Review

ENSLAVED E

Album · 2017 · Progressive Metal
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4/5 ·
siLLy puPPy
It’s always an exciting day when one of your favorite and most consistent metal bands releases an album and continues that exciting thrill of anticipation of whether they will continue their lengthy run as ambassadors of the extreme metal scene after more than two decades on the scene or the unthinkable of botching their rein and utterly teeter off that precarious precipice that they ride like a skateboarder sliding down a staircase railing. As the decade runs closer to its end Norway’s ENSLAVED took only two years to craft yet another installment into their progressive black metal universe after the release of 2015’s “In Times” which left more than a few loyal fans divided over exactly where they saw the band was heading next. While true that the album continued down the path of the expected quality material, there was still that lurking nagging feeling that perhaps ENSLAVED is just one tiny step away from completely derailing into pools of stagnation and ultimately becoming the feared and dreaded parodies of themselves. In 2017 the band emerge from their cocoon of secrecy and let loose their 14th full-length studio album E.

With an album title so truncated to one mere letter, it automatically triggers that WTF response and thankfully Ivar Bjørnson has explained this nebulous concept to smother any possible misconceptions in their nascency. E apparently has a dualistic meaning, firstly being a letter of the Latin alphabet but is also a reference to the rune Ehwaz which is depicted as our letter M (note both letters on album cover painted by long time associate Truis Espedal.) Ehwaz simply means horse and the relationship with humankind’s most endearing animal friend that celebrates one of our longest cross-species collaborations. Once you get past all the horse symbology, the title and tracks included expand further into the symbolisms of the duality of humankind and nature as well as fear and subconscious drive all wrapped up in the expected Viking imagery constructed through poetic prose in both gurgling raspy utterances as well as clean Gregorian chant inspired harmonies that exude a beauty and beast combo effect only this is bro style.

As evidenced from the sneak peak video for the first track “Storm Son,” ENSLAVED have entered new sonic arenas indeed and have once again taken all the different styles they’ve accumulated over their vast career and simply expanded them into new territory as if they take their Viking expansionist roots and simply apply those principles to conquering new musical territory. As E begins, i was expecting the immediate bombast of heaviness before meandering into softer passages of folky and ambience atmospheric touches but E takes a totally different approach than past offerings. This one begins with the sensual sounds of birds and the blowing of a gjallarhorn before horses whinny and clomp along insinuating a battle scene to come, however the track unexpectedly delivers a clean dreamy guitar riff that delivers the ultimate head scratcher making me wonder if these guys have pulled an Ulver on us and went post-rock or some non-metal direction as the repetitive riffs churn on augmented by an atmospheric ambience swirling around every arpeggiated note. Goodbye black metal ENSLAVED, hello progressive rockers who have always lurked beneath the noisefest. Oh, wait there’s those raspy vocals on top of the clean angelic choral. (then once again the riff ratchets up in intensity but this isn’t quite the metal i was expecting) as Grutle Kjellson takes the lead with his raspy evil-as-fuck vocal style. As the synthesizers swirl around and the staccato guitar riffs pound on like Teutonic marches on Prussian plains it seems that ENSLAVED has gone Opeth on us and finally divorced the black metal aspects that have carried them this far into the 21st century minus those raspy vocals of course. But wait! This is progressive black metal and nothing happens too quickly in this world. Finally at seven minutes in the black metal guitars and bass kick in with synchronized drums and yeah baby! Oops, i jumped to conclusions. This is black metal for PATIENT fans :p After a rough start things seem on track once again although the atmospheric synths and staccato guitar riffs are totally uncharacteristic of the ENSLAVED sound. This band has decided to carry on into new even more progressive arenas. Will the fickle black metal fans like this? Probably not. As “The River’s Mouth” takes the baton, the black metal groove is back at first but alternates substantially with the progressive metal segments that sound more like something out of a post-metal sludge band’s canon than anything ENSLAVED has tackled. It doesn’t take long to figure out that this is a band always looking for parameters to overstep while breaking rules and worshipping runes and on E the floodgates have opened.

Many surprises lurk on E which is of course the key ingredient (surprise that is) to keep things spiced up. For example, “Sacred Horse” begins like a hippie dippy folk track for a few seconds but then bursts into the more familiar extreme metal sound of past glories. “Axis Of The Worlds” has a very different sort of groove than the band is used to with a much more sophisticated labyrinthine and circuitous riffing methodology that ratchets up their progressive rock aspects even further and with the mellotron organ sounds that accompany may raise the red flag for a progressive pollen attack for those allergic to the world of progressive rock but somehow once again the band walks that thin line between the black and prog worlds all the while including some bizarre electronica sputtering in the background reminiscent of electropop bands like Röyksopp whose cover they tackle with the rhetorical self-directed question “What Else Is There?” “Fathers Of Eolh” is probably the most un-ENSLAVED sounding track on E with its heightened 5/4 timing sludgy riffs, ambient shoegaze backdrop and liturgical proggy vocal styles mostly delivered in a clean, clear yet turgid display of interweaving compositional parts that are laced together in various alternating ways. “Hiindslight” is yet another progressive metal behemoth that tackles hitherto unexplored arenas as it churns out complex guitar riffs that range from brutal to sensual and graced by the raspy vocals of Kjellson. This is the track that will for sure act as the sunlight that scares the black metal vampires into their coffins as it incorporates a whirlwind of progressive features including the unthinkable use of flute and saxophone. “Djupet” is another more traditional track tacked on to appease the hardcores.

