2017 has been a banner year for Bergen-based metal bands. With amazing releases from Helheim, Taake, Vulture Industries and others, Western Norway is further solidifying itself as the most important locale for extreme music. Of course, the fact that metal pioneers, Enslaved, hail from the region, more firmly entrenches the mystique of Bergen. Last Friday (13), in one of the most anticipated releases of the year, Enslaved hit us with E.
To be clear, as I’ve previously written, Enslaved is arguably the tightest, best sounding live metal band in the world right now. Over the years, more and more fans and entities have started paying closer attention. In fact, just over a year ago I was at the Norwegian General Consul’s residence in New York City discussing the accomplishments of this band with Norway’s Consular and other members of the Norwegian embassy. Once delegated to the “underground,” Norwegian metal has, at certain times and instances, risen above and been noticed by music and arts fans in the greater cultural realm. While much of the music in the Bergen scene will, of course, remain steadfastly below the surface (and rightly so), the success of bands like Wardruna and the global notice in Norway’s respect for the arts has to led to increases in tourism and exploration in this Scandinavian nation that still dearly holds on to its heritage.
Enslaved’s E is a record that both clutches on to the band’s heritage but also breaks new ground. I was unsure what to expect when I first heard that the band was working on a new record, and I will admit that I was a bit apprehensive. Upon learning that longtime vocalist and keyboardist, Herbrand Larsen, was leaving the band to further his career on the recording and production side more fervently, I felt overcome with sadness. Larsen’s atmospheric and light vocals and keys are the counterbalance to Grutle Kjellson’s epic growls and Ivar Bjornson and Arve Isdal’s screaming guitars. There’s only one Herbrand Larsen and his input made songs like “The Watcher” fulfill what they were meant to become.
The band, however, were lucky enough to find the very young Hakon Vinje. Clearly not a Herbrand clone, Hakon brings a beautiful voice of his own and some keyboard work that we really haven’t heard on an Enslaved record yet. Listen to his work on “Feathers Of Eolh” where he’s given the opportunity to showcase his voice and pay very close attention to the verse about 5 minutes into the song where Hakon and Grutle sing together and then lead into a dreamy synth and keyboard-induced jam with some systemic-patterned guitar work spinning everything along.
It might be my love of the 1980’s, but I hear an awful lot of 1980’s influences here. First, of course, is the use of the saxophone on the track “Hiindsight.” It’s going to take you a number of listens to really appreciate this song. It starts off with a tremendous guitar-led intro with Grutle’s (justly) complementary bass work and then descends into Grutle’s signature low-end vocals. The song twists and turns between light and dark; two extremes, just like Bergen itself. The beauty of Bergen’s summers also come with its biting winters. And then you get into 3:30 of the song… and you’re whisked away from Bergen finding yourself in 1980’s Chicago listening to a tenor sax. You’re reminded of pastel blazers and thin neckties and wearing your sunglasses at night. This might sound like it doesn’t make any sense and I might have been sitting in that dentist’s chair a bit too long today, but it all comes together and it all works. Two minutes later into the song you get some traditional Ivar and Arve tremolo picking as they take you to an even different place and time yet again. Hakon comes in on the keys and vocals, Cato gives you some epic drums, and you enter this trancelike state of feeling suspended in consciousness.
Much of the keyboard work has that definite 1980’s sound to it and there are even a few guitar leads that bring me back to Stevie Ray Vaughn style blues that was so big in ’87-’89. It is rather unexpected to the casual metal listener but it clearly works for the compositions. The guys in Enslaved listen to an awful lot of diverse music and all of these influences come out in the songwriting in a manner that is a stepwise aggregation rather than a rehash of what’s already been done. You feel a nostalgic progression.
The band released two videos so far for E. Enslaved has always had incredible videos and has made significant use visuals for the live performance. The video for the song “The River’s Mouth” by Josh Graham is particularly striking and we can all see what a female Grutle might look like while singing.
“River’s Mouth” is probably my favorite song on the record, but let’s face it, they are all winners and they are all reticent of something we really haven’t heard before. I am particularly impressed by the vocal performances by both singers and how they work so nicely in tandem. With that being said, as a fan of the band’s heavier work I indeed would have liked some more prominent, crunchier guitars here and there. Thankfully these guys have more than a few records from the past 25 years that fill this need.
Inevitably this record will be compared to Opeth’s more recent work because of the keyboards and the more progressive focus. Let me say this… this record is better than anything Opeth has ever recorded. There’s no doubt that Opeth is a great band but, quite honestly, Opeth is a bit too married to the 1970’s and is too tentative to embrace the heavier aspects of their earlier sound. Enslaved are still quite heavy and in case you forget while listening to the dreamy 6th track on the record, “Hiindsiight,” Grutle wakes you right up with the following song, “Djupet.” Enslaved meshes their progression with their core sound that they developed decades ago – so you get the best of both sides of Enslaved with some various nuances interjected here and there as well.
There are a wealth of packages for this release where you can get the CD, the record, the cassette, etc. Many of the physical releases for E come with bonus tracks and the bonus tracks are clearly worth buying. There is also a ton of really nice clothing that came out with this release as well with much of the art design done by Truls Espedal. Get it before it all sells out, because it will. Let’s hope for a North American tour soon so the USBM bands can learn how it’s done.