If I told you a story about a horde of Viking marauders who terrorized the North Sea before being swept onto the shores of modern Norway, infiltrating a hum-drum office building only to get caught up in the company’s better-business professional classes, eventually to be split up and assigned to head various structural bureaucracies in which they often feel confined by the pressures of those responsibilities and occasionally duck out for a breakfast meeting over plates of spam, egg, spam, spam, bacon and spam, you might accuse me of cribbing from a Monty Python sketch. And you’d be mostly right. But you might also consider it a parable about what it takes for a progressively minded Viking metal entity to survive, flourish and remain relevant (to themselves as well as their audience) over the course of more than 25 years. After a while, it’s not enough to storm the gates of the neighboring mead hall, or the defenses of Valhalla, or even the metacosmic sentinels who symbolically guard your own introspective godmind. At some point, all enemies have been slain, all lands conquered and pacified, all ships returned to friendly harbors, and all that’s left is to rule.
And so – on their fourteenth full-length declaration of independence – Enslaved do just that. They wage their weighty fifty-minute campaign at their own pace, neither too eager to impress with unhinged brutality nor too reserved to unleash the berserkers when the time is right. Upon first listen, everything on E begs for patience. The album gives up little to twitchy listeners who need their metal fix to be obvious and immediate. Of course, Enslaved know how to reward the patience they’ve requested, and deeper voyages into these six songs uncover some extraordinary music.
“Storm Son” muddles through nearly a minute of scene-setting sound collage before cuing up an electric lullaby that is quickly cut with a sea-sick, forbidding guitar texture and caressed by a tender drum pattern and some warm bass and key noodling. The whole structure feels ripe for Chino Moreno’s feline croon, until the rhythm guitar takes the reins and steers the song toward the progressive stroll it was always meant to be. Grutle Kjellson’s gravely growl appears early, but it isn’t until the song’s second half that we finally hear that recognizable Enslaved gallop of old. And it’s worth mentioning here that new clean vocalist/keyboardist Håkon Vinje acquits himself well from the very beginning, turning his parts into essential foils for all the harsher material to come.
“The River’s Mouth” picks up rhythmically right where “Storm Son” leaves off, launching listeners into a much more straightforward metal workout than anything in the album’s first eleven minutes. Not that the song lacks its own refined sensibilities; Enslaved employ an economy on E that is admirable, and no moment is careless or wasted. Even the melodies are meted out, complete without being lavish or gaudy.
“Sacred Horse” feints toward gentle acoustics, then explodes in a shower of percussion and guitar savagery. Then there’s the massive organ solo planted in the middle of the track that absolutely owns the sonic landscape. On “Axis of the Worlds,” Enslaved might have written a better Mastodon song than anything on the last few actual Mastodon records. The bluesy clang that opens the track births a groove-laden assault complete with harmonized heroic vocals and, later, a Moog-enhanced dark chant section that finally resolves back into progaphiliac rock ‘n’ roll. “Feathers of Eohl” opens with a somewhat trying exercise in restraint, which is weirdly both agitated and quiet. That jarring blend can be irritating, and I’m not sure I love it even after a dozen or so listens, but it gives way to a song that mostly smoothes that initial discomfort with soaring vocal melody and a gothwave midsection that pays off the track’s slithery spine.
And after all the intellectual exercises and emotional teasing that ties down the bulk of the record, closing track “Hiindsiight” blossoms with cascades of lush chords and a serenading saxophone, only to tip you off the cliff into some truly volcanic doom. The pairing is exquisite, like letting Devin Townsend score sections of an Evoken record, which I never would have suggested before now. By the time the song ditches both approaches for a posty plod through tonally ambivalent guitar washes and choral crooning, E has truly felt like a complete and worthwhile journey.
Great music takes you somewhere and leaves you different than it found you. The best music does all that with a complex vision in mind. Reportedly, after multiple albums thematically focused on individuality, Enslaved’s E embraces the cominglings that enrich our experience of the world. Everything the band has been before was powerful, too, but it feels important that they could find their way to this place as well. As 2017 tumbles toward autumn and the final dark of winter, Enslaved have made some of the year’s best, most profound music. Long may they reign.