Welcome to Throwback Thursday! This is the place where we get to indulge in nostalgia and wax poetic about excellent metal of years past. So sit back and relax with some ice wine. We're going on a journey in search of modern albums that have primed the canvas of today's metal music scene.
For this, the thirteenth edition of this series, we're reflecting on a band who refuses to slow down.
Vertebrae is nothing short of an amazing album. Full of transition, atmosphere, and progression, the 10th album from Enslaved highlights a beautiful contrast between old-school black metal tradition and lighter, pensive swaths of instrumentation, clean vocals, and melody.
In general, metal is unforgiving genre when it comes to bands exploring new songwriting outside of their initial rooted sound. For example, bands like Opeth can’t make new albums ‘sans growls’ without old-school fans accusing them of being dad rock. And, to a degree, I understand the resistance. When bands make such fantastic music with which we identify and listen to obsessively, we want more of what we love the way a junkie wants another fix.
When it comes to these metal mainstays, Enslaved known for constantly expanding the boundaries on their Norwegian black metal roots. Founded in 1991 by Ivar Bjørnson and Grutle Kjellson, Enslaved has been subtly evolving with each album they’ve released over their 25 year career. With 2017’s release of E, Enslaved boasts an impressive 14 full-length studio albums. Their entry into the metal world both time-wise and sound-wise drops them into the loosely-titled ‘second wave of black metal’ category. Listening to their earlier releases like 1994’s Vikingligr Veldi and Frost gives you the perfect portrait of a band making a traditional sound their own. Slower riffs, and more repeated chords give an immediate sense of melody unheard of in more hardcore black metal offerings.
Some say that 2003 fan-favorite Below the Lights marks the beginning of 'new' proggier Enslaved. According to the band's own website, Below the Lights "unified the soul searching and fearless exploration of the previous albums into a confident and bold statement about the direction the band would take in the next decades offerings."
In that next decade for Enslaved we find the simply stunning release Vertebrae. Vertebrae is a graceful and masterful example of a band finding themselves. Opening track "Clouds" gives no clue to their black metal, viking roots until the a break in clean vocals at 2:16:
This song is so representative of the genius of Enslaved. "Clouds" doesn't ignore their roots, but combines them in a unexpected and controlled way. The result is a beautiful song that sounds like huge grey clouds which part every once in a while to let brilliant sunlight through.
When I first heard this album, unbeknownst to me that it was Enslaved, I was stunned by the introduction of Kjellson's growly vocals. They're harsh, almost ugly against the backdrop of melodic and gorgeous chord choices. But that juxtaposition has defined Enslaved over and over again – a stunning coldness with the warmth of a beautiful melody. If you listen to second track "To the Coast", the vocals go from being abrasive to simply soaring and powerful as he sings "I'd like to see what lies beyond":
That same 'fire and ice' feel is heard on the single "The Watcher" – and there's an official music video!
I've said it before and I'll say it again: I love it when metal bands bother to make music videos. When bands bereft of pretension such as Enslaved make a video, it looks something like this one does. It's simple, matches the atmosphere of the song, and shows the band muted and stripped down, a perfect echo to the theme of the album. "The Watcher" is another example of the blending of clean harmonies with the shards of ice that is the quality of Kjellson's vocals.
Some argue that Vertebrae is too subdued, and that the album shows a castrated Enslaved – afraid to be bold, powerful, and aggressive. I can agree that the album may not be for every Enslaved fan. As aforementioned, this band is always pressing forward, playing with new directions marrying their foundations. The band says this of Vertebrae, "This [album] did not represent a break with the past, rather a clarification and refinement of what was already there: an aspiration towards the raw, direct and extremely honest production. Next to “Eld”, this is the “cleanest” production on any Enslaved-album, which really leaves room for the arrangements, instruments and vocals."
"Reflections" is a thoughtful song, exemplifying their efforts to leave 'room for arrangement':
It combines fresh, tickling drum work with driving, longer black-metal kissed guitar riffs. The result is a super atmospheric, almost shoe-gazey song. Over all, the track feels focused and purposeful.
Vertebrae is yet another reason Enslaved forges new paths in the metal world. Their music feels authentic while following some music heavily based in tradition and attitude. Vertebrae really set the precedent for future works like the critically acclaimed RIITIIR, In Times, and most recent effort E.
What do you, oh Enslaved fans, think of this controversial album? Sound off down below. Thanks for stopping by, and I'll see you all next week.