When you consider how drastically the music of Enslaved has evolved over the last five or six years, the first thing that pops into your head is just how much it resembles the similar unexpected turn the trajectory of Canadian legend Voivod took 20 years ago. Just as it’s impossible to compare the inimitable sounds of Voivod’s Angel Rat to its thrash-infused debut War and Pain, so, too, is it difficult to weigh the disciplined, progressive metal mastery of Enslaved’s new album Vertebrae against the raw black metal fury of 1993’s legendary split CD with Emperor, Hordanes Land. The difference is that radical, and the comparison to Voivod is not lost on Ivar Bjørnson.
“Voivod was definitely a thing we listened to a lot when we started the band,” the guitarist says, on the phone from his home in Bergen, Norway. “This thing about disharmony, to be a bit theoretical, was definitely pointed out very heavily to us by Voivod. That if you do disharmony to a strong enough extent, that’s when you get new harmonies emerging from an overload of disharmony. This thing about two guitars doing two very different things, creating sort of a third, nonexistent guitarist voice, those are definitely coming from Voivod. A futuristic yet retro sound at the same time.”
Firmly rooted in the past yet always looking ahead, creating harmony out of dissonance: you couldn’t find more appropriate descriptions of Enslaved. Its last four albums, starting with 2003’s shattering Below the Lights, saw the band, led by founding members Bjørnson and bassist/vocalist Grutle Kjellson, shed the black metal tag for good, and create one of extreme music’s most unique hybrids in the process. However, while 2004’s Isa and 2006’s Ruun refined the band’s sound while making that transition from black metal to “prog” in surprisingly graceful fashion, Vertebrae feels like that watershed moment Enslaved has been working towards all these years. Bjørnson, Kjellson, keyboardist/singer Herbrand Larsen, second guitarist Ice Dale, and drummer Cato Bekkevold have become masters of metal dynamics: Larsen’s smooth vocal melodies no longer accentuate Kjellson’s snarl, instead serving as its counterpoint, while aggressive passages are smoothly offset by contemplative solo breaks. “We’ve had forward-pointing albums before this, the two albums before this had this sort of melodic tendency, sort of showing a little bit more of the influences outside of metal,” Bjørnson says. “But this time, I think even the guys in the band got a little bit surprised by how different it became. At the same time it’s maintaining a connection with the roots of Enslaved, so yeah, we’re really, really proud.”
The chilly, sparse atmospherics of Norwegian black metal still lingers in Enslaved’s music to this day, but a more warm, cozy mix has steadily made its way into its last few albums. That’s apparent on the new record, which benefits immensely from the expertise of mixer Joe Barresi, whose more organic approach (made famous on Tool’s 10,000 Days and Kyuss’ classic Welcome to Sky Valley) is a key ingredient Bjørnson and his mates have been wanting to have on their albums all along. While the meeting of Enslaved and Barresi was purely serendipitous (Barresi wound up mixing a band whose album Larsen was producing, not knowing Larsen was a member of his favorite Norwegian band), it’s been a perfect match on Vertebrae, one of the more tastefully mixed and mastered metal albums in an age of constant, unrelenting overcompression. Instead of a huge, dense wall of loudness, there’s actual space between tracks, its open quality far less suffocating with not a lick of artificiality detectable.
Bjørnson explains, “Back on Below the Lights, at the studio in Bergen, they always ask you when you’re mixing and mastering if you have some reference records, along the lines of what you want. Our problem was that we didn’t really have that. The bands that had the same kind of music that we had, they didn’t have the sound that we wanted, so we could show them Bathory, Darkthrone, Mayhem, and say these are our favorite albums, but it’s nowhere close to what we want our music to sound like. And then we could do the opposite and show them Tool and say we really like the way that the guy’s mixing, he’s really making room for each instrument, he’s doing a classical, timeless production, but the music is too far off to make a comparison.
“When we were starting to work on Vertebrae, we said, ‘Okay, this one, we’ve got to get Joe to mix it.’ Talked to him, met up with him on the previous US tour, had some blueberry pancakes, and he said this is basically how he saw Enslaved. He’d seen the band live a couple of times, and he wanted us to go more raw, to keep it more real for lack of a better word. Keep the instruments apart, avoid those layer upon layer things that you hear so many times, no triggers whatsoever. The drummer sounds great, let’s make him sound exactly how he sounds. It was a perfect collaboration.”
