Review Summary: Gradually shifting their way out of black metal territory and into progressive rock, Enslaved merge the two factions perfectly with Vertebrae.
Proving to be one of Norway’s most proficient and consistent long-running metal bands around, Enslaved continue marching to the fore-front of the extreme metal genre with Vertebrae, an epic, crushing, progressive metal record that find’s the band extracting their black metal roots momentarily in favor for the spacey progressive rock roots of Pink Floyd. Enslaved once played intense Viking themed black metal in the early nineties garnering a huge fan base in the process. As years started passing by with the black metal scene starting to decline immensely, Enslaved had started to lose interest with their current situation and began to incorporate new musical styles while staying true to their black metal roots. The album, Isa, showed the future of where Enslaved could be heading with the band’s new found experimentation of clean singing and melodic passages. Needless to say, the diehard Enslaved fan boy’s were more than upset by this radical new shift and cried sellout. More often than not however, the band received plenty of positive support as well as critical acclaim with Isa managing to snatch up a Grammy. The next album RUUN followed it’s predecessor and explored the progressive rock spectrum further more than Isa accomplished so if anybody was paying attention to these last two albums it wouldn’t be a surprise for how much farther Enslaved have shifted away from pure black metal.
Vertebrae, the band’s tenth full length album is the most progressive and dare I say it least black metal sounding album in the their decorated, long standing career. Don’t get me wrong, Grutle still utilizes the same throat tearing technique from previous albums but there happens to be a larger focus directed towards singing and instrumental passages. I guess I could say for those who ever dreamed about a black metal version of Opeth to check out Vertebrae immediately. Enslaved have always played as a tightly knit unit no matter who left or how experienced the replacements happened to be. They have yet to fail as a professional core of musicians and I don’t foresee any internal issues taking place to unravel the band any time soon. Strong, cohesive songwriting is another strong element which has bolstered Enslaved as a tour de force in the metal world. Many bands lack the talent or heart to remain prominent in a chosen field for so long but Enslaved has held onto several signature traits that have kept the band elevated for so long, including Ivar’s distinct riffing style and Grutle’s easily distinguishable vocals. One decision that might plague the band’s fan base might have been the decision to lose some of the traditional heaviness that they’ve carried for years That’s not to say it isn’t heavy but it’s definitely more relaxed and straightforward than RUUN and Isa. The opening track, Center, is a highly atmospheric metal track that possesses a serene, dream like atmosphere developing from mellow guitar strumming and minimalist keyboard usage. The song caught me off guard at first with it’s primarily instrumental based structure but quickly enough Grutle enters although just momentarily. The song picks up after Grutle’s brief entrance with some spoken word sections and some clean singing before closing out in a relatively slow manner. The album at a whole is much more mellow than anything released previously but that sure as hell doesn’t mean it wasn’t well planned.
The always dependable and consistent rhythm section of Ice Dale and Ivar Bjornson return with a plethora of tightly executed riff patterns that manages to be as precise and cutting edge without sacrificing the talented songwriting ability Ivar has. The atmospheric, droning guitar tone that Enslaved have shown us in recent years is ever so present while balancing things to be moderately heavy/melodic. Ice Dale and Ivar like to solo but execute them tastefully without bordering on pretentious or overblown levels. The duo help set up a sturdy platform for bassist and front-man Grutle to strategically attack. Grutle’s vocals I found always stood out from the Norwegian black metal scene much less the black metal genre. He doesn’t employ the high pitch shrieking that Ihsahn once was famous for but has opted for a mid ranged almost phlegm induced growl that approaches a higher register but has more in common with Abbath and early Mikael Stanne then Ihsahn. Nonetheless, it’s been very effective over the years and sounds just as strong in 2008 as it did in 1998. Grutle is also in charge of bass duties and does a pretty damn good job. Following Arve and Ivar’s lead, Grutle holds a steady rhythm and shows off his four finger fret work with plenty of catchy bass lines that are not only present but interesting. The keyboardist/clean vocalist, Herbrand Larsen, delivers a power packed performance with an elegant keyboard approach and strong Norwegian accented singing. The keyboard’s at times recall the trippier moments of Pink Floyd while maintaining a minimalist approach. Not overbearing or even that high in the mixing but just loud enough to leave a significant impact through the music. His singing is displayed more than ever so if you didn’t like it before I don’t know what to tell you except for deal with it. The drumming framework meld’s perfectly in synch with the guitar and bass rhythm thanks in no small part to Cato. Hiss drum work shed’s a lot of personality and technical ability where the drums stand out to me as a listener. Generally not very quick but catchy enough to the point of wanting to analyze his movement‘s.
Strong instrumentation needs strong production right? I agree and that’s why Enslaved have enlisted some of the top producers available. Joe Barresi from Tool fame and George Marino who has mastered both Led Zeppelin and Metallic have certainly added a nice touch to Vertebrae. Slick production, tight musicianship, and tight songwriting, Enslaved have certainly stepped up to the plate and hit a grand slam with Vertebrae. A possible con that might stick out too many would be the accessibility factor. I’ve heard quite a few people exclaiming that Isa had been too boring so I just want to point out in advance that Vertebrae might take some time to sink in. The standout track on the album happens to be “The Watcher” so go preview that track first before sinking your teeth into Vertebrae. With that out of the way I have no complaints with the album. Talk about progressive metal in 2008. We have Lazarus Bird and Traced In Air but don’t forget about Vertebrae. Complete the 2008 collection today or perish.
I've only listened to this once, and I thought it was pretty good. For some reason, I was expecting less, probably since I didn't think they'd be able to pull off getting an even more "progressive," for lack of a better word for it.
I have to get this - great review - I am totally digging enslaved at the moment. Didn't even know this was out, so thanks for reviewing this - I have gone straight to their myspace page and center is playing - kind of doomy and atmospheric - ownage.
Isa was my first b.m record bought and still my favorite. With the exception of maybe Burzum, I will take these guys over any other Norwegian b.m band any day of the week, Especially Emperor. Thanks all.
this album keeps growing on me with each listen but im still not sold that its better than Ruun or Isa. id say on par with Monumension and Below the Lights. still this is a solid album and its immense enough the continue to grow on me. i need to listen to their early black metal albums a little more, ive only heard Eld and Frost (Eld being the better of the two). i like to keep their earlier albums separate from Monumension to this one
Just can't handle the goodness eh hawks? Just kidding but yeah, album rules and completey decimates the majority of crappy black metal being released at this time. Thanks again people and Below The Lights is a great album, one of my tops favs with this and Isa but I could see the deal with this band. Crysis didn't like Isa so whatev.
rasputin Contributing Reviewer September 25th 2008
I didn't really like RUUN so not sure if I'll get this. Good review.
Nice review again balls, I think this is my favorite Enslaved album overall, it's just extremely solid throughout. I don't they'll ever write a track is enthralling as "As fire Swept Clean the Earth" though. Seriously that song has everything, and the lyrics and mood make me feel like i'm experiencing Ragnarok.
But yeah this is a review for Vertebrae, not Below the Lights. My favorites right now are Clouds (intro is phenomenal) To the Coast, and Reflection. The Watcher is my least favorite tbh (or at least least memorable to me).