (fairer than most!) and that they’ll never hold anything for me. Cue gnashing of teeth about how I’m not “an objective reviewer” because this isn’t my “sort of music”.
- Lengths of albums follow: Below the Lights, average song length 6:37, album length 46 minutes; Isa, average song length: 6:14, album length: 44 minutes; Ruun, average song length: 5:45, album length: 46 minutes; Vertebrae, average song length: 6:08, album length: 49 minutes; Axioma average song length: 6:36, album length: 59 minutes; Riitiir, average song length: 8:24, album length: 67 minutes; In Times, average song length: 8:52, album length 53 minutes; E, average song length: 8:19, album length: 49 minutes. ↩
- Compared to the 60 minutes that Axioma, RIITIIR, and In Times averaged ↩