'RIITIIR' - Enslaved (9/10)
In almost every article about this band I've read recently, there's a repeated emphasis on how remarkably consistent Enslaved are when it comes to releasing new material. In truth, I'd tend to agree with this statement. Although I don't enjoy their Viking-styled material nearly as much as the more traditional black metal or later progressive incarnations, these guys have managed to develop and evolve with each new album, With that being said, it's no surprise that "RIITIIR" continues to embellish the band's progressive sensibilities. While previous albums "Vertebrae" and "Axioma Ethica Odini" both showcased a rich progressive black metal sound, "RIITIIR" sees them pushing their ambitious nature to new heights. In short, it's arguably the best album of their career, although I imagine most of us weren't expecting any less from them.
The musical evolution from "Axioma..." to "RIITIIR" is reserved, but noticeable. For one, these are some of the longest song structures the band has ever contended with. With most of the tracks resting around the nine minute mark, there is the strong impression that Enslaved have decided to loosen the restraints on some of their songwriting, allowing the compositions more time to develop textures and ideas. Although there remain traces of the original black metal sound, the current Enslaved shares very little in common with its older incarnations. Although some of the riffs recall the band's heritage as part of the Norwegian Second Wave, there's just as much of a drawn influence from 1970's space and psychedelic rock. If Enslaved had not already crossed this point already, it seems unfitting to label them as a black metal band now, when there's so much about them that turns its nose at the genre.
"Thoughts Like Hammers" is the opening track and pre-released 'sneak preview' fans had of "RIITIIR" before the album was released. At nine and a half minutes long, it is filled with meaty riffs and familiar atmosphere, boosted by a unconventional song structure and several mood changes. Although Enslaved have done this sort of thing before, it feels most natural with "RIITIIR". The powerful highlight "Death in the Eyes of Dawn" and majestic "Roots of the Mountain" both showcase an affinity with vocal melodies. Although the clean vocals have not always been a 'high point' with Enslaved, Herbrand Larsen's voice has never sounded better. Thanks to Iver Sandøy's suggestion to branch out into a 'live reocrding' style, Enslaved's production has never sounded warmer or better suited for their progressive sound. A somewhat mechanical sound of production was something I had long felt held back some of Enslaved's more recent material, but the issue is cured in full on "RIITIIR". There are details in the performance and arrangement that will reward attentive listeners.
Although "RIITIIR" does not disappoint on any level, there is the sense that the album's second half is not quite as engaging as the first. Up to and including "Roots of the Mountain", there is not a second of filler; particularly in the way "Thoughts Like Hammers" and "Death in the Eyes of Dawn" cope with structure, the ways the musical ideas are organized is close to perfection. The less ambitious title track and "Storm of Memories" are less concerned with this optimal usage of time however. The performance is kept up to an incredible par throughout the album, but certain musical ideas eel dragged out longer than they should have been, as if to keep up with the 'extended song structure' approach. Especially keeping in mind that much of the album manages to achieve that long-sought for perfection, it's disappointing that the album is given a somewhat anti-climactic end. Although "Forsaken" opens on one of the album's highest points, the final four minutes of the album are left for a quiet, repetitive guitar idea, akin to something Neurosis might do. I think it could have worked well as a denouement to an otherwise intense and complex listening experience, but it's drawn out past the limit where it would have worked best.
"RIITIIR" is certainly the best Enslaved have ever sounded, with a production and performance standard rivaled by virtually none in their style. The decision to further explore the progressive realm has worked very well, employing use of some of the vintage 70's sounds while sounding as musically relevant as ever. With that in mind, I'm still not sure if I prefer this over "Vertebrae" or "Axioma Ethica Odini". Although some aspects of the band have been finally boosted to perfection, there are times when a more concise approach would have worked better. Regardless, Enslaved have brought the spirit of the classic progressive rock album to extreme metal, and done it in such a way that it will be surprising if people aren't still talking about it years from now. If Opeth's attempt to crossover fully into the prog realm with "Heritage" was only an ambivalent success, Enslaved have achieved a 'vintage' sound without losing any bit of what made them excellent in the first place.