Review Summary: Hopefully on their next album Enslaved will take an approach that doesn’t contradict itself at every turn.
As is the case with most cutting edge bands, the music of Enslaved is hard to define. Obsessive compulsive genre label freaks may refer to them as “progressive psychedelic black metal”, (doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue does it?) but sub-genre jaded metal fans should probably ignore this label, as it is a tag unlikely to have any lasting impact in metal music, and not just because of the unwieldy length. No, the real problem with this fusion genre and with the recent music of Enslaved is that the musical ideas at work are completely and hopelessly incongruous with each other. I find it quite baffling that critics and fans alike have been heralding Enslaved’s eleventh album, Axioma Ethica Odini, as one of the best records of 2010, when to me, it only amounts to a good effort at best. I don’t deny that this album has some fantastic moments, but ultimately, it is marred by repetition and its garish mixture of black metal and psychedelic influences.
Traditionally, black metal is relentless, cold, dark and evil. In contrast, psychedelic music is warm, smooth, creamy, and rich. Could there be a worse fusion than a mixture of the two? Imagine mixing Cream’s sunshine of your love with Emperor’s the loss and curse of reverence. If you don’t like the sounds of that (who would) than you probably won’t like Axioma Ethica Odini. Although Axioma Ethica Odini still has many trademarks of black metal music, namely, relentless drumming, grisly shrieks, and a furious drive, it lacks the essential cold atmosphere and dark mystery inherent in the best black metal records. In their stead, Enslaved utilize mainly warm and groovy psychedelic riffs, which, on their own are fantastic, but when accompanied by the primal and grating screams of Grutle Kjellson, feel completely out of place.
This is very evident on the first track, Ethica Odini. After a mandatory mysterious intro, the track begins with a basic drum beat and a repetitive and fairly unmemorable chord progression. Soon the unwelcome shrieks come into play and it begins to feel like the album is going to be standard black metal fare, minus the dark atmosphere and beauty. At 1:50 though, something amazing happens. The time signature switches abruptly, the band segues into a catchy, rocking groove, and the phenomenal clean vocals of Keyboardist/Vocalist Herbrand Larsen make their first appearance. Pure bliss ensues for the next minute, but alas, it cannot last as Grutle Kjellson returns to the mic and the band returns to monotony. It’s a strange feeling, like falling in love and getting dumped in the same minute. Moments like these add to the disappointment that I feel listening to Axioma Ethica Odini, knowing how great this album could have been. Unfortunately the album doesn’t get much better after this point. Raidho is incurably repetitive, Warrun is boring and sounds too much like Opeth’s Heir Apparent, and The Beacon, Axioma, and Giants are all a monotonous blur. The record does pick up on the last three tracks though, with the thrashy Singular, well-crafted Night Sight, and the phenomenal Lightening, which is easily the best track on the album. If a case were to be made for “progressive psychedelic black metal” music; Lightening is it.
The shrieked vocals are possibly the worst part of Axioma Ethica Odini, not just because of the delivery, but because of the context. Don’t get me wrong, I love obnoxious and hideous screaming, but it’s only effective when the musical goal is to terrify and disturb. Anaal Nathrakh’s "In the constellation of the black widow" is a perfect example of horrible screaming used to perfect effect. Given Enslaved’s poetic and fairly inoffensive lyrics I can’t help but feel that a heavy, manly growl in the vein of Amon Amarth or Be’lakor would be better suited to the music, or at least a scream that isn’t so overbearing! Grutle Kjellson comes across as someone who screams just because that’s what he’s used to doing, and it shows. There is no variation or power in his vocals; he simply goes on and on because no one has told him to stop yet.
Now, I’m not saying that progressive/psychedelic rock music can’t be mixed with extreme metal! On the contrary, there are many bands that have the proper elements to make such a fusion work wonders, namely, Opeth, Be’lakor, Akercocke, or Electric Wizard (these bands are more influenced by death metal than black metal). The reason that those bands succeed and Enslaved doesn’t is that death metal is a genre that lends itself to fusion with psychedelic or progressive music much better than black metal. Whereas black metal emphasizes guitar treble, high pitched screaming, and hollow, bass bereft production, death metal has a heavy bass and lower end, and the vocals are more of a harsh growl than a piercing scream. The result is that a death metal and psychedelic fusion simply sounds infinitely more natural, given that psychedelic music also has a bass emphasis and very warm tones.
Although Axioma Ethica Odini is disappointing, there are moments where the band shows that they are capable of memorable and beautiful songwriting. The lyrics are solid, Herbrand Larsen’s clean vocals are amazing, and the guitarists do conjure up a few very memorable and creative riffs. Hopefully on their next album Enslaved will take an approach that doesn’t contradict itself at every turn, perhaps returning to a more traditional black metal sound or ditching their black metal roots once and for all in order to make the psychedelic influences actually work. I’ll be eagerly awaiting the inevitable turning point.