In some ways, Enslaved’s twelfth album, Riitiir, picks up right where the last one left off. 2010’s Axioma Ethica Odini (review here) was the Norwegian progressive black metallers’ most expansive outing yet. balancing a more traditional (as far as that kind of thing goes with Enslaved) first half with a second that found them pushing the boundaries of influence into doom and even a burgeoning psychedelic sensibility, all driven by their overtly metallic context but given melodic breadth that even pivotal works of their new era like 2004’s Isa or 2006’s Ruun began to point toward and which was all-too-briefly affirmed on last year’s subsequent The Sleeping Gods EP. Since 2004, the band has been putting albums out more or less like clockwork, and despite having moved to Nuclear Blast for each North American release since Vertebrae in 2008 – Riitiir is their third for the label – they’ve been consistent in lineup while exceeding themselves in terms of quality of output. Riitiir – also written as the all-caps RIITIIR, and derived from the words “rites” and “rituals,” themes that encompasses much of the record’s lyrics and musical sensibilities – was recorded across a variety of studios in the band’s native Norway, and overseen by the band personally, but to mix, they teamed with Jens Bogren of Fascination Street Studios in Sweden and listening to the various layers at work on the eight tracks, it’s no mystery why. Along with their most prevalent melodies yet, Riitiir also boasts the complex arrangements vocally and instrumentally that have been a hallmark of the band’s latter-day work. It’s an album you can listen to three times in a row and hear something different each time, whether it’s a tempest guitar lead in “Death in the Eyes of Dawn” from Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal or Ivar Bjørnson or a subtle harmonic shift in the vocals of keyboardist Herbrand Larsen, whose voice has become more and more a fixture of Enslaved’s work since he joined the band in 2004.
And certainly pre-Larsen albums like 2001’s Monumension or 2003’s Below the Lights were not without their progressive sensibilities, but the work the band has been able to do since his arrival is in a different league entirely. There will be those who disparage their growth as some shedding of black metal trueness. I’m not one of them, and I think to limit Enslaved to one genre or another at this point is to undercut the value of what they do, especially in the songs of Riitiir. Bassist Grutle Kjellson still has his trademark rasp and Ice Dale offers no shortage of monstrous and deathly growls, but it’s the lushness that Larsen brings in his clean singing and synth work – Bjørnson contributes synth as well – that ultimately define some of the most memorable parts of Riitiir, be it the rush of “Veilburner” where he tops a near-punkish beat from drummer Cato Bekkevold or the subdued finale of closer “Forsaken,” the atmosphere of which is no less lonely than its title. Throughout, Enslaved bask in their own indulgences and put them to good use, leaving no avenue in the songs unexplored or underdeveloped. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as a result of this, the individual songs are longer than one might have come to expect from the band, the halfway marker “Roots of the Mountain” – a landmark in more than just its track placement – being the second track to top nine minutes behind opener “Thoughts Like Hammers” and the closer clocking in at a weighted 11:15. That’s not quite the 16 minutes that “793 (Slaget Om Lindisfarne)” took to open 1997’s Eld or the lengths they went to on their 1994 debut, Vikingligr Veldi, but on average, they’ve pushed further time-wise to match their expanding scope on Riitiir, and even on the title-track here, which at 5:26 is the shortest of the bunch, it’s time well spent.
While it’s a little ironic that Enslaved would be around long enough to bring them full-circle from starting off with longer tracks, delving into shorter bursts and then working their way back up over the course of their last several albums, the principle difference between Riitiir and the several outings preceding it is the effectiveness of the blend of influences. Axioma Ethica Odini, which was one of 2010’s best albums, make no mistake, kept the bulk of its progressivism for its second half, and it wasn’t until the last two tracks – “Night Sight” and “Lightening” – that the staggering melodic reach of the band in its current incarnation really unveiled itself. It’s in that regard most of all that Riitiir picks up where Axioma Ethica Odini left off, as there seems to be a willful shedding of concern for expectation happening right from the start of “Thoughts Like Hammers.” The progression is more rock-based and bombastic. The first verse is a genuine stomp, Bekkevold holding back as he does a lot throughout from unleashing blasts or double-bass drumming, and Kjellson starts off Riitiir with a vicious slew of cosmically-themed lyrics. All seems to be going according to plan until the chorus opens up, Larsen comes in on vocals – he’d done a kind of call and response during the verse as well, but the chorus is all him, and in layers – and the majesty really takes hold that the fabric of the record is made apparent. Enslaved won’t be burying their progressive elements this time around, but neither do they shy away from crushing heaviness, as “Thoughts Like Hammers” shows as it approaches its midpoint break, Kjellson and Larsen once more in a call and response, but over a more vicious instrumental burst. An airy solo follows and long synth lines sustained under Bekkevold’s tom runs while Kjellson gurgles out a few more lines, then shouts back a spoken part and a more melodic guitar takes hold to lead back to the initial verse and chorus interchange. If it sounds confusing, it is. If it sounds like a lot going on, it is. Among Riitiir’s impressive achievements, not falling apart halfway through has to be considered right at the top.
