Enslaved have been not-so-quietly making their presence known in the extreme metal community for a full quarter century, from those early pure black metal demos Nema and Yggdrasil to more experimental, open ended efforts such as RIITIIR and In Times in recent years. Through it all the band have weathered extensive criticism over deviating from their original sound, all the while maintaining an overall sense of goodwill and artistic appreciation within the community. Unlike other genre-bending groups like Opeth, Enslaved have never fully devolved from their original black metal ethos, instead further coloring outside the monochrome palette of the genre, finding new avenues of exploration in the expansive plains of other progressive musical genres. Enslaved in the 21st century are much more at home tastefully filling empty spaces with shades and chiaroscuro than filling their entire canvas with assaulting swathes of pure audio savagery.
E is no real left turn for those already familiar with the last decade or so of the band's worth, but one welcome change here is a return to the straightforward, accessible – if no less epic and aspirational – sounds of RIITIIR, one of the band's finest ever albums. New band member Håkon Vinje makes his presence felt immediately with dreamy, psychedelic synth patterns and haunting backing vocals that contrast nicely with Grutle Kjellson's patented croak (see the opening section of "Feathers of Eolh", for instance). While songs tend to average out around the eight minute mark, each is chock full of clean, intricate riffing – we're talking real hooks here – and intelligently plotted lyrical themes of mankind's intertwined relationships among one another. The lyrics are backed up by a consistent musical focus that definitely makes E seem of a piece, both reaching artistically yet also firmly grounded at the same time.
Highlights abound here, from the acid-tinged "Axis of the Worlds" to the creeping doom of "Hiindsiight", which features an avant-garde sax solo (increasingly common in extreme metal, as is the flute accompaniment on "Feathers of Eolh"). "Storm Son" gets things off to a winding start, taking its time building up and establishing the album's central theme, which is again one of how man interacts with and feels drawn to both his fellow man and other elements of his environment. In press interviews leading up to E's release, guitarist Ivar Bjørnson revealed that the band made a conscious decision to veer away from the themes of individuality that have characterized the band's last several releases, instead focusing on the connections each individual must make for themselves to prosper.
That's not to say the album isn't cerebral, but there's definitely an earthiness to these six tracks (eight on the deluxe edition) that isn't always present on prior LPs. Enslaved albums pretty much always work as a complementary unit of songs, but the half dozen tracks on E have an intraconnectedness that strives beyond the usual thematic cohesiveness of most of the band's material. That said, these tracks all work just fine as individual statements on their own. Any given one of these tracks could be isolated and sandwiched into a setlist paired up against nearly anything in the band's catalog, which makes E more a summary of Enslaved's career to date as it is a bold step in a new direction. It's also hands down one of the group's more laudable achievements in a career chock full of them.