The Devil’s Blood, Come, Reap (Profound Lore)
So convincing is this Dutch band on its new five-track CD that you’d swear it came straight out of a dusty bin of old, scratched LPs from the early 1970s. The stately gallop of “River of Gold” feels lifted from Robin Trower, and the furious “The Heavens Cry Out For the Devil’s Blood” blends the occult rock of Coven with the trancelike psychedelic fare of the late ’60s. All the while, female singer the Mouth (names have been enigmatically withheld) channels Grace Slick, delivering lyrics that, unlike many bands past and present, approach Satanism with stone-faced seriousness. And to prove that they’re capable of some searing rock ‘n’ roll, they toss in a spirited cover of Roky Erickson’s “White Faces”. Outstanding.
Landmine Marathon, Rusted Eyes Awake (Level Plane)
Infusing the old school death sounds of Carcass and Entombed with a strong thrash element is nothing new, but Arizona’s Landmine Marathon does it with such gusto on its second full-length that it’s impossible not to get caught up in it all. Guitarists Jeff Owens and Mike Pohlmeier sounding inspired on the brilliant, Scandinavian sounding “Bled to Oblivion”, and the sludge exercise of “Xenocide” sounds monolithic. Vocalist Grace Perry screams her unholy heart out, her duet with Job for a Cowboy’s Jonny Davy on “Red Days Awake” a match made in death growler heaven. Or hell.
Total Fucking Destruction, Peace, Love, and Total Fucking Destruction (Enucleation)
Rich Hoak strikes again, as the Brutal Truth drummer has churned out another uproarious, clever, eclectic, wildly entertaining record that runs the proverbial gamut over its 25 minutes. The startling bursts of post punk (“Monsterearth Megawar”), bizarre Rush homages (“Grindcore Salesman”), groovy hardcore (“Antidecompartmentalization”), and combinations of metal and noise (“Let the Children Name Themselves”) offset the kind of taut, chaotic blasts of grindcore we expect. All the while, Hoak’s ranting lyrics walk the line between shamelessly bleeding-heart sentiment to pure, unadulterated hilarity. If only every album this shamelessly self-indulgent was this much fun.
The most perfect example of Vertebrae‘s spaciousness is on the dreamy “Ground”. Bjørnson and Kjellson have never hidden their admiration of Pink Floyd, but just as Voivod did with its landmark 1989 cover of “Astronomy Domine”, “Ground” dives headlong into the Floyd aesthetic more than ever before. Shamelessly so, some might say, but anchored by an opening section slyly lifted from early-1980s Rush, “Ground”‘s influences might be obvious, but the sincerity of the performances is key, and its brave turn towards the mellower side (especially in the “Echoes”-like middle break) could very well mark a significant turning point in the band’s career. “The opening riff, I was aware I was committing some kind of heresy,” admits Bjørnson. “It was pretty much directly influenced by ‘Sheep’, the opening song from Animals. It really appeals to me — it’s funky, it’s poppy, that riff. But the chords are so different, it’s got a standard rhythm, but the chords are very nostalgic and atmospheric, and I just let that influence me totally…I guess it sort of happened unconsciously, so that when the singers came back with the vocals to the song, and especially when Ice Dale came back with the lead guitar on that song, I realized just how much our admiration for Pink Floyd had shown through on that song.”
What helps elevate not only “Ground” but the entire record is the increased reliance on Larsen’s cleanly-sung vocals, which were tinkered with on Ruun but come into full bloom on the new record, and Bjørnson fully agrees that the contributions of Larsen cannot be underestimated. “The three guys that came into the band after Grutle and me are extremely important, but with Herbrand, it’s really showing on this album,” he says. “He started out as a session keyboard player in 2001, he just filled in because he was the studio technician for Below the Lights and the album before, and he stood out as a very talented musician. He did keyboards, and then Grutle was thinking, ‘Hmm, maybe I could get some help doing the harmonies on the vocals.’ He asked Herbrand, ‘Can you sing?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ Then he discovered the guy’s got a great voice.”