Presumably though, if that fate was going to befall a band like Enslaved, it would’ve happened at some point before their twelfth album in. “Thoughts Like Hammers” makes an intriguing opener, showing right away that the band have pushed themselves even further in terms of their arrangements and structuring since the last time out, and that their level of performance, as ever, is second to none. Larsen in particular has surfaced as a defining presence in the band’s sound, and his increased range and confidence on Riitiir only makes the material richer. He appears vocally on every track on the album – he was on almost all of Axioma Ethica Odini as well but for the instrumental interlude – but more than that, he is clearer, more forward and more accomplished-sounding than ever before. Because of the complexity of the arrangements of which he’s a part with Kjellson and Isdal, it wouldn’t be fair to call him a “lead” vocalist, but he makes choruses like that of “Thoughts Like Hammers,” “Death in the Eyes of Dawn” and “Roots of the Mountain” powerful and memorable in ways they simply wouldn’t be without his input. The three distinct voices of Enslaved each have a role to play in the overall balance, but with the bass-heavy groove of “Death in the Eyes of Dawn,” it’s Larsen’s that most stands out, however killer the opening gurgles sound. The song develops some of the spoken ideas of the opener, using throaty semi-whispers to top a bouncingly proggy guitar line during the bridge before Larsen takes over for the pre-chorus and chorus. Isdal returns for the next verse and the cycle seems ready to repeat itself, but a cut to a solo section instead of the Larsen-topped pre-chorus acts as an unpredictable shift and a quick section of effective stops leads to a heavier overall push, Bekkevold announcing its coming with fervent snare rolls and Kjellson coming on for an all-cylinders burst that shifts back to the progressive bounce with hardly any announcement at all. Again, it works. The initial verse/pre-chorus/chorus/post-chorus arrangement repeats, and in the last minute of the song, a stretch of acoustic guitar is introduced to carry the flow into “Veilburner,” which is shorter at 6:46 and more simpler overall in its structure.
Given what Enslaved have so far done on Riitiir, it would just about have to be. Whatever shift it makes to a more established pattern, however, “Veilburner” more than makes up for with its chorus. If modern Enslaved has a prototype arrangement, “Veilburner” is probably it – Kjellson fronting the verse and Larsen taking over for a galloping chorus – but the chorus has a second stage and it’s among the most grand of any on Riitiir. They repeat it twice, Larsen holding the fore once he’s come to it, repeating the lines, “I cannot tolerate being held in the dark/I need to see/I will the flames,” in his kind of drawn out, dreamy melody, seemingly unaffected by the rush beneath him, and when the song opens up and the low-mixed growling accompanies, there’s hardly a finer example of the offsetting melody and brutality to be found in modern metal that is still worthy of the name. Kjellson returns for a final verse and the song cuts to noise that bleeds directly into “Roots of the Mountain,” which stands among “Thoughts Like Hammers” and “Forsaken” as one of the several peaks of the record. At 9:17, it is grandiose, but not inflated. Solid. It is the catchiest chorus on Riitiir and ties together not only the theme of rituals, but the career-long battle-mindedness of Enslaved with their cosmic side and even a flourish of inward wisdom-seeking. Again, it sounds like a lot and it is, but it’s all there. And for those who’d relish the head-down pummel of Enslaved at their blastbeaten heaviest, that’s there too, right in the beginning of the song, which shoves its way through the first verse before you even realize it. It’s only when Bekkevold evens out his bass drum and Larsen hits a newfound falsetto in the chorus that “Roots of the Mountain” makes itself fully known. They rush through another verse and get back to the chorus in good time – rightly so – and let loose a guitar solo before bringing in a different progression, also led out by a solo, this time in an ascending line that leads to a break of Kjellson’s bass and the drums (which sound sampled if they aren’t). The guitars kick in and Larsen spits some raw philosophy, and for a minute, it genuinely seems like the song is in its final stretch.
