Nuclear Blast Records/Universal Music Australia
Reviewed By Luke Saunders
Norwegian trailblazers keep the creative fires roaring
From raw and barbaric beginnings in the icy battlefield on Viking metal epics Vikingligr Veldi and Frost, to brave deviations into progressive realms and strange psychedelic fogs on later era albums like Isa and Vertebrae, Norway’s Enslaved have embarked on a tremendously creative and frequently unexpected journey throughout a lengthy career, with no signs of faltering. Up until this point in their career Enslaved have executed a frankly astounding evolution from their raw black metal roots to the sophisticated blackened prog the band has been perfecting over the past decade or so.
2012’s RIITIIR received deserved praise as another jewel in the band’s decorated body of work, yet it also drew criticism for meandering too far off course and being a tad too polished. Personally, while I enjoyed the album it was certainly unfocused in passages and at nearly 70 minutes overstayed its welcome. So here we are again with one of the most revered and respected bands in modern extreme metal returning with the thirteenth full-length chapter in a storied career, entitled In Times. With only the most sceptical and harshest critics outside and within the band’s sizable fanbase ready to write them off for some perceived missteps on RIITIIR, in reality Enslaved has only tightened a few loose screws to return in absolutely top form.
In Times trumps its predecessor in a number of areas, ranking up amongst the band’s finest recent offerings. Wisely, Enslaved chose to shave nearly fifteen minutes off the overall run time compared to last album, ensuring a far more concise yet still epic listen. Enslaved’s penchant for longer songs remains intact, and their knack for dynamic song-writing and contrasting melodic and scathing passages forms some of the most compelling progressive arrangements in extreme metal this side of Blackwater Park. Whereas RIITIIR veered off course at various stages, In Times is a far more cohesive and focused effort. It’s an album which further consolidates Enslaved’s mastery of contrasting elements, where seemingly disparate components are expertly crafted into a unified whole. Winding progressive arrangements glide effortlessly into harsher blasts and blackened firestorms. Quirkier riffs and haunting melodies bounce cohesively off burly riff-driven grooves and blazing speed.
Ivar Bjørnson and Arve ‘Ice Dale’ Isdal form one of the most inventive and formidable guitar duos in extreme metal. The classy pair peels off a seemingly endless array of frost burnt riffs, ghostly dual guitar melodies and dazzling solos shaded with classic psych and prog rock flair. Meanwhile Enslaved’s tag team vocal approach is in scintillating form once again. Keyboardist Herbrand Larsen continues to develop into an accomplished and skilled singer, bringing forth a deeper emotional and melodic depth to the band’s music. His keyboards also remain a prominent and crucial component to the band’s multi-faceted formula. Founding member Grutle Kjellson’s ageless growl exudes raw power and sounds vital as ever, with the pair weaving their contrasting vocal lines back and forth effortlessly. Special mention also needs to be reserved for drummer Cato Bekkevold, an unsung and crucial foundation to the band’s sound.
Lead-off track “Thurisaz Dreaming” is a blazing anthem of ice and fire, bursting from the gate and pushing their black metal roots to the forefront during a blistering opening salvo and inspired beginning to the album. Back-to-back stunners “Building with Fire’ and “One Thousand Years of Rain” encapsulate many of the finer elements of the modern Enslaved blackened prog hybrid. Both songs are underpinned by the band’s intelligent balance of melody, raw ferocity, and striking song-writing dynamics. Larson’s emotive cleans shine again during the bloodthirstily executed, musically complex and highly memorable songs. Arguably the first half of In Times is stronger, but this shouldn’t been seen as a slight on the moody and adventurous second movement. “Nauthir Bleeding” has a dreamy, almost joyous melodicism that somehow doesn’t alienate the listener during the scathing heavier passages, while the closing “Daylight” is a rousing melodic psych-prog epic with cascading guitar soloing and burly heavier sections.
Sonically, In Times features a fairly stock standard modern Enslaved production, which isn’t especially dynamic but is little less polished than RIITIIR. Nothing else about In Times could be described as stock standard. It stays rather true to form of the highly evolved sound Enslaved have honed on recent albums, but at the same time takes enough quirky twists and turns to stand alone as another beautifully written and performed opus from this exceptional band.