ENSLAVED’S VERTEBRAE: THE SOUND OF A BAND AT THE TOP OF THEIR GAME
Enslaved have arguably aged the best when considering the first wave of Norwegian black metal. The band began as a prototypical (and arguably incredibly bland) Viking-themed black metal group that, as the outfit’s members and the genre aged, evolved into what they are now: a progressive black metal band in the truest sense, pushing the boundaries of what can be black metal and why we shouldn’t care whether something is black metal or not. Though there is (ironically) some warmth in the genre’s head in the sand philosophy regarding artistic expansion (Darkthrone pleasantly comes to mind), to dismiss what so many of those initial bands have done after the church fires went out and all those scowling-faced dudes headed back to their parents’ basements would truly be a sin: Mayhem’s Ordo ad Chao was easily its most impressive album since their debut full length, and Emperor got exponentially better after the lo-fi keyboard-fest that was In the Nightside Eclipse.
Enslaved fully embody this movement and are just now hitting their stride 17 years into their existence, long after the real scene died and now that they’re all old enough to be thinking about 401K‘s (or their Norwegian equivalent). Vertebrae, their latest full length, is just another triumph from a band at their creative peak, breathing easy after realizing their contemporaries are miles behind them.
That being said, to call this black metal would be quite a stretch. This is black metal at its most skeletal, fleshing the rest of it out by way of other decidedly non-tr00 influences. The raspy screams and gurgling are there, as are the mid-paced blasts (albeit briefly on the latter), but there’s an impressive depth to Vertebrae that surpasses the sour misanthropy so often (and rightfully) associated with the genre. The brilliance of Enslaved is that these influences are used in perfect portions, leaving nothing to sound labored or awkward. The album is packed with wonderful clean vocals, lacking the embarrassing histrionics of Dimmu Borgir’s faux-operatic singing or the acceptable histrionics of Emperor’s faux-operatic singing. The delicate (but not frail) baritone encases the archetypical black metal vocals perfectly, making the album’s blown voice box-style of screaming go down easier, to the point where it’s easy to ignore. The frosty Scandinavian specters that usually haunt those that don’t prefer the genre (read: people who are rightfully annoyed by black metal) are greatly overshadowed by all that make Enslaved great.
And though much has been said about Nachtmystium’s blackened reworking of Pink Floyd (some of it said by me, of course), Enslaved both did it first and do it better. Metal’s precision and lumbering stomp are still ever-present on Vertebrae, but are augmented slightly by the occasional subtle veil of synths and solos seemingly peeled off the soul of David Gilmour (for the best example of the latter, check out the guitar work on “Ground“). The band’s attention to both atmospherics and attack has been the strength of their last few records, and not much has changed here. From the opening chords of “Clouds” – with tight little riff that, no shit, wouldn’t sound out of place on a Minus the Bear record – and onward, the band maintain balance: heavy and surprisingly soft, focused and curious, true to their roots and longing to forget them. The pivot point of this balance is where Enslaved lie, and on Vertebrae, it couldn’t be more apparent that the band are completely aware of this.
While Vertebrae admittedly isn’t their best album – that honor would go to 2004’s transcendent Isa – it’s the same sort of brilliant consistency that make this band still worth following. By harnessing the interplay between soul and savagery, Enslaved show the metal world the possibilities of experimentation and (gasp!) subtlety. Some of Vertebrae’s best moments are the smallest; even the clean vocals, typically pushed way-the-fuck-up into the forefront in most of the metal that incorporates them, are tastefully kept back, allowing the music around it to flourish, as it should. There is still plenty of snarl on this record, but that snarl is made only more apparent by the more quiet moments. Metal, not only black metal, could learn quite a bit from Vertebrae, the sound of a band at the top of their game.
(4 out of 5 horns)