(This is Andy Synn’s review of the new album by Norwegian icons Enslaved, which will be released by Nuclear Blast on October 13.)
Whereas the popular vision of the Vikings is one of horn-helmeted, heavily bearded barbarians, with an axe in one hand and a drinking horn in the other, the truth of the matter is that the Norsemen (and women) of old were more than just pirates and plunderers. They were a culture of scholars and seers, inventors and explorers, whose lust for life and adventure led them to traverse the farthest reaches of the known world.
It’s only fitting then that their descendants in Enslaved seem to have inherited this same pioneering spirit, and that their career so far has been one of almost constant exploration and reinvention, a potent mix of myth and metaphysics which has seen them always looking towards new horizons, while never losing touch with their roots.
And perhaps nowhere is this more evident than on their fourteenth(!) album, the free-spirited E, which is not only the band’s most shamelessly progressive and indulgently introspective release since Vertebrae, but which also draws influence and inspiration from all eras of their history, from the medieval majesty of Vikingligr Veldi to the cosmic contemplation of Below the Lights, resulting in what is probably their most confident and creatively ambitious album in years.
The renewed sense of confidence on display here – which one must attribute, to some extent, to the welcome addition of new keyboardist/vocalist Håkon Vinje to their ranks – immediately manifests itself in the bold decision to place the spotlight firmly on their newest member throughout much of the album’s ten-minute opener, “Storm Son”.
Similar enough to his predecessor to ensure seamless continuity, yet bringing even more of a classic Prog feel to things, Vinje’s luminous vocals prove to be the perfect addition to the band’s ever expanding sound, taking centre-stage before a backdrop of gleaming guitars, shimmering synths, and powerful yet restrained drum work, all designed to draw the listener in slowly but surely as the song builds towards a vivid metallic crescendo.
Similarly the increasing use of clean vocals by both Grutle Kjellson and Ivar Bjørnson on this album – from the reverberant refrain during the second half of “Storm Son”, or the choral chanting during the riveting finale of “Sacred Horse”, to the sombre, almost gothic undercurrents of the phenomenal “Feathers of Eolh” – speaks to the group’s continuing willingness to explore and incorporate new sonic textures into their sound without fear of losing their way or alienating their audience in the process.
That’s not to say the band have gone soft of course. Kjellson’s instantly-recognisable growl is as clear and as commanding as ever, while tracks such as the pulse-quickening Prog-Metal of “The River’s Mouth” and the furious gallop of “Sacred Horse” possess more than enough electrifying energy and/or blackened grit to satisfy all but the most jaded of souls, proving that the fire in the band’s belly remains as yet undimmed.
Ultimately each of these six tracks, whether it’s the multifaceted melodic magic of “Axis of the Worlds” or the compelling mix of poignant prog and doomy grandeur that makes up titanic closer “Hiindsiight” (which also contains a certain surprising element that I’m not going to spoil here) brings something unique and different to the table, every song equal parts hard-fought ambition and hard-earned wisdom.
And whether it’s down to the much-needed injection of new blood, or simply a natural consequence of the epic saga of renewal and rebirth which defines their career thus far, E is without doubt the band’s most soulful and satisfying release since Axioma… and an irrefutable sign that their journey is far from over.
Physical editions of the album can be pre-ordered via the links below, and it’s available digitally through iTunes.