If there’s one band today that perfectly encapsulates the term “progressive metal”, it’s Enslaved. While other talented, well-known bands operate under the guise of being “progressive” when they’re actually formulaic (Tool), self-indulgent (The Mars Volta), or just plain tedious (Dream Theater), when a band comes along and shows such an astounding level of growth over a period of time as Enslaved has, not only is it a jarring reminder of how much new ground has yet to be traversed in the extreme realm, but even better, it restores one’s faith in a musical style whose fans claim is more groundbreaking than it actually is.
Although Enslaved has been around since the early days of Norwegian black metal, starting at the same time as such icons as Emperor, Mayhem, and Immortal, they’ve only just started to peak artistically in recent years. In fact, over the last three years, they have quietly become one of the most exciting progressive metal bands in the world, ranking alongside such respected peers as Opeth, Meshuggah, and Ulver. As Emperor was releasing their acclaimed final album Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire… in 2001, their countrymen in Enslaved were beginning to move away from their black metal roots, first with 2000’s Mardraum: Beyond the Within and then on 2001’s pivotal Monumension. 2003’s awe-inspiring Below the Lights marked the first time everything came together perfectly for the band, as brutality, atmospherics, and accessibility combined to form one of the decade’s best metal discs. Two years later, Isa challenged listeners even more, as “extreme” gave way to psychedelic-tinged groove and cleaner, catchier vocal melodies, and now with Ruun, the fascinating evolution of Enslaved continues further, capping off a trio of albums that defy categorization, the result of the most drastic, yet graceful musical metamorphosis in heavy metal since Voivod’s astonishing run from 1986 to 1991.
In fact, Ruun gets off to a rousing, dare I say upbeat start on the insistent “Entroper”, storming out of the gate with a melodic chord sequence before downshifting into a lurching, Voivod-like breakdown midway through. The title track continues to break new ground for the band, sounding equal parts Opeth and Katatonia, keyboardist Herbrand Larsen’s clean vocals working well against the stately, goth-tinged musical backdrop before bassist Grutle Kjellson enters with his otherworldly screams, the harsh contrasts between clean and dark, electric and acoustic making for an absorbing epic song. “Path to Vanir” is arguably the most accessible song the band has recorded to date, centered around a simple, lively groove riff, highlighted by Kjellson’s multi-faceted vocals and Cato Bekkevold’s simple, yet charismatic drumming (playing 16th note beats on the hi-hat is very underrated in metal).
Melodies dominate “Api-vat”, from the soaring guitar notes during the intro to Arve Isdal’s rousing guitar solo at the end, while the unrelenting “Fusion of Sense and Earth” serves as a reminder that Enslaved has not yet forgotten how to deliver plenty of high-quality aggression (but not without a neat little mellotron-accompanied interlude midway through). All the ingredients come together most beautifully on “Essence”, Kjellson getting morbidly poetic on us (“By will alone / Does my heart carry the strength / To see you burn?”), as Bekkevold’s understated drumming gives the song a dignified air before the band explodes into an exhilarating black metal coda during the final minute.
Nordic pride has always played a large part in Norwegian black metal, and certainly when it comes to the music of Enslaved, their sound often projecting a somewhat hilly air while the lyrics focus on Viking themes, but more and more, we’re starting to feel some actual warmth on their albums, as genuine emotion begins to melt away the icy, impersonal façade. Sure, Norway gets 24 hours of darkness every winter, but this stirring album reminds us that the region also gets 24 hours of sunlight six months later. At one point they sing, “All beauty must die.” Listening to this creative, immensely talented band, we don’t believe that for a second.
Enslaved – Path to Vanir