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Saturday, October 25, 2008

CD Review: Enslaved - Vertebrae

Enslaved - Vertebrae
2008 Nuclear Blast Records
Ray Van Horn, Jr.



Opeth is so much in a league of their own it's hard to find a comparable within reach of their class. Norwegian stalwarts Enslaved, however, are the closest thing to Opeth's grandiose perfection you're going to get, and it might be said that Enslaved deserves a hair more credit for breaking the rules which the metal world has tried its damnedest to strap upon their refusing shoulders.

Most will agree Opeth is a stylish form of Goth metal, while Enslaved has had to continuously run the gamut of black metal, death metal and Viking metal purists who all want to claim this band unto their own. Of course, Enslaved came out of the gates with the caustic and terrifying Vikingligr Veldi in 1994, which the black metal sanction instantly pounced on. However, Enslaved began to show as of 1997's intelligent Eld that they weren't about to dedicate a career to one set of principles, while 2003's Below the Lights was the band's proper distancing effort. In 2004, Enslaved released their masterpiece Isa and in doing so, announced they belonged to not just the entire metal world, but more importantly, to themselves.

Having come into their own transcontinentally, Enslaved followed up Isa with 2006's Ruun, which gained them even more notoriety for their continuing evolution as a progressive extreme metal band that still heralds elements of black and death metal, but also with a propensity for alternative soundscapes sprinkled beneath their largely cataclysmic detonation.

Which brings us to 2008 and Enslaved's 10th studio album Vertebrae. The concept behind Vertebrae, if there is one, is derived largely from an article in Guitarist magazine Enslaved's Ivar Bjornson read in which celebrities were asked "What are you thinking this very minute?" After reading Tom Waits' correlation between a giraffe and a mouse having the same vertebrae and thus hypothetically making them the same species at one point, Bjornson began to find inspiration for his band's newest creation. Read into Waits' analogy as you will, but it subliminally speaks of Enslaved's continuous transition as a metal band, one that constantly seeks to be individualistic and thought-provoking while inherently remaining the beast as they were birthed.

Vertebrae is Enslaved in yet another watermark frame of mind as they once again push themselves forward with extraneous textures and complicated rhythms beneath the brute ugliness that carries forth from Grutle Kjellson's demonic growls, which are so liquidy on Vertebrae you can hear the saliva gurgling at times. Like his Opeth counterpart Mikael Akerfeldt, Kjellson blends smooth syncopation in uncanny Roger Waters fashion on a song like "Ground," which begins steadily with moments of harshness then largely assumes a psychedlic Pink Floyd art plane. Ditto for the closing stanza of "Center," which is simply breathtaking.

One of Vertebrae's starkest realities is its candescent effervescence that's countered brusquely by Kjellson's hard throat chops. As Enslaved drifts into placid rock pastures on "To the Coast," "Reflection" and the title track, expect the songs to take on menacing overtures. It's a blunt statement when Kjellson sacrifices the tranquility of his band's methodic melody structures with his morose grumblings. On the other hand, he pulls a fast one with his listeners on "New Dawn," the album's fastest track, and the closest Enslaved comes to black metal on Vertebrae. He hammers down the song's brutal verses yet instantly switches to croons on the choruses, much in the way Ihsahn did effortlessly for Emperor.

All of this interplay with Kjellson is virtual mindrape, which makes Vertebrae one of their most understatedly savage albums. Considering you want to swim in the appealing channels of Enslaved's gorgeous note floating, Kjellson is seldom going to allow you the luxury. Of course, as the songs on Vertebrae build to their climaxes, Kjellson knows when to scale back the mean stuff. You can't teach this sort of intuition to most bands. It all comes into play in Vertebrae's haunted finale "The Watcher," which if you listen very closely, should remind you of the closing theme to the original Friday the 13th.

Another note about Kjellson is that his bass is deeply captured on Vertebrae, so much it's another character altogether. While Ivar Bjornson and Arve Isdal send literal currents out of their strings on each song, Kjellson does more than merely supply low end. His bass has strict personality, and a result, he with Bjornson and Isdal, plus keyboardist Herbrand Larsen comprise a monstrous rhythm section.

With each album, Enslaved has gotten cleaner with each production. Isa may be the last we've heard this band with low-fi in addition to the sharp fidelity. In effect, Kjellson's vocals dominate Vertebrae all over the joint from the almost-perfect sound capture. Fortunately, his band are masters of accommodation and Vertebrae becomes a joint collaboration filled with wonderment, spectacle and dark glory.

Rating: ****1/2

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