Enslaved, In Times: Built with Fire

enslaved in times

I’ll admit to being somewhat late in reviewing In Times, the 13th full-length and fourth through Nuclear Blast from Norwegian progressive black metallers Enslaved, but I ultimately don’t think that’s a bad thing. The album was released in March, following about two and a half years after 2012’s Riitiir (review here), and while it is immediately identifiable as Enslaved, it marks a couple of turns that become more apparent on repeat listens. For one, it is a stripping down of some of the grandiosity of Riitiir, the preceding 2010 outing, Axioma Ethica Odini (review here), and 2008’s Vertebrae. Comprised of six songs totaling a three-sided-LP’s 54 minutes, In Times is still plenty substantial, but clocks in a full 14 minutes shorter than its predecessor, and its songwriting feels less centered on the big-chorus methodology of songs like “Thoughts Like Hammers” or the stunning “Roots