Enslaved
RIITIIR

A new Enslaved album has become an event for fans of challenging and atmospheric progressive and extreme metal, promising a depth and soulful, honest authenticity that few bands today cannot match. Theirs is a ceaselessly adventurous, bold and fearless persona, and every new album is a journey all its own. With RIITIIR, the 12th studio album in a varied and excellent 20-year career, the band sails into uncharted waters and makes some staggering new discoveries. However, despite the inclusion of some of my favorite Enslaved moments to date, I have to conclude that RIITIIR veers somewhat off course as well…

First off, a bit of context. Axioma Ethica Odini brought back the feral aggression and power that was somewhat absent from the ‘Floyd-ian and softer (relatively speaking) progressive wanderings of Vertebrae, but rather than stay put, RIITIIR proves to be an even more protean and shape-changing beast – as Axioma‘s closing moments in “Night Sight” and “Lightening” (plus the very exploratory Sleeping Gods EP) already suggested. This is the most aggressively daring collection of songs the band has put out since Monumension and Mardraum, but it also pulls in the dynamics, masterful clean singing, soaring melodies and yes, ’70s swagger that the band fine-tuned on Isa and Ruun. So there’s a lot of potential here to blend all of those elements into exciting and progressive compositions, and with “Death in the Eyes of Dawn,” and the epic album centerpiece, “Roots of the Mountain,” Enslaved succeeds magnificently.

“Death in the Eyes of Dawn” is the best-written, most cohesive track on the album (and not surprisingly, the one that reminded me most of Opeth, although even Akerfeldt’s work is sometimes more restless). The song seems to reach back through the ages, as if the band sliced into their veins and dripped their Viking heritage into a progressive metal paean that just oozes with grandeur. After opening with a rangy, mid-paced riff over stately keyboards, it crawls through a haze of progressive murk and snarled spoken-word. Then it crests into a gorgeous, ringing chorus that trades off between Larsen’s rich, supple vocals and Grutle’s subterranean croak – an approach which is repeated often throughout the album. Ivar’s guitar solo following the second chorus rises to an even more impressive summit – I can’t recall ever hearing something quite so fluid or rhapsodic from him.

That is, of course, until you get to the absolutely triumphant melodies shot through almost all of “Roots of the Mountain.” The rippling dual guitar lead at the 3:45 alone is worth the entire song – it’s godly and unrestrained, and you wish it would go on forever, but then there’s the heart-rending and glorious final two minutes to look forward to, and those are even better. Even given its batshit blackened berserker opening and bizarre, proggy mid-song lurch, “Roots of the Mountain” is just a tremendous and joyful peak in Enslaved‘s career – the sound of a band confidently and exuberantly embracing their unique dual identity. It’s so confident, in fact, that even Larsen’s soprano vocals throughout the song don’t sound out of place so much as they just feel honest and from the heart.

After such stirring and cathartic heights, the sedate and pensive pace of the rest of RIITIIR can’t be anything but frustrating, and although it has rarely lost my interest during my many listens – there’s just so much to take in on every track – it also never gets the blood pumping or sets the spirit on fire. Previously, the band’s progressive wanderings have rarely taken them far from their black metal beginnings – as speedy, jagged discography favorites like “The Dead Stare,” “Fusion of Sense and Earth” or “Violet Dawning” capture – but much of RIITIIR seems weighed down by sludgy mid-tempo riffs and equally sleepy clean croons.

“Veilburner” is a perfect example of this. It starts with an admittedly cool stomp, but then wanders off into a sing-songy melody and a dull chorus which is only made more interesting by the layered vocal approach of Larsen’s cleans over Grutle’s guttural growls. Almost 7 minutes long and I didn’t feel like I was taken anywhere really special in all of that time (the fact that it’s sandwiched between the album’s two most dynamic and exciting tracks doesn’t help either). “Materal” starts like like a droning Alice in Chains number, but then twists into something more blackened and insidious – an improvement –  and also features another rhapsodic guitar solo halfway through. Still not something I’m dying to skip to, though.

The title track has a bit more life as well- it kicks off with a swaggering Mastodon riff and features a briefly thrashy bit towards the end – but it too is weighed down by overly dreamy clean melodies. In fact, Mastodon popped in my head more than a few times during RIITIIR, but not the cool, sledgehammer-toting, shaggy-stoner-riff, crazy-octopus-drumming Mastodon – instead it was the overwrought noodling of Blood Mountain or the more dull and amelodic parts of The Hunter.

I’m also torn on the opener, “Thoughts Like Hammers,” which features the same amount of twists and turns as “Death in the Eyes of Dawn” or “Roots of the Mountain,” and starts the album with a monstrous lurch, yet its melodies aren’t as grand, and the sing-songy cleans don’t soar as high, and so it just feels like a summit barely glimpsed. Oddly enough, the one noodly segment on the album that has seemed to annoy everyone else – the very proggy keyboard odyssey in the middle of album closer “Forsaken” – sounded really cool to me, so much so that I wish there were more of it.

If this sounds unfair, perhaps it’s because I’ve been spoiled by some fantastic peaks elsewhere on the record, and also much tighter and compelling songwriting on albums like Isa and Ruun. I just went back and listened to Monumension again recently in preparation for this review, and it’s a lot closer to RIITIIR than I originally thought. It too has plenty of long, drawn-out and exploratory songs with slower, doomier riffs, but it also had a bizarre and outlandish energy all its own, which I don’t really get from this one.

Once again, I always look forward to a new Enslaved album as I am always assured of a unique and immersive journey, but I just couldn’t get swept away this time. If all of RIITIIR were composed of triumphs like “Death in the Eyes of Dawn” or “Roots of the Mountain,” or featured more of the satisfying melodies and groove that continues to keep Ruun at the top of my list, then this wouldn’t just be my pick for the year and my favorite album in Enslaved‘s discography, but likely one of the crowning achievements of progressive metal’s last decade. Oh well, at least that cover art is amazing.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jordan Itkowitz
November 7th, 2012

Comments

  1. Commented by: stiffy

    The diverse opinions on this album are baffling. Makes no sense to me.


  2. Commented by: gordeth

    I’m also surprised by how polarizing this album has turned out to be. I think it’s one of the best things I’ve heard all year and I like it even more than their last one.


  3. Commented by: E. Thomas

    Haven’t listened to enslaved since the emperor split….


  4. Commented by: gabaghoul

    Erik you should, you would enjoy it


  5. Commented by: Nick Taxidermy

    I’ve tried, but my tolerance for this band mostly ends with Erik’s last exposure to them.


  6. Commented by: Old Pick Axe

    Enslaved are getting better with each and every album. Haven’t picked this one up yet, but hopefully it’s as decent as the last one.


  7. Commented by: Biff_Tannen

    Are you sure that’s an Ivar solo in “Death in the Eyes of Dawn” ? Sounds live Ice Dale to me.

    I agree 100% with this review, except with your enjoyment of the meandering eternity in that last track . That, along with 70% of the album reminds me of this from abuot 15 seconds onwards : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ISKg5M3iUcM


  8. Commented by: Deepsend Records

    One of the few bands where a solid 7 score for a new album is seen as a letdown.


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