(Andy Synn reviews the new album by Norway’s Enslaved — now with a full-album stream at the end.)
The phrase “The more things change, the more they stay the same” is almost beyond cliché at this point, yet I feel that it still retains some value… as long as you use it in the right place, and at the right time.
Case in point: It seems to apply to Enslaved more than to most bands I can think of, as few other artists seem to have perfected the almost zen-like balance between progress and preservation as the Norwegian natives.
If you see the band live these days you’re likely to hear material from across the length and breadth of their career, from Frost to Monumension to Axioma… all seamlessly integrated and interwoven together… and it’s truly amazing to be able to hear songs like “Allfǫðr Oðinn” and “Death In The Eyes of Dawn” next to one another in the same setlist, forcing you to realise that no matter how far they’ve come or how much they’ve progressed over the years, Enslaved are still very much the same band they always were at heart, and that there’s no era or element of their sound that doesn’t represent who they are.
So why am I starting off a review of the band’s stellar new album with these particular musings? Well, it’s down to the fact that In Times might just be the most complete and holistic representation of the band’s sound that I’ve ever heard.
Even though the album comprises six lengthy compositions (which I think is definitely the right word to use when referring to Enslaved’s particular form of furiously expressive, fluidly expansive song writing), it’s most definitely a tighter, tauter listen than its predecessor, with nary a moment of wasted space or time to be found.
“Thurisaz Dreaming” perfectly epitomises that sense of balance I was talking about earlier, erupting in a blackened blizzard of fire and fury that could have been drawn directly from the band’s formative years, before shifting smoothly into the sort of prog-laced melodic majesty which has been their weapon of choice for many years now, where bass-lines coil and undulate with leviathan grace beneath waves of cosmic distortion and ambience.
A grandiose mid-section of monolithic, ritualistic, reverently rhythmic drums and dark, hypnotic chants (overlain by a series of swooping, soaring clean-vocal lines) twines together touches from across the band’s long and storied career in microcosm, before it is all swept clean by lashings of blackened fire and gleaming, frost-burnt harmony.
“Building With Fire” continues this yin-yang balancing of elements, contrasting the metallic ferocity of the previous track with its more open and spacious arrangement, a rock-solid foundation of metronomically precise, smoothly organic, 4/4 drum work providing the backing both for Herbrand Larsen’s emotive, evocative clean vocals during each verse, and Grutle Kjellson’s scorching snarl during each iteration of the eponymous chorus, as the song effortlessly oscillates from one progressive pole to the other.
It’s worth mentioning just how beautifully produced and put-together this album is as a whole as well, with every piece of the puzzle perfectly placed and polished to gleaming perfection, with the drumming of Cato Bekkevold — a man rarely given the attention or approbation he deserves — emerging as perhaps the album’s unexpected star, delivering both power and grace in equal measure, from the storming blasts and heart-racing kicks which underpin “Thurisaz Dreaming”, and the fluid creativity displayed during “Building With Fire”, to the impressive agility of his performance during “One Thousand Years of Rain”, driving the song’s every twist and turn – from gloriously folk-inflected Norse gallop, to juddering frost-giant riffage, to Viking hymnal grandeur — with his own passionately percussive style.
The beginning of “Nauthir Bleeding” is one of the most purposefully progressive movements of music that Enslaved have ever put their name to, operating right out on the fringes of the band’s sound with joyful impunity. The lilting instrumentation and dream-like vocals offer a glimpse at a more purely and unashamedly melodic side of the band — one which is usually juxtaposed against their more metallic, bombastic leanings, yet which here is given time and space to itself in isolation.
Even when things do change (as we all knew they must), this singularly progressive undercurrent remains, aiding and abetting the cathartic vocals, captivating hooks, and electrifying guitar leads which follow with its intricate blend of harmony and complexity.
The title-track to In Times continues to plough a similarly progressive and unconventional furrow as its predecessor, its lengthy instrumental introduction drifting slowly through the vast and echoing cosmic void, coloured by a slowly-shifting kaleidoscope of light and shade. The subtle peace is eventually shattered by the cavernous growls and rippling guitars of Kjellson, Bjørnson, and Isdal, who switch without warning from calm contemplation to concentrated aggression, locking together into a contorted mass of burning fury and seething metallic power.
Bekkevold’s drums provide the key to the song’s second transformation, shifting the track from the densely packed and twisted heaviness of the verses to the flickering electricity of its sublimely melodic chorus refrain, switching back and forth between the two as the song builds towards its strikingly progressive and intricately expressive mid-section and then, once more, towards its hauntingly dynamic finale.
The album culminates with the pulsing energy and focussed intensity of “Daylight”, driven by the reverberant roar of Grutle Kjellson and the monumental, multi-faceted riff-work of Bjørnson and Isdal. The transition which the song undergoes at just under the half-way point is a true joy to behold, paring back to a single seed of pure melody which slowly unfolds and blossoms into a many-hued nebula of progressive bliss and colour, before the whole song draws together as a seamless and integrated whole of titanic riffage and compelling melodic atmospherics.
The Enslaved formula is simultaneously beautifully simplistic yet deceptively complex. Each and every album comprises both a thesis and its antithesis, and from them creates a synthesis unlike any other. And In Times is, without a doubt, a seamless synthesis of style and substance, a fearless fusion of elements and emotions, and yet another gem in the band’s cosmic crown.
In Times will be released By Nuclear Blast on March 6. It features cover art by Truls Espedal. It’s available for pre-order in various formats here. Below you can see and hear the official lyric video to “Thurisaz Dreaming” — followed by a full stream of the album — and before that is the schedule for the band’s impending North American tour with YOB and Ecstatic Vision.
3/05/15 Brick By Brick – San Diego, CA
3/06/15 El Rey Theatre – Los Angeles, CA
3/07/15 Slim’s – San Francisco, CA
3/09/15 Hawthorne Theater – Portland, OR
3/10/15 Rickshaw Theatre – Vancouver B.C. – CANADA
3/11/15 El Corazon – Seattle, WA
3/13/15 Bar Deluxe – Salt Lake City, UT
3/14/15 Summit Music Hall – Denver, CO
3/16/15 Mill City Nights – Minneapolis, MN
3/17/15 Thalia Hall – Chicago, IL
3/19/15 Opera House – Toronto, ON – CANADA
3/20/15 Les Foufounes Électriques – Montreal, QC – CANADA
3/21/15 Gramercy Theatre – New York, NY
3/22/15 Union Transfer – Philadelphia, PA
3/23/15 Baltimore Soundstage – Baltimore, MD
3/24/15 Sinclair – Boston, MA