You may be wondering just how progressive can they possible get. Well before you get your knickers in a twist and cry out that they’ve totally gone Opeth on us, it should never be forgotten that ENSLAVED was always a progressive black metal band which began with their debut album “Vikingligr Veldi” and despite tamping down the progressive qualities on their next three albums, “Frost,” “Eld” and “Blodhemn” they nevertheless persisted under the surface before finally erupting once again in full pent-up fury on 2000’s “Mardraum: Beyond The Within” only to have the progressive aspects outweigh the black metal from “Monumension” and the albums that followed. The fact is that unlike Opeth who utterly abandoned their extreme metal roots to focus exclusively on progressive rock, ENSLAVED never for even a single album smothered the black metal out of their overall sound. While it’s true the black metal has taken a back seat to the progressive side of the coin, it’s more akin to the band having a new lover move in while banishing the ex to the basement only to be chained up but kept around because she’s still useful for all those chores around the house.

Yeah, the black metal may be the ugly ex-wife who is forced to perform as an indentured servant but she still has a role to play while ENSLAVED’s promiscuous Hugh Hefner tendencies take on a musical libido all their own. Keep in mind that the band’s name is ENSLAVED and not “Emancipated.” Set free the black metal and we’re left with an Age of Aquarius la-la-la singalong feel good album. Now that wouldn’t be very metal now would it? While ENSLAVED has not gone Opeth on us, it can be argued they’ve followed in the same footsteps another fellow Norwegian and gone insanely Ihsahn on us instead. You don’t believe me? For anyone who has kept up with Emperor’s frantic frontman as a solo artist, you will hear lots of parallels with albums ranging from “The Adversary” to “Arktis,” not only in the highly complex time signature rich riffing styles but in the addition of unorthodox metal instruments with the inclusion of flautist Daniel Mage and sax blower Kjetil Møster on the tracks “Hindsight” and “Feathers Of Eolh” and also the inclusion of fellow Norwegian Einar Kvitrafn from the Nordic dark folk outfit Wardruna. OK, i lied. There is one moment of going Opeth and that is the short use of mellotron style keyboard sounds at the end of “Sacred Horse.” This is probably one of the parts of the album that doesn’t exactly sound like it’s at home here and i concur that this should have been aborted before birth, but we should never let a few moments of awkwardness destroy the big picture.

Ultimately i’m finding E is about contrast and tension. There are simple clean parts that are unlike anything the band has done but somehow after slowly emerging elements, the band always resolves itself with the heavier and more frantic dynamics delivering fairly balanced compositions that perhaps can carry on a wee bit too long at points but still never entering the extremities of the uncomfortableness zone. It goes without saying that ENSLAVED alienated the one-dimensional kvlter-than-thou crowds long ago when the scales tipped in the progressive metal direction and with E, the band challenges their fans once again and therefore the close-minded, musically illiterate and those who simply get complacent in a particular phase will probably piss all over this one, however if dissected like a laboratory rat in order to scrutinize the inner parts, E is actually the logical next frontier for ENSLAVED to venture into. As the band continues to mature it would be pathetic for them to linger in pastures already explored and personally i much prefer a band to delve into new arenas despite less than perfect results than stagnate in festering doldrums of inertness. E may not constitute the absolute pinnacle of the career of ENSLAVED but i’m finding this to have much more of a return value than “In Times” and offers yet another creative and excellent rung in their long ladder of musical development since their humble beginnings during the second wave of early black metal.
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siLLy puPPy wrote:
30 days ago
@Voila. Definately check out In Times first. It's always interesting to see the evolution of a band like this from one album to another.

@Bosh. Yeah, no one needs a review to pick up a new Enslaved album. They pretty much sell themselves but thanks :)

Bosh66 wrote:
30 days ago
Ordered mine last night. I'd have picked this up anyway, but you certainly whetted my appetite!
30 days ago
I have In Times standing by but after watching the Banger TV review of this and reading your entertaining and thought-provoking review, I may just cast the one aside for this instead.
siLLy puPPy wrote:
30 days ago
Yeah, definately more complex than expected
Nightfly wrote:
30 days ago
Bought this myself and enjoyed it though I think it will need a few more plays to fully reveal itself.

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