In what has been an excellent year for prog metal, both by younger bands and seasoned veterans, it is still an event when true legends release new material. And one I have certainly been looking forward to is the upcoming Enslaved album ‘E’. Coming hot off last year’s 25th Anniversary celebration and tour, few progressive black metal bands are as well known or universally respected. But there have been some changes in their midst since last we heard from them on 2015’s excellent ‘In Times’, notably the departure of long time keyboardist and clean vocalist Herbrand Larsen. Fans could easily wonder if the band would still have its old magic, and how unified a unit they could become in such a short amount of time. Any such fears should be put to rest as Enslaved have once again delivered a remarkable piece of music.
Before delving into the music itself a few words are in order regarding the strange title of the album, and the background behind it, as well as mentioning new coming keyboardist/clean vocalist Håkon Vinje. First regarding Vinje; this young man can play, no doubt about that, and his vocals soar effortlessly and cleanly blending with the music. Fact is, he sounds quite similar to the departing Larsen, so performing older material on tour should be no problem. He had large shoes to fill and he has done so admirably and I have a hard time imagining any honest fan of the band to have issue with his work on this album.[metalwani_content_ad]
As for the title and the reasoning behind it, well, let’s just say it’s far easier to let guitarist and primary composer and lyricist Ivar Bjørnson explain it in his own words: ‘The concept of the album lies in both its meaning as a letter in the Latin alphabet, and it’s runic reference: the rune “Ehwaz”, that is depicted as an “M” when drawn as rune (just to make sure it gets really confusing) – the runes are drawn to look like what they literally mean. Ehwaz (pronounced and used as what’s known as E, but drawn as an “M”) looks like and means ‘horse’. Which is closely linked to its esoteric meaning; which is ‘trust’ and ‘co-operation.’ No the album is not about horses; rather it is about the symbiosis of our lives, the interactions and relationships that make us what we are. An interesting concept really, and not surprising as Enslaved have always had deeper meanings behind their music, lyrics, and over all approach to album making.
The album begins with “Storm Son” and the ambient sound of singing birds, and others that sound like ethnic horns and vocalizations before the neighing of a horse and the music starts. It starts slowly and melodically, soon becoming clear that the more progressive side of their sound is stronger than ever. It’s nearly 3 minutes before any sort of heavy guitar is heard, and we get our first taste of Vinje’s vocals. They appear distant at first, but gradually become clearer before the classic black screams of bassist Grutle Kjellson is heard. Unsurprisingly, he sounds as good as he ever has. “Storm Son” is the longest track on the album, just under 11 minutes in length, and Enslaved use every moment of it wisely both in full on extreme metal bliss and also with the complex, progressive nature that their music has embraced. Their last album was a bit more laid back compared to the experimental assault of 2012’s ‘RIITIIR’ and ‘E’ follows in a similar manner. Parts are a bit heavier perhaps, but much of the album sounds like the logical extension of ‘In Times’.
Moving ahead to the third track, we come to “Sacred Horse,” which begins again quietly with birds before exploding into some of the heaviest and fastest music on the album. Drummer Cato Bekkevold is especially good on this track, with his barrage of double kicks and quirky fills. For any fan that prefers the blacker side of their music, this track is a must hear, as even though it is certainly proggy (especially the key work) it is first and foremost a raging beast of riffs and raw aggression. The moments when it does slow down and get moody just work to set up the next wave of aggression and make it all the more powerful when it comes.
“Feathers Of Eolh” begins with a repeated and very jazzy motif of notes. The result is rather hypnotic and reminds me a bit of the work of New York minimalist composer Steve Reich, although the repetition is not as drawn out. The song is slow to build significant volume and the vocals are entirely clean sung, at times are slowed down to the point of being nearly spoken word in nature. It is a very open song at first, with a lot of room for the instruments to breathe, making it far more a jazz metal hybrid than anything approaching the black metal sound that the band is largely built on. Even the parts towards the end when the song gets heavier and more aggressive, the swinging and hypnotic elements are ever present, driving the song on to the point that what was once open becomes nearly oppressive and claustrophobic (in the best possible sense), all by changing the speed and nature of the riffs and music. It’s really one of the more interesting songs in the band’s recent years and one that fans will want to dig into and listen to closely for years to come.[metalwani_content_ad]
The final track is “Hiindsiight,” which begins with harsh vocals and a slow heavy beat. The title certainly suggests a kinship to the previously mentioned ‘RITTIIR’ perhaps due to the concept of co-existing but different sides working together that form relationships. What this song DOES have in common with that album is it is the most experimental and different sounding song on the album. It is not experimental in the crazed sense that ‘RITTIIR’ is, but in the sense that it diverges from the rest of the album. Although heavy at times, the primary vibes are similar to the dreamy sound of shoegaze inspired bands such as Alcest, which is not something the band has done before. They also add a good deal of saxophone to the song, mostly of a melodic nature, but the end of the song has some more extravagant flourishes and borderline squeals as well. Sax in metal is becoming more common and popular in recent years, with fellow Norwegians Shining and Ihsahn probably the best known examples. The sax work on this track however is more melodic than most of the time it is used in the other bands mentioned, and I think it adds freshness to the album, rounding things off in a highly satisfactory manner.
With the release of ‘E,’ Enslaved have added another notch to their stock of intense and intriguing albums. This is certainly one of the most engaging albums to come out this year and should satisfy metal fans of both progressive and more traditional black metal. In sharp contrast to many bands that fall into a lull after a quarter century, Enslaved continue to move forward, pushing themselves to make new and unique music. And as influential as they are, it is clear that they are still leaders in the field, following no path but the one they make for themselves.