Written by: EW on 30/11/2008 01:03:53

With arguably more metal bands in existence than ever before, and a good too many of them up at the extreme end of the scene, it is re-assuring to know that some bands will attempt to swim against the tide of mediocrity populated by about 98% of them (at a conservative guess) and defy convention so much as to be against logic. Tracing Enslaved's existence from the early days of the impossibly infamous Norwegian Black Metal scene of the early '90s through to now, taking on board a transition from fully-fledged 'Viking Metal' pioneers to today's progressive metal leanings, is a tale of all it's own with the end result displaying a band that has never been content being part of a crowd and arguably becoming the strongest of all that scene's bands nearly 20 years on in 2008.

Enslaved's entire discography from 1993's "Hordanes Land" split EP with Emperor to 10th LP "Vertebrae" has been a journey, constantly evolving, constantly exploring new ideas and territories. Though noone but Enslaved themselves would argue with the influential Viking-ness of albums like "Frost" and "Eld", it really was "Isa" in 2004 that set the ball rolling on Enslaved's current foray into a moog-driven meeting of the progressive rock and extreme metal worlds that has staggeringly bought the band more success than some of the aforementioned albums did in the 1990's. "Isa" was a great album, let's not doubt that, but in hindsight feels like a work in progress with some great songs ("Lunar Force" especially) but a slight lack in flow. "Ruun" (2006) however squared the circle combining brilliant songs ("Path To Vanir", "Fusion of Sense and Earth") and an improved overall flow, coming unsurprisingly as it did at the top of many end-of-year polls for 2006. So just could how Enslaved follow up on an album that had next to zero faults? Well, as may have been expected for anyone who's watched their progress it comes through surreptitiously sacrificing a bit more of the 'metal' in part-exchange for greater proginess. Herbrand Larsen's influence with both keyboard/organs and as a clean vocalist is crucial in this transition; his work in creating a backing track to what the rest of the band are doing is commendable and immediately noticeable in opener "Clouds", while his clean vocals, now used extensively across every song, are as much a part of Enslaved's prog feel as the removal of the blastbeats and scything riffs of old.

"Vertebrae" is an astoundingly mature record, painted in numerous pallets and the bearer of a multitude of moods and tones. The transition between riffs early in "Reflection" is worth pointing out individually to show how a band can change the momentum of a song so drastically through a simple riff change and knowing what creates the most emotive feel for the listener. The whole feel of "Vertebrae" is recognisable to anyone who knows "Ruun" well - that unique 'sound' Enslaved possess is so apparent down to the scratchy trebly guitar sound and Grutle Kjellson's croak, still retained to this day thankfully. In "Center" the smell of latter-day Katatonia emerges in a fantastic leading riff the Swedes themselves would gladly call theirs, while "New Dawn" harks back to the good ol' days, delving more into the more complex extreme riff structure than the chord-based notations of much of "Vertebrae". It's fair to say not everything works so well; "Ground" is a little soft on the ears, well played that it is it doesn't really get going in it's 6 1/2 minute lifespan and as album closer, "The Watcher" itself ends in a rather damp fashion after a stupendous start.

But why finish on a sour note I ask you? Let's not beat around the bush - "Vertebrae" is better than almost all any band will ever be able to achieve, for much like Opeth, progression comes naturally to Enslaved, sounding passionate, genuine and wonderfully unique. Based upon numerous listens "Vertebrae" does fall just short of "Ruun"'s status, but given the rise in stock noticed in Enslaved after repeated listens, this opinion may well change. An excellent album from a band essential to anyone with a passing interest in extreme metal.


Download: Reflection, Center, New Dawn
For The Fans Of: Opeth, Katatonia, I
Listen: Myspace
Buy: iTunes

Release date 26.09.2008
Indie Recordings

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