Capricious Nords: Enslaved Return With In Times

So I’ve finally gotten to listen Enslaved’s new album enough times to confidently offer up an opinion, but the first thought that comes to mind is that they have sneakily become metal’s most hard to predict band. I can never anticipate what they’re going to try next, and am always more than a little surprised when I finally get to hear what that is. The thing is, if you laid out their discography on a timeline, there’s a reasonable amount of linearity: the early 90s second wave Norwegian black metal roots, the switch to English language lyrics on 2001’s Monumension, the introduction of progressive elements on Below the Lights and Isa and the full blown era of prog-rock infusions ala Pink Floyd/King Crimson with 2009’s Vertebrae and onwards. Its in this latter era where the band have decided to throw out curveballs left and right, such as their reversion back to almost completely brutal, punishing black metal on Axioma Ethica Odini, a move that made some of us think that they had stretched the boundaries of their sound far enough and were making a move back towards their roots. But then RIITIIR happened, a big collossal “What the Hell?!” full of some rather Alice in Chains inspired hard rock melody, opulent Slash-esque guitar solos and more Herbrand Larsen than you’ve ever bargained for. It was a good, at times great album, and it set in concrete the idea that the band would remain vastly unpredictable from now on.

Their newest, In Times, is a further reinforcement of that notion; its certainly heavier than RIITIIR and at times matches the feral intensities of Axioma, but its simultaneously more smoothly melodic than anything off of Vertebrae. Its bothersome to me to have to contextualize a new album in relation to a string of its past predecessors, mainly because if you haven’t heard those other albums you’ll have no idea what I’m talking about. It just happens to be the easiest way to frame things with a band as diabolically complex as Enslaved. That actually got me thinking though, that perhaps In Times is an ideal starting point for anyone new to the band —- of which I’m sure there must be a few people around (right?). I say this because not only is In Times a phenomenal album, perhaps my personal favorite of theirs since Isa, but its their most accessible and representative album as well. There are only six songs here, and they’re all over eight minutes a piece, which may seem long and tedious on paper I know —- the band sidestep that by all but eliminating their more tedious, proggy-exploration moments that they’ve been prone to indulging in recently. The result is an album big on heavy riffs, wildly unrestrained guitar work, colorful washes of keyboard accompaniment, and a fifty/fifty mix of brutal and clean vocals that deliver hooks galore. It almost seems like I’m describing a Blind Guardian album (uh… minus the brutal vocals thing).



Its fair to say that In Times outright success is due in large part to the aforementioned Herbrand Larsen widening his range and scope as the band’s clean co-vocalist. In the past, Larsen’s moments tended to work like Dimmu Borgir-ian spot fills; those moments of cinematic, heavens opening up juxtaposition sandwiched in between brutal vocal sections. He had a particularly distinctive delivery in these moments, one that he repeated over and over and over again. There was a samey-ness to his singing, a monotone uniformity throughout the run of his vocal lines that almost came across as an instrument rather than actual singing, a role normally reserved for extreme metal vocals. He did attempt to change slightly, as seen on RIITIIR’s more accessible moments, incorporating in a little more in the way of variations in delivery, but it was still largely Larsen working in a comfort zone. Here however, he takes his quantum leap, a complete re-working of his role as co-vocalist and in the sculpting of his vocal melodies.

This stems from the songwriting itself, where clean vocal passages are underscored by a rhythm section that actually plays rhythmically in the standard sense. Take his vocal passages in “Building With Fire”, where Larsen sings over what comes across as almost alternative rock styled staggered riffing —- this is not to say it “sounds” like that, the guitar tone is rather typically modern Enslaved. Its a small touch, but one that allows Larsen to carry the song entirely on his own, rather than be subject to the irregular riff patterns that Grutle Kjellson can growl over with relative ease. An expanded role for Larsen means that these songs are not lacking in vocal hook laden refrains, a feature that allows the band to play around with degrees of heaviness and sonic brutality in a myriad of creative ways. On the album opener “Thurisaz Dreaming”, Larsen is emotive and expressive in his extended refrain sections, a perfect foil for Kjellson’s screaming bookends. He gets a star turn on “One Thousand Days of Rain”, its chorus the most gloriously pop moment of Enslaved’s twenty plus year career. Its elegantly worded refrain of “Wandering down the icy path / The sun is dying / The mother is crying” will stay with you after your first listen, forming the delicious nougat center of a great song you’ll keep coming back to again and again.