It isn’t. I don’t know whether it was some drive toward kicking in an adrenaline rush for their audience or just the realization that they had too good a chorus to let go without one more round, but Enslaved return to the blast-laden beginnings of “Roots of the Mountain” – Bekkevold’s cymbal crashes reminding particularly of some of the moves he made on “Lightening” from Axioma Ethica Odini, and no less effectively as Kjellson screams himself raw and they crash into another outro-sounding break, letting soft synth melody and strummed acoustic guitars give immediate notice that they’re not actually done. The final chorus of “Roots of the Mountain” is a triumph complete, growls under Larsen’s melodies accompanied by synth, echoing guitar, a drum build from Bekkevold, and a sense of culmination as the title line is repeated one last time. I can’t remember the last time I wanted a nine minute song to keep going, and it’s hard to believe Riitiir is only halfway through at the end of “Roots of the Mountain,” but with 33:47 for the first four songs and 33:26 for the second, it’s just about as true as it gets, making the album primed for a double-vinyl release. Taking it with that structure in mind, it’s the title-track that begins the second LP. Hardly a cut in momentum from “Roots of the Mountain,” its rush is immediate in the cyclical riff of a faster intro that unfolds into a Larsen-fronted verse reciting – stay with me now — a lyric that seems to be based on a Hindu prayer: “Aum Miträya namah/Your arms, life and death/Ride the chariot, the wheel of life/Underneath the eyes we pray.” Larsen and Kjellson switch roles, the former taking over the verse and the latter the more abrasive chorus, but it’s the lyrics that really distinguish “Riitiir” from its surroundings, lines like the above and “Hail the flames inside you, cosmic flowers in bloom/Hail the spears impaling, the servants of doom,” reading more like something you’d expect from a psych-doom outfit than one of black metal’s most groundbreaking acts. I guess that’s how they got there, though. Perhaps it was their experience curating Roadburn that bled into the more ethereal side of the title cut here, but whatever it is, they make it work in the context of their sound. As far out as they’ve gone in their time, they’d have to work pretty hard to make something seem out of place.
Of all the things “Riitiir” is on the album that shares its name, it’s not that. At 3:45, they break into a more metallic riff and lock in a solid double-kick drum groove behind it, some eerie spoken vocals giving a sense of the build that’s about to open up into last-minute thrashing and, in the last 10 seconds, blasts. The intensity at the rear of “Riitiir” is given immediate and doubtless purposeful contrast by the droning and subsequently drum-led opening of “Materal,” which reminds some of the sub-plod Enslaved worked into “Thoughts Like Hammers,” Bjørnson and Isdal leading with the riff while Kjellson and Bekkevold lock in a rhythmic pattern for the verse before opening into an airier chorus. The interplay of tension and release is all over Riitiir, and though by the time the second half of the album has arrived it’s somewhat expected, there’s no real sacrifice of momentum or the sense of freshness – especially on the first several runs through, during which the listener is lucky to get a foothold at all in what Enslaved are doing and emerge with any impression more complex than “whoa.” The verses and choruses of “Materal” are murkier, darker, and underscored by a constant-seeming drum fill from Bekkevold that holds itself even through the various shifts in melody surrounding. His drums are almost certainly sampled – the hits are too consistent-sounding to be realistic – but that’s a hazard of heavy metal produced at this level of profile and no different from what the band brought forth on Axioma Ethica Odini. It makes the album sound somewhat clinical, but Enslaved are no strangers to the sonically cold anyway, so it’s not like it doesn’t work or the record is completely thrown out of balance by it. As “Materal” lets go into its midsection solo break – it’s like jumping off a cliff – the drumming feels as much a part of the turn as anything, and likewise as the verse and chorus progression returns. I suppose that’s a credit overall to Bekkevold’s creativity, as there are plenty of percussionists out there who’d fall into more predictable patterns that, without the human element directly injected, might be less interesting on the ear than his prove to be throughout Riitiir.
