Bordering on two decades together, Norwegian black metal pioneers Enslaved push their progressive tendencies even more to the fore on their 11th studio album, Axioma Ethica Odini (Nuclear Blast). Their legacy having grown increasingly over the course of the last 10 years with excellent albums like 2003’s Below the Lights, 2004’s Isa, 2006’s Ruun, and most recently, 2008’s Vertebrae — which I’d gladly argue was held back by production issues despite songwriting as accomplished as ever — distributed more widely in the US and with more and more acts taking a prog approach to extreme metal, Axioma Ethica Odini finds Enslaved taking on the role of seasoned veterans. Their heyday is by no means behind them, either creatively or in terms of fanbase, but they’re an experienced band, they know what they want from their sound. That they’re still growing as players is something of a bonus.
That growth, most obvious in the clean vocals of keyboardist Herbrand Larsen, who joined the band full-time after Below the Lights, is readily on display throughout Axioma Ethica Odini. In many ways, it’s a tale of two albums, with two sets of four tracks, divided by a centerpiece interlude, each showcasing a different side of the band. Both are heavy, to be sure, but the wide variety of personalities shown throughout, and the bent toward experimentalism on the back half of Axioma Ethica Odini, makes the difference clear. One constant throughout is Enslaved’s unmistakable quality of vocal arrangements. Bassist/founding member Grutle Kjellson’s signature rasping screams, left too dry and too forward on Vertebrae, are as throat-searing as ever and punctuated by deathly backing growls and echoes. Opener “Ethica Odini” establishes a full production sound and shows Enslaved haven’t lost the edge or the drive toward extremity that made their early work in the ‘90s so powerful.
They get into a pattern between “Ethica Odini” and follow-up “Raidho” of breaking through the thrashing madness — and here I’ll note the killer tones captured in the guitars of Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal and band co-founder Ivar Bjørnson — for keyboard led prog breaks, during which Larsen takes the lead over Kjellson vocally, but it doesn’t last long. “Waruun” almost reverses it, keeping the music behind Larsen’s parts heavy in proportion to the other pieces of the song to establish more of a flow. This way, a strong opening of what fans would expect from modern-day Enslaved is given, but the band moves quickly to show they have more than formulaic songwriting on offer. “Waruun” boasts another excellent vocal arrangement, and if heavy music has ever raised the hairs on your arm or sent a shiver down your spine, it’s bound to do it here as well. The shortest of the “regular” (non-interlude) tracks at 5:38, “The Beacon” might also be the most extreme. Opening with blastbeats from drummer Cato Bekkevold, the song moves from an abrasive verse to a melodic chorus in a way not so much different from much of latter-day metal, but the production, vocals, guitar leads and angular break distinguish it. As it transfers back to the verse and again through the chorus one last time, it feels like a closer, which only heightens the transition into the interlude “Axioma” and further distinguishes the two pieces of the record.
There’s a distant spoken word behind washes of synth on “Axioma,” but the track is basically 2:20 of atmospherics to set you up for the back end of Axioma Ethica Odini. Transitioning directly into the lumbering, surprisingly doomy riffage of album highlight “Giants,” we immediately understand Enslaved are working with a different set of goals. With more clean singing from Larsen in the verses, Bekkevold’s driving double kick bass and Kjellson’s spooky cackle to bridge into a legitimately soaring, memorable chorus, “Giants” ranks among Enslaved’s most genre-bending, intricate and progressive work to date. Its only real competition in that regard is the three tracks that follow it.
I cannot stress enough the maturation in Larsen’s vocal approach and how much of a difference it makes across the hour-long span of Axioma Ethica Odini. In presence, range and execution, he is every bit a match for Kjellson’s screams and growls on “Singular.” They go toe-to-toe vocally in the verses of the song and it’s among the album’s most riveting moments. Though the song wanders somewhat instrumentally toward its midsection, a call and response later and swift but smooth changes in the guitar keep it from completely losing itself, and by the time six minutes have passed, I find myself tapping along to Bekkevold’s steady ride cymbal and snare hits, never really having lost the groove of the song or the album, but thrown a bit by the dip.
Fortunately, the closing duo of “Night Sight” and “Lightening” have a brilliance to them that makes it seem as though the last three Enslaved albums and the whole of Axioma Ethica Odini were meant to serve creatively as their intro. Hyperbole, maybe, but you get the point. “Night Sight” begins quietly, softly, with a croon from Larsen matching pace with Bekkevold’s cymbal, and works gradually into a pummeling payoff topped with Kjellson that then opens to Larsen explaining “Night-sight is bliss/For he who dares look into/A world where you embrace the opposite/Where you are whole,” in one of the album’s most wholly infectious moments. Really, it stays with you. I woke up in the middle of the night last night to go to the bathroom with it in my head.
And “Lightening.” Not only is it hands-down the most daring song Enslaved have ever done vocally, masterfully composed and arranged, but it also echoes the adrenaline-raising start-stop drumming of “The Watcher,” which closed out Vertebrae, as if to say, “Well, that was fine, but this is how we really wanted to do it.” They squeeze a Kjellson-led thrash break where on the opener the song moved into the more melodic, prog style, and jam more memorable riffs into the track than many bands do into the whole of their careers. Bekkevold goes apeshit on a crash cymbal in a nice flourish, and Larsen, Kjellson, Bjørnson, and Ice Dale all deliver landmark performances. Whatever Enslaved follow Axioma Ethica Odini with, “Lightening” is the standard by which I’ll judge it. Before you even know it, you’re back into the start-stop chorus, and the song ends on that note, driving the part home a couple extra times and leaving behind a loud, loud silence when it’s over.
Fans of Enslaved don’t need me to hock their genius, but I will say it’s hard to even call Axioma Ethica Odini a black metal album for the lack of attention it pays to the characteristics and (seeming) necessities that genre distinction requires these days. They’ve always broken new ground, for themselves as songwriters and for black metal as a whole, and Axioma Ethica Odini is no exception. The difference now is people are paying attention, and as Enslaved’s influence grows, it’s refreshing to see the members not rest on their laurels in terms of creativity. It might take a couple listens to really dig into, but if there’s been an album this year that’s worth the effort to get to know, it’s this one, and the more you put into hearing it, the more you’re going to get out of the experience. It is forceful, genuinely groundbreaking and leaves no room for the elitist “their old stuff was better” position to come off as anything close to a valid criticism. 19 years in, Enslaved sound like they’re just getting to where they want to be.
Tags: Bergen, Enslaved, Norway, Nuclear Blast