The slow but steady evolution of Enslaved

Enslaved’s cruising speed is rather impressive both in terms of regularity and productivity. The mother ship has been sailing for nigh on ten years now, travelling up the music river from their original home port of Nordic black metal in the 90s to a more progressive, even avant-guard extreme metal port of call. They now claim to be influenced by Pink Floyd, Rush, King Crimson and a few other progressive, atmospheric and psychedelic bands from the 70s. The recipe is indeed working, and the ship goes peacefully and smoothly along. RIITIIR, the band’s new album, poses a question: should Enslaved have followed the same progression and avoid the eddy, or should they have changed their course towards a less peaceful branch of the river?

Unquestionably, Enslaved have found a formula that works and fits them perfectly. Distancing themselves from the darkness of their contemporaries’ black metal since the change of course initiated with Monumension, Grutle Kjellson’s gang has been steadily sailing towards their very own destination, in a quest for ancestral paganism. Their entire discography is a testimony of this musical pilgrimage towards spiritual perfection. For more than ten years, the band has been going ever forward on the path of experimentation, building a gorgeous structure in honor of their belief.

As an example, Below The Lights (2003) is proof of the authenticity that has since become the band’s trademark. The musicians themselves see this album as a new beginning – even if Monumension was the first step of the journey. Isa (2004), the Norwegians’ major work – and a true “masterpiece” for some – is testimony to the ambition of a wildly imaginative band. The two original members have become a machine looking for an ideal. As for Run, released in 2006, it put said ideal to the test, by underlining all the hard work dedicated to orchestrations and arrangements. But hard work is now seen as one of Enslaved’s biggest treasures. They have somehow managed to never repeat nor contradict themselves. Vertebrae (2008) once again showed the band’s coherence at its best: the album seems coherent in its progression, but it also seems to rely on Below The Lights to demonstrate that Enslaved have not lost track of their holy mission. It was only logical that they should then release Axioma Ethica Odini (2010), the summary of the band’s life this past decade.

True to their clockwork regularity, Enslaved now introduce RIITIIR, a word invented by Ivar Bjørnson to give the word “ritual” a Nordic feel. At first, it sounds like the band is using all the trademark ingredients of the past ten years – the same ingredients that once built the identity of Axioma Ethica Odini. In this respect, it appears the Norwegians have been trying to create an unofficial, end-of-decade trilogy with Vertebrae, Axioma Ethica Odini and this new album. As a result, the approach is very familiar and close to that of the previous albums (in terms of clean and saturated vocals, for example), making it sound like the band is adding finishing touches to what they do best.

But this time, it sounds like Enslaved are trying to attenuate all signs of aggressiveness to the benefit of spirituality. Even if the foundation remains true to what was laid out by the previous record, the sound is rounder and warmer. The tempos are more insistent, sometimes even atmospheric (some will say “doom”), which broadens the dynamics and offers more possibilities to breathe. Clean vocals are also more present, slightly unbalancing the clean/guttural ratio, and some vocal harmonies give an almost religious feel to some of the songs (“Thoughts Like Hammers”, “Roots Of The Mountain”). Certain tracks bring a hypnotic aspect to the album, and the record as a whole will help the listener drift off into a contemplative state, while the previous ones still encouraged action. This very dreamy RIITIIR could easily act as an epilogue, halfway between the peaceful end to a story whose turmoil is mostly gone and the beginning of a new era. For RIITIIR is not free from surprises. The biggest among those is to be found in the vocals: aside from the clean vocals and the harmonies, Enslaved used low, chanting voices (“Death In The Eyes Of Dawn”, “Forsaken” or “RIITIIR”), vocalizations in the background (“Thoughts Like Hammers”), and even a plaintive sort of singing, bordering on speaking, accompanied by arpeggios and an old piano to conclude the album. What’s more, the band has managed to vary their arrangements, being as rich as ever as well as more organic in their choices, and working hard on the atmospheres that go through this album and give it a deep identity.

Given the band’s unfailing regularity in releasing albums, one can probably reproach them for a hasty composition process. A longer break would have allowed the band to bring something more drastically new to their creativity, and to go further with their new ideas. The fact that Enslaved manage to churn out a new record every other year could well create an addiction in the listener, who won’t notice many changes between two albums – rather paradoxical for a band that claims the influence of progressive rock. Similarly, the general slowness and high melodic potential of the album could make one believe that the band have chosen a simplistic, somewhat easy path. As a whole, this assessment is not even too harsh, since Enslaved never put themselves in danger, despite the variety of textures and complexity of the structures. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and all that.

Enslaved carry on their slow evolution, highlighting a few colors, refining a few brushstrokes, but never truly setting aside their old palette. They’re a bit like time flowing slowly from past to future, without nobody ever noticing a change. Only when confronting the present to the past, or to the possible futures it foretells, can we truly realize how much things have changed. RIITIIR is indeed the present, so familiar and yet very different from what the band has already offered. RIITIIR is the work of a more mature, adult band. What if this album suggested Enslaved is about to enter old age?

Co-written by Alastor and Spaceman.

RIITIIR, released October 1st 2012 by Nuclear Blast.

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