Another track that is guaranteed to turn the heads of longtime fans of Enslaved is the surprisingly lively “Reflection”, which immediately locks itself into a comfortable groove riff, a lead guitar cleverly combining a whimsical melody with more atonal soloing, shifts into a fleeting return to churning black metal, and then returns to that distinct, Alex Lifeson-style solo break. “That’s a song that I think is heavily inspired by Rush or Yes, it’s got that very upbeat feel to it, but at the same time, the chorus has got that black metal feeling, so it’s really like looking at a cross-section of Enslaved in one song,” explains Bjørnson. “It’s really taking advantage of the line-up. I don’t think we could have done that with any of the drummers we’ve been with except from Cato. He’s got the ability to play simple, advanced, everything, keeping the groove… It’s the song that showed us that Joe Barresi was the right guy for the job. We made that song in our home studio and rehearsal room, there’s a lot of dynamics going on, and we were a little bit worried that the dynamics would disappear on the album. The scale so much smaller, there’s not so much variation between clean and heavy guitars, but Joe really caught the whole line of the song and really put it out there.”
And what of the intent behind the album’s title and the tense song that bears its name, so perfectly depicted by Truls Espedal’s arresting, wood panel cover artwork? “It’s about when you tear down the constructions,” Bjørnson says. “My theory is it’s referring a lot to the tyranny of belonging to groups of today, like monotheistic religions, politics, and all that. It’s sort of like a post-apocalyptic lyric that’s about when everything is torn down, when you go through everything you believe to be true and see that it’s all just construction to keep you in check, to keep you within that group, to keep you away from your individualism. That’s the negative, but then you have the very constructive side of the song that deals with you still have the core element, which is the vertebrae. You have your backbone, and it can be built around that. The walls can be rebuilt. I think that’s the metaphor for rebuilding something we had.”
And of course, when you factor in how much deconstruction and reinvention has gone on in Enslaved’s music since day one, the Vertebrae theme seems even more apt. “That’s what we discovered after working with the lyrics and everything,” he agrees. “The true value of that title picked up when we discovered all those metaphors, how beautifully it all fit into the whole Enslaved concept, musically, lyrically, the history of the band, all that. It’s truly one of the most meaningful titles we’ve had.”
Enslaved has always produced some of the smarter lyrics in metal, evocative and ambiguous at the same time, and “To the Coast” contains some of the album’s most arresting, enigmatic images. “The song is about change, but it’s about change with another dimension,” Bjørnson says coyly. “Because change is a simple concept in a sense, up until the point of execution, where change starts to involve loss. Combine that with the opening of the song, ‘To the coast, but not across’, it deals with the duality of all those concepts, where change is going to something new but then forgetting that it also involves leaving something behind. Birth requires death, and so on. I wanted to write the lyric, and I needed a different angle, and that’s when it occurred to me that I wanted to write it as a sort of scenic manuscript in a sense. So it’s written like something that can be used in theater, a movie, or something like that. It relates back to the whole vertebrae concept again, of having the spine to really go through with change, because change has become more or less a buzz word, but it’s rarely done to its full extent. That’s very often too painful.”
Although Vertebrae is easily the strongest output by the current incarnation of Enslaved, Bjørnson insists that in no way does the new album set any specific template for future releases, which makes perfect sense, that perpetual state of evolution being the band’s most enduring and endearing quality. Following Enslaved’s career is kind of like taking a drive in the Canadian foothills: the climb is steady, never too severe, but when you take a moment to stop to look back, you can’t believe how high you’ve gotten. “We’re still pretty far away from making the ultimate Enslaved album,” Bjørnson admits. “It’s been our inspiration since day one, the whole thing’s about that, making the ultimate album that you want to have in your own record collection, that sort of fits in your own ideas, influences from your own life, your thoughts, with your favorite music and all that stuff. So it’s a big step, but it’s still a bit far away. Below the Lights was the starting point for this new era of Enslaved, and we’re really proud of how far we’ve gotten from that.
“We’ve sacrificed a few things to be able to get there, but we do remember and appreciate the fact that we can basically fuck around with whatever we want in the music. The fact that we can travel around the world and present all this…we have more than 100 songs now, it’s pretty absurd. It’s definitely a privilege.”