There are a few seconds of silence between “Materal” and the churning opening of “Storm of Memories” – presumably the musical embodiment of the storm later referenced in the lyrics and met by samples and synth that could just as easily be stand-ins for thunder as not – and they’re appreciated, as the two seem born of different mindsets. I’ve seen some tracklistings that have “Storm of Memories” as the third cut on Riitiir, its place switched with “Veilburner,” but the promo I was given to review has it as the penultimate and I like it better in that position, so I’m going to go with what I’ve got to go on. In any case, the opening of “Storm of Memories” continues to play out for just over the first three minutes of the track’s total 8:58, before a straightforward blasting Kjellson-fronted verse takes hold and in turn gives way to a Larsen chorus. The intro has set a different context – in the whole of the record, it’s a section unto itself – and so the familiar elements at play seem less familiar. It’s a strong verse and a strong chorus, Larsen’s vocal sway no less effective than anywhere on the record and Isdal answering with a vicious growl (could be Kjellson in there too, hard to tell sometimes), and by the time the chorus comes through the last round and the band returns to the verse pummel, it’s clear most of all that they don’t feel the need to be “metal” in the sense of going balls-out all the time for no reason other than they don’t know how to do anything else. Instead, the song uses its extremity well and gives contrasting impression with its progressive chorus. It’s not the first time Enslaved have done it, even on Riitiir let alone their preceding five outings over the course of the last decade, but they continue to make it work and they continue to engage even in their most formulaic moments, which, were it not for the bizarre time-travel-tube intro, “Storm of Memories” might be, despite being a more than solid execution of that formula.
How then to end a record like this but with an utter curveball? “Forsaken,” opening with piano and closing with a contemplative, soft progression that’s about as close to minimalism as Enslaved has ever come, is precisely that. In its first two minutes, the song has already covered a wide berth of ground from the subdued intro – not foreboding, not creepy, just quiet – to the mellotron-infused heaviness of the headbang-worthy chorus, “Forsaken” is a swirl that seems endless. Larsen is absent initially, Kjellson and Isdal handling growls and gurgles, but before four minutes in, the guitars, bass and drums cut out, leaving just intertwining layers of synth, one slower, overriding another more rushed, like a new wave continuation of the momentum the song has to that point built. Seems fitting they’d round out Riitiir with such complexity, but really that’s just the beginning of it. Bekkevold marches his snare back in as the song nears its halfway point, the guitars and bass following, and soon, the drums move to slower, more open cymbal work and if there’s a march it’s a bona fide lumber of a march, growls holding firm vocally made all the more powerful for their echo and the patience with which they’re brought forth. A few final lines of double-kick ensue, and at 6:55 into the song’s total 11:15, everything drops. The whole thing drops. The final verses are given to Larsen, who performs them tired, barely there, on a seemingly eternal fade, the slow, almost Earth-like progression behind him proving no less solid ground than anything he’s stood on over the course of the album. He delivers two ending verses. They’re beautiful. As the last of them plays out, I find myself continually begging the band to take the same progression, the same pace and turn it on its head, opening wide to a totally pompous, totally self-indulgence heavy version of the same riff, but they don’t. They end Riitiir as quietly as they began it riotously more than an hour before, the last lines, “Ceremonial rituals will obscure the mind/Forever” feeling poignant in their delivery and weighted apart from their sonics. In this way, even as Enslaved close out, they do so hinting at mastery of new forms and methods to make their sound even fuller going forward. For having been a band more than 20 years around the core of Bjørnson and Kjellson’s songwriting, that their span would even now be increasing speaks to the ceaseless creativity at work in their processes. Fans will have their favorites throughout the catalog – that goes with the territory – but Riitiir makes a grand statement that Enslaved continue their relentless evolution and remain one of the most pivotal acts of any metallic subgenre, whichever one or seven you might want to lump them into. One of the year’s best. Expect no less.Black metal, Enslaved, Enslaved black metal, Enslaved Norway, Enslaved Nuclear Blast, Enslaved Riitiir, Grutle Kjellson, Ivar Bjornson, Nuclear Blast, Riitiir