Thursday, March 12, 2015

Enslaved - In Times (2015)

As opposed to several of its 21st century forebears, In Times is not the sort of record which steps out to take a lot of risks, nor does it add a broad palette of new sound and style to the Enslaved canon. Instead this album feels like a smoothing over of the cobblestones with which they've paved their recent past; calm and stormy waters lapping over the creative shores, remaining at low tide lest they overtake the beachfront property. The long ships, once wedged as far and wide up the coast now own berths on the local docks, the harbor master gets a smile and a handshake instead of an axe in his skull, the women and innkeepers of the local villages don't feel quite so threatened, and there are few if any fiery funerals flowing back out to sea, most now proxied by lanterns and candles, bobbing on the esoteric prog vibes centric to the Norwegian's sound. Berserkers reformed, Ivar, Grutle, Arve, Cato and Herbrand can now just get down to what they do best: writing some tremendous fucking music.

If that description raises some red flags that the band has 'mellowed out', in any way, do forgive me, because that's not exactly what has taken place. More of a refinement. Cutting and piercing tremolo picked black metal passages still abound, particularly in the opening bursts of "Thurisaz Dreaming", but there is an unbroken chain of melody, overt and implied, coursing through the record's most feral ideas, and not an unwelcome one, fusing together motifs from both their earliest recordings like Frost and their more recent masterworks Below the Lights and Vertebrae, into a reflective, consistent air of melancholy that creates one of their most consistent experiences to date. The jazzier progressions of chords they began tooling with in that era are now seamlessly integrated into the biting winds, now distributed fairly evenly across both the faster and slower moments, nothing more than the natural lexicon from which they twist out each phrase and passage. Structurally, where numerous tempos and aesthetics are still present in the writing, In Times doesn't possess quite that titanic level of tectonic variation that records like Axioma Ethica Odini and RIITIIR thrived off. Individual pieces on those discs still serve as solitary epics in my listening habits, which is no mean feat in of itself, but from bow to stern, I felt that this was more fully coherent.

Grutle Kjellson's harsh intonations and Herbrand Larsen's cleans continue to present a dichotomy within the material that, as the band becomes even better versed and fluid in production standards, seems to become an even sorer thumb for some listeners. I think the reason is that the latter's singing voice has grown so much over the last decade that the rasps, by comparison, seem a little too crude, monotonous and jarring in comparison. Not a point of contention for me, since I'm just so accustomed to how this works, but when the guy sings in 2015, its the perfect marriage of humility and contemplation, melody carried through honesty, a pair of vocalists well aware of their limitations and working their best within the bounds. The mid-ranged, soothing and airy harmonies placed throughout this record, as in the bridge of "Thurisaz Dreaming" or the depths of "One Thousand Years of Rain" are so effective that counterbalancing them with the harsher tones does often come off a bit like trolling a good thing, but won't come as any surprise to those who have been following them for the last 20 years. Enslaved is just not a band I expect to fully depart from what made it in the first place, no matter how deep they dig into unfamiliar musical terrain.

Of course, as far as they've come, in both the vocals and the smooth, interesting bass lines that always lend appropriate mood and gravity to the more complex guitars, it is those rhythm guitars themselves which prove the most captivating component. Lush floes of chords collide with some nastier, progressive blackened thrash licks, but at the same time interspersed with these immediate, evil sounding melodies that Ivar and Arve will unexpectedly break out, as in the later half of the "Nauthir Bleeding" bridge, which instantly refresh the attention span when one catches him or herself off dreaming to the chord patterns they generally affix to Cato's blasting and double bass patterns. There is just not a song here which lacks some hypnotic ascendancy beyond its surface value, whether that's the sparser, swaying punctuation of bass line to the punctuated guitars in the vocal harmonies of "In Times" itself, or the Darkthrone-like black tremolo picked groove in "Building With Fire", at which point you can just mentally picture Nocturno Culto's voice barking out, before the coitus interruptus of shining keys and cleaner guitars. The lyrics are triumphant, poetic and uplifting without swimming too far into the shallower waters.
There must be some sort of statute Enslaved has broken, having produced so much quality music by this time. But for the sake of my ears, I hope they continue to dodge the law of averages and career nadirs, and to just be themselves. They've a sound I can instantly distinguish from the hordes of other neo-black metal veterans still breathing, even though it overlaps with a lot of their Nordic neighbors who have simultaneously continued to mutate and renew from their own points of origin. The ideas and musical ability really speaks for itself, this is not a band thriving off some controversial legacy or outspoken contemporary press-whoring, but a group of consummate musicians who did everything THE RIGHT WAY. In Times might not prove to be their crowning achievement, it might not bring as much nuance to the table as a few of their other recordings, but it certainly holds office at court, and even a half dozen listens in, the more I experience this record, the more I am absorbed. The older I get, the rarer that has become, so color me proud to be aging alongside this amazing, intrinsic band.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10] (there is no end)

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