On that very song, Larsen trades off verses and sometimes single lines with Kjellson, over the undulating pulse of accelerating waves of melodic riffs and open chord figures. Kjellson (or Brutal Grutle as I enjoy calling him) delivers his extreme vocals like the bowling ball of howling fury that he always is, his voice far more wild and unrestrained than someone like Shagrath, or even Nergal. His tone is entirely his own, he sounds only like himself, and he doesn’t really change his approach (depending on your perspective, that’s either for better or worse I suppose). What he does succeed in achieving is a sense of agelessness, there’s no sense that his ability to reach peak intensity has diminished. His ability to deliver vocals like these this late in his career is a testament to whatever he’s been doing to keep his throat working.



As always, the musicianship is just utterly impressive, drummer Cato Bekkevold a force of nature unto himself, his fills and accent choices entrancing in their own right. I love his cymbal work towards the end of “Building With Fire”, or his militant snare drumming in “Nauthir Bleeding”, and his overall creative vision towards his role within Enslaved’s sound. He never smothers anything in double bass when its not needed, and keeps blast beats in reserve as something to be used sparingly only. But its guitarists Ivar Bjornson and Arve Isdal who really capture my attention. Isdal (“Ice Dale”) is an interesting guitarist within extreme metal, a guy more influenced by non-metal avant-pop players like U2’s Edge and Floyd’s David Gilmour, even alternative rock players like John Frusciante and Trey Spruance. Those seem like silly names to throw around as influences for a Norwegian guy in a band called Enslaved, but when you listen to his largely open chord permutations, you can hear that they ring true. Bjornson brings the proverbial sledge hammer in the form of muscular, cleanly written riffs, and here he sculpts them like a master smith at work. Check out the devastating high note progression in “Building With Fire” at the 1:53 minute mark, its one of my favorite moments on the album and I can’t get enough of how those open chord sequences flow directly into teeth gnashing outro riffs.

There are times when you know that you’ll keep coming back to an album weeks and months from now, and I will return to In Times with little effort needed. It wasn’t that way with RIITIIR, a record I found I had to be precisely in the mood for. Sometimes accessible doesn’t necessarily equate to something negative, and here Enslaved have the potential to cross over into a few other pools of potential listeners. I actually think I need to give it a few days of rest before listening again, I might be on the verge of overplaying it (five complete play throughs for this review alone). It is easily in contention for that distant album of the year list which I realize now is an absurdly short eight months away. All my earlier talk of Enslaved’s unpredictability means that I have no idea how they’re going to follow this album up a few years from now. Its actually not too crazy to suggest that they might revisit some of their earlier Viking/folk influenced sounds of eras bygone. That being said, unpredictability works both ways, there’s no guarantee I’ll enjoy the next thing they do as much as this one, so I’ll savor this while it lasts.

Dividing Opinions: A Look at New Albums From Enslaved and Therion




So they’re finally here, two new albums from perhaps two of the more radical leaning metal bands out there today. Radical here means pushing the boundaries of their genre, redefining their sounds over time, pissing people off, you know the drill. Pissing people off? Oh yeah, in fact I’m hard pressed to think of a band within metal that consistently manages to confuse, baffle, and alternatively delight their fanbases apart from maybe Opeth. Enslaved’s RIITIIR and Therion’s Les Fleurs Du Mal are both the follow-ups to 2010 predecessors, but dates and timing aren’t the only things they have in common. Both are albums that have already met with sharply divided opinions, from fans and critics alike. I don’t normally like to read reviews of albums that I myself am about to write about, preferring to go in with an clear head, but the extra time I felt I needed to process both of these records resulted in my curiosity getting the better of me. Now I’ll weigh in on both of them to tell you if I come down on the side of love or hate or worse!




