[30 September 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Enslaved’s transformation from Norwegian black metal pioneers to progressive metal groundbreakers has been so gradual over the past 10 years, it’s not so much an astonishing transformation as a graceful metamorphosis. Touches of progressive rock and metal were starting to creep into their music during the late-‘90s, but starting with 2000’s Mardraum: Beyond the Within the influence became increasingly pronounced, to the point where the latter half of the last decade saw them create a hybrid sound of their own that straddled both prog rock and black metal simultaneously. Every album along the way has been a thoroughly classy, confident piece of work that dared to challenge the boundaries of not just black metal but extreme metal in general. By the time the superb Vertebrae came out in 2008, it truly felt like Enslaved was at the top of their game. Beautifully recorded, Vertebrae was all about spaciousness, from the sparse recording style, to a complete lack of compression, to the overt Pink Floyd homages in the vocal melodies.
For a band still brimming with interesting ideas nearly 20 years into their career, it was anybody’s guess just where Enslaved would go on their 11th studio full-length, but it’s safe to say not many of us expected Axioma Ethica Odini to be as aggressive as it is. “Ethica Odini” simply explodes out of the gates with a ferocity we haven’t heard since 2003’s landmark Below the Lights, a thunderous, mid-paced gallop with guitars sounding nearly as icy as they did on 1994’s Frost. It’s enough to take the listener aback after years of comparatively sedate tunes.
If there’s one thing that Enslaved had not perfected on record, though, it’s properly capturing their live sound. 20 seconds into the new record it’s more than apparent that’s one of their objectives this time around. It’s a very heavy album at times. The deliberately paced “Waruun” stomps along with slow-steady force before launching into a faster verse section that draws from the palm-muted rhythm riffs of thrash metal and the sweeping, doomy grandiosity of Opeth. “Giants”, meanwile, is pure doom, through and through, the riffs by Ivar Bjørnson and Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal inspired by the economy and discipline of Tony Iommi while bassist/vocalist Grutle Kjellsson snarls away. Any questions of whether Enslaved was softening are swiftly erased.
What’s been at the core of Enslaved’s music from 2004’s Isa and onward is not heaviness and aggression, but rather dynamics. They’ve been getting better and better at offsetting the chilly atmospherics and pulverizing brutality with contemplative moments that stress melody, but Axioma Ethica Odiniis so adept at shifting gears that the band makes it feel effortless. When a song goes from thunderous to tender, we don’t even blink, which brings us back to that key first track “Eithica Odini”. After such a rousing opening six minutes, the song shifts its focus to a vocal melody led by keyboardist and clean singer Herbrand Larsen, and from out of the blue the track is transformed into something achingly beautiful, punctuated by Bjørnson’s emotional guitar solo and layered harmony vocals.
In the end, that brilliant juxtaposition of the metallic and the melodic is what makes this album so spellbinding. “Raidho” smoothly changes from a charging verse to a mournful passage underscored by mellotron. “The Beacon” makes great use of a spartan, mid-tempo groove and a riff that’s as gigantic as it is melancholic. “Singular” is rife with tempo changes but remains cohesive as Larsen and Kjellsson trade harsh and clean vocals to terrific effect. It’s on the last two tracks that the band truly peaks. Larsen’s singing is a massive improvement over his rather obvious copying of David Gilmour on Vertebrae, and “Night Sight” is a revelation, feeling as if Larsen is stepping into the role as a proper co-lead singer for the first time. “Lightening” is even better, as Larsen holds his own against the distinct growl of Kjellsson, the pair feeding off each other well.
Axioma Ethica Odini is less a reinvention by Enslaved than an encapsulation of all of the strongest aspects of their music over the past decade. Theirs remains one of the most distinct sounds in all of metal, and while they’ve never been short of inspiration on record, they’ve outdone themselves here with their best album since 2003. The most exciting metal band in Scandinavia just keeps getting stronger.