Two steps forward, one step backwards
Enslaved is a Norwegian extreme metal band that managed to carve out an admirably big niche for their bipolar "melodic/harsh" black metal, in a similar way Opeth did in the death metal milieu. Every time I try to explain how I feel about this progressive black metal sound, I find myself in an unenviable position of being for the band's ideas but against the way they're executed. You see, I've listened attentively to several of their albums so far (Vertebrae, AEO, RIITIIR and just a little bit of Isa) and the only one that actually (literally?) grabbed me by the ears, chopped them off and poured ten gallons of pure bliss into the bleeding orifices, was RITIIR... well, shit got graphic much sooner than I planned.
The problem I have with Enslaved has already struck me when I listened to AEO for the first time. A good album for sure. Its bold mixture of prog rock and quite atypical nordic black metal is intriguing, but it somehow lacks identity - quite a feat given the sheer originality of the concept - that would make it something more than just a blend of stylistic ingredients. Technically well-written as it may be, music on Vertebrea or Axioma Ethica Odini doesn't feel focused on giving any meaningful artistic impact. Black metal passages tend to drag aimlessly and mellow parts seem oddly misplaced. Now listen, if not for RIITIIR, I'd be tempted to say it's just me, a member of the mentally challenged minority for whom this stuff simply doesn't work as intended. RITTIIR, however, is a testimony to the fact that Enslaved are indeed capable of turning their ideas into an inspired, evocative, well-rounded creation, yet for some unfathomable reason they tend to keep falling short of their potential.
Now, time for In Times. To cut a long story short, In Times is a blend of the semi-classic prog rock sound of Vertebrae with the atmosphere and black metal edge of Axioma Ethica Odini plus a - regrettably - tiny spatter of RIITTIIR's spacious and adventurous eclecticism. Oh, and vanilla prog metal in the vein of Dream Theater's also here, especially in the later stages of the album, and the role it plays is sadly a leading one. Due to this fact, In Times is even more structurally complex than the previous album but that's exactly where the rub is. When form takes precedence over essence, you know something went south, amirite? I mean, some of the more "spontaneous" experiments certainly add to the experience in a good way (e.g. chants and theme progression in "Thurisaz Dreaming" and the fantastic "One Thousand Years of Rain" and "Nauthir Bleeding"), but some of the rhythmic variations seem redundant. And these irregular meters ("Building with Fire")... I mean, come on guys, even Meshuggah usually uses 4/4. It's almost like the band was afraid of being judged by a jury of prog metal elitists that would otherwise deem the album "not progressive enough, 3/10". I mean, give me a break, you made RIITIIR for fuck's sake! And it all worked just fine.
Even though some people seem to be more and more weary of the sound Enslaved keep exploring, In Times does not sound stale to me. For the most part, it is a very enjoyable progressive black metal album with a decent amount of fresh ideas and it certainly will make most die-hard fans headbang in ecstasy or at least nod their bearded (prog)heads in admiration. Sadly, while it's varied and very well written - with more clean vocals than ever - it lacks the human touch that made its fantastic predecessor so good and, well, timeless.
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