Sound: I've always distrusted the term 'progressive black metal' because black metal in general hasn't progressed much in the last 20 years. Its more or less black metal and some other influence added on to it, for example, melodic black metal: Some carcass guitar harmonies and possibly a few clean vocals if ya lucky but other than that, it's just black metal.
But last week I had the delightful surprise of being able to purchase a Terrorizer from some shop somewhere (I've never been a consistent chap) and was reading the editors notes about Enslaved's new album. I'd heard about them being very different from today's black metal contemporaries and taking a similar line to progression as Opeth. Naturally, I was sceptical. But...
...listening to the first track 'Ethica Odini', I was absolutely stunned. After a vague and boring intro of a creaking boat (I'm assuming that's what it is) it bursts into this massive sounding riff which sounds incredibly similar to the verse riff in Iron Maiden's 'Wasted Years'. Needless to say, while listening to it I felt like being sonically pummelled in the ears by this massive wall of sound. The same can be said for the rest of album: In an almost polarization to black metal ethos, the quality of the recording and production is exceptionally produced and the use of layered keyboards (much like Textures) really amplifies the melodies to make them far beyond epic.
Sonically, very few negative points to make. If I had one big complaint, it would be the use of repetition. While a lot of prog bands draw songs out, that's because they are abundant with ideas and riffs. Enslaved however, is still a black metal band primarily and so like black metal bands, repeat sections throughout songs to extend their length. I suppose this isn't necessarily a bad thing when all you're listening to is the same epic melodies from before, but then again progheads like prog to be progressive and not repetitive. // 9
Lyrics: Grutle Kjellson, bassist and lead vocalist, has one of the best harsh vocal techniques in black metal. He sums up the perfect sound that isn't a scream nor a growl but more of a biting hiss. Similar vocalists are Jari Maenpaa (Wintersun) and Jeff Walker (Carcass).
But it may have grabbed your attention that there is a clean vocalist too. This, I believe, is keyboardist Herbrand Larsen. But at first listen, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was Mikael Akerfeldt because there is little differentiation between their voices. Does this work with the epic, epic melodies and general black metal sound? To a point, but it sounds a little underwhelming during heavier sections. Herbrand's voice only really sounds brilliant during the softer, more acoustic orientated sections but he still has the skill to carry the melodies during the heavy sections too.
Lyrically speaking, I'd hate to say 'Usual black metal fare' but Christianity is such a juicy target that Enslaved can't help but give them a worded bashing. The first track 'Ethic Odini' shows this masterfully worded theme:
Who told you to abandon life?
Your strength, your free will
And bow for the light?
The light and turn from the spinning wheel
Fear of the judgement, Obey!
I wouldn't say the lyrics are all out rebellion against Christianity, but it's a prominent theme in the lyrics while the other main theme is that old reliable golden retriever called 'Self-betterment'. However, while listening to the actual music, you could never have guessed that that's what they were singing about. // 8
Overall Impression: As frequently as I have tried to deny progressive black metal's existence, Enslaved really are progressive black metal. If there was any band to compare it to, it would have to be Opeth. Why? Well, listen to the structure, tone and general sound of an Opeth song and a song from this album and then decide. If everything was a simple as 'This is called that' then Enslaved is the black metal version of Opeth (which now takes the top spot over Borknagar for me).
As a sheer listening experience, very few bands can make this massive wall of epic sound work without a compromise. Songs to look up: The entire album, it's that special. // 8