Veterans Enslaved refuse predictability, rise to earth-shaking levels on ‘RIITIIR’

Deep into a career typically is not a time to expect something surprising from most bands. By that point, there’s a formula, a style, expectations. Maybe even some complacency. Most bands know what fans expect of them, know what they expect of themselves, and deliver exactly what lines up with that thinking.

But there are exceptions. Iron Maiden have turned into prog metal explorers the past decade, writing albums packed with epic-length songs, heady material, and a far cry from the days when they pumped out 5-minute anthems. The reaction to that has been mixed. I like what they’ve done, but I also see the other side of the coin. Judas Priest also tried to embrace something more grandiose with “Nostradamus,” something of a disaster of an album. I admire the ambition, but the execution left a lot to be desired. Even Rush changed things up by making a stunning concept album “Clockwork Angels,” complete with some of the most inspired music they’re produced in two decades. Their deep-cuts-centric tour that accompanies the record also thumbs its nose — refreshingly — at the play-the-hits formula.

That brings us to Nordic black/Viking/folk/prog metal powerhouse Enslaved. They’ve never shied away from trying new things, stretching boundaries, and refocusing their efforts, and because of that, each new Enslaved album is something of an adventure. You can’t be too warmed up to their quirks, because they’ll change things on you with no warning. That’s why, for me at least, their last few efforts have been ones I’ve had to spend plenty of time with before the essence really sunk in. That’s not a complaint, by the way, because I love to have to “earn” albums. Those are the ones that tend to stick with you.

The band’s latest album “RIITIIR,” their twelfth studio album, is a challenger for sure. It may be their toughest album in a decade to fully absorb (opinion is sure to vary by listener), and my first few visits didn’t really bring much of an awakening to me. But maybe their label Nuclear Blast realized that as well, as the promo has been at my disposal more than two months now, and having a deep stretch of time to spend with the album has been to my benefit. Slowly it revealed itself, made its intentions clear, and it’s quickly becoming one of my favorite records in Enslaved’s catalog. The songs are rich and involved, and some of the best vocal hooks these guys ever have brought to the plate are found on “RIITIIR.” There is some serious sing-along material on this record.

Whatever got into these guys– bassist/growler Grutle Kjellson, guitarists Ivan Bjornson and Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal, drummer Cato Bekkevold, and keyboardist/clean vocalist Herbrand Larsen — they certainly made the right decision to follow their muse to its fullest. This a lengthy album at 67 minutes, and most of the eight songs run longer than seven minutes each (closer “Forsaken” goes 11:15). That’s part of the reason it takes so long to feel comfortable with this record, but spending time with the material and letting it percolate is in your best interest, because it really is a dazzling, surprising collection.

“Thoughts Like Hammers,” the opening track on “RITIIR,” is one you may have heard since it’s been on the Internet several weeks now. It’s an episodic tour-de-force complete with Kjellson’s trademark gurgle growls, a sweeping, memorable chorus sung by Larsen, and nearly 10 minutes of Enslaved goodness I’d put up against any song they’ve released the past decade. That’s kind of the bad news. Once this song is over, nothing else on the record approaches it, but there are some damn good tries. “Death in the Eyes of Dawn” has some wooshy keys, great melodies, and more stellar singing from Larsen, and the song eventually fades into an acoustic-heavy outro. “Veilburner” pours on the prog, at times sounding much like former tourmates Opeth, and there are references to “killing our idols” and other destructive tendencies on a song that’s pretty musically balanced. That leads to the crushing, earthquaking “Roots of the Mountain,” the heaviest song on the album. It does have its cleaner, more delicate moments, but it’s mostly demolition and black metal-flavored carnage.

The title track is a nice one, with another punchy open that eventually gives way to melodies and longer runs of clean vocals. Larsen urges, “Feel the flames inside of you,” as the bands burns out with a killer electric folk section that recalls their more Viking-friendly days. “Materal” is the one song that hasn’t made much of an impression on me yet. It opens sounding like a standard hard rock piece before it explores space and shoegaze. Some Kjellson gurgles emerge, and the last portion recovers thunderously, but I can’t get with this one, hard as I try. “Storm of Memories” rebounds with prog power, fluttering guitar work, spoken lines that sink behind the grandiosity, and an altogether interesting composition that sets the stage for the conclusion. Aforementioned “Forsaken” is a gigantic curveball, with cosmic lab keys, a much slower pace, raw, creaky clean vocals, and a sleepy tempo. It’s a very uncharacteristic song for Enslaved, but one they happen to nail and make special based on its peculiarity and execution.

So after more than two decades, 12 albums, and lineup and style shifts, Enslaved remain capable of surprising us. “RIITIIR” is ambitious and forceful, spacious and imaginative, and a record that speaks to me more every time I listen. It might take a little while to adjust to what’s going on here, but once you do, you’ll find one hell of a nice reward.

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