Enslaved – RIITIIR:

I’ll be honest about the low expectations I had for this album, as I firmly believed that there was no way that the band could top what they had done on 2010’s Axioma Ethica Odini, an album that hit me with the force of a grizzly bear and left me happily dazed in a modern black metal stupor for weeks afterward. I quietly thought that the album was a refreshing move away from its prog-drenched predecessor Vertebrae back into more visceral, impact-heavy black metal territory. Perhaps it was the unexpectedness of it all that made it even better — the band did get a lot of praise for Vertebrae after all, and it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see them continue in that vein.  Now this being the follow-up to Axioma, I wouldn’t have been surprised in the least to see them attempt a part two of that album, in the same aggressive, up-tempo vein… I expected them to really. But Enslaved is nothing if not surprising lately, as RIITIIR sees the band heading once more into prog-influenced soundscapes and slower tempos, in fact its not a stretch to say that the majority of this record is mid-tempoed.


Depending on your temperament and patience for that sort of thing, this album may come across as plodding and at times meandering. But I’ll argue the opposite, and say that this is just as sharp a set of songs as those on Axioma, albeit with obvious differences in the brutality department. Unlike Vertebrae, which really did come across to me as largely unfocused and hell, just plain boring — the songs on this album boast memorable melodies, clever hooks, and the best clean vocals on any Enslaved album to date. Opener “Thoughts Like Hammers” is the most meh thing on offer here, excitingly fast at times yes but the chorus isn’t as striking as whats to follow such as on the excellent “Death in the Eyes of Dawn” and “Veilburner” — where Larsen’s expressive, emotive clean vocals elevate the songs into a sound that I can only describe as depressingly uplifting. “Veilburner” is the best of the two, Grutle’s awesome grim vocals set against the albums heaviest splash of stop-start riffage, juxtaposed to a killer chorus that has the album’s best refrain “I found myself crawling, looking for an out”. I can’t emphasize just how great the clean vocals are on this album — and considering that they had been in the past a bit of a weak spot (certain songs notwithstanding, such as “Isa”), the fact that I find myself humming them in my head long after I’ve ceased listening to the album is saying something.





I love the swinging riff in the title track, and the build up to that awesome pay off mid way through the song where Grutle barks over a bed of clean vocals chanting “Hail the flames inside you”. The absolute masterpiece of the album however is “Materal”, an epic track where thundering AC/DC-ish drums pound out an opening drawl from Larsen that sounds more akin to Alice in Chains than Enslaved. This startlingly different  melodic passage recurs alternatively between ugly, soaring black metal tremolo interludes, building up into the album’s most awesomely bizarre moment ever, a Guns N’ Roses-esque wailing guitar solo that seems so surreal you’ll be checking the album booklet to make sure Slash isn’t guesting. The tribal drum laden, Grutle-led assault that immediately follows is the most headbangingly awesome moment on the record, a satisfying series of differing elements that combines to great effect. If I had to pin down the most striking feature of this album, albeit just one thing, it would have to be the greater presence of rock guitar — there’s not a lot sound wise here that will remind you of classic black metal sounds, or even classic Enslaved sounds really.


This album has met with some rather surprising criticism, I’ve seen it called everything from meandering and unfocused, to pretentious and a product of trying to do too much. I guess I understand where those opinions are coming from, because I could have easily seen myself dismissing this album upon my initial listen perhaps if my expectations were for something else. But my expectations when I first hit play were pretty much nothing but a clean slate, I didn’t know what I wanted or hoped to hear, and maybe that was the best thing that could’ve happened. Its fair to say that while I don’t love this album, I am highly enthusiastic about it and enjoy it when I’m in a welcoming mood for its strange mix of sounds blending modern rock elements with prog-influenced black metal.




Therion – Les Fleurs du Mal:

This is a strange one. You can’t really call it a proper follow-up to 2010’s Sitra Ahra, because well, it isn’t really a proper Therion album.  Their last album really was the start of a new era for Therion. Gone were the long tenured Niemann brothers and in were new permanent members Thomas Vikström and Lori Lewis, the band’s first permanent vocalists. While their additions to the band were welcome, the music on Sitra Ahra was widely inconsistent, a few good songs amidst a sea of unfocused filler — not to mention that band leader Christofer Johnsson was headed back into a more prog-driven direction, as opposed to the almost pop-oriented rock and metal of the great 2007 Gothic Kabbalah album. The lack of the Niemann’s presence on guitar and bass was felt deeply, and the whole affair just seemed messy and unfocused. I was looking forward to see what this new look Therion could do on their second try, but apparently, a new “regular” Therion album will be years away as Johnsson has stated that he’s working on a real rock opera that will apparently take many years to compose. So where does that leave a proper follow up to Sitra Ahra? Well…either far, far in the future or right now with Les Fleurs du Mal, depending on your perspective and willingness to accept this truly bizarre, as described “art-project” of an album.


A word of forewarning: This album does not contain original material as written by Therion. Instead, it is a collection of covers of French chansons done up in the Therion style. You know what I mean, Edith Piaf type stuff, French women crooning about lost love and regrets, that sort of thing. Sound interesting? It is. Let no one call this album boring and unoriginal. Hate it or love it Therion is breaking new ground here, as this is truly something I can say that I’ve never heard before, much less envisioned hearing. And here’s the kicker, its actually really goddamned good. Yes these are Swedes singing in French, so you’ll have to get past that right away. I’ve seen some criticism from European fans discussing the vocalist’s deficiencies in French pronunciations… as if most of us could notice? Leave it to the internet to provide us with people who could bitch about anything. One thing struck me right away after a few listens to this record: Even though these are all covers of French ballads, the band really diversifies their approach to all of them and the result is an album that ranges from fast, aggressive metal, to delicate balladry, to songs with almost danceable waltz-y melodies, to slow, doomy dirges that recall to mind Candlemass (seriously!). The variety on display here is what really makes the album fun to listen to.





There’s some truly beautiful music going on here, such as on the clear stand-out track “Une fleur dans le cœur”, which Therion adds haunting acoustic guitars and synth driven strings to create a swelling, nostalgic sounding ballad thats interspersed with metallic guitar flourishes. The female singing on this track is gorgeous, and while my years of French in school don’t help me in understanding much about the lyrics, there’s a pathos going on in the inflections of the vocal that is really moving. “Initials B.B.” has the most striking and memorable musical refrain, an orchestral motif that is repeated over and over throughout the track, only spaced out by bits of rock riffing and a lazy French female vocal that seems to be more dialogue based than anything. Its weird but it works. I absolutely love the ultra-melodic guitar driven melodies that lace together “Dis-moi poupée”, they remind me of traditional Therion funnily enough and honestly this track wouldn’t have felt out of place on the classic Vovin or Deggial albums. There’s a lot of highlights here, more than I should probably list, but if I had to pick the weirdest one that actually works, it would have to be “Je n’ai besoin que de tendresse”, a cover of the sixties French pop singer Claire Dixon’s biggest hit — the original being a bouncy, sugary pop number that sounded like it was sung by a fifteen year old girl. Here Therion transform it into a super fast, metalized rocker with wild vocals (from whom I believe is Snowy Shaw but can’t be sure), the songs shimmering melody morphed into a really awesome riff.


This album was apparently too out there for Nuclear Blast, Therion’s longtime record label. I can totally understand why they passed on agreeing to an idea like this. They gave the band their permission to release this on their own through independent financing and according to Johnsson himself he took out a 75000 Euro bank loan to pay for the project. By releasing it independently, the band has assured that all the proceeds from sales will go back in their pocket, and I hope they sell enough to cover the costs. I’ve also read through non-official sources that this album is part of a larger art project that is tied together with the work of French poet Charles Baudelaire, hence it being named after a collection of his poetry — so maybe there’s more to the Les Fleurs du Mal project that we haven’t seen yet. While I applaud the effort and clearly am having fun listening to this thing repeatedly, I gotta wonder out of mild curiosity, with Johnsson’s announcement that this will be Therion’s last tour in a long while, how the hell is this guy going to pay his bills let alone recoup the costs of the bank loan?


For Therion fans, this is the last new music we’re gonna get from these guys in a long while, so I urge an open mind before going in to listen to this album. There’s a lot to enjoy here, just brace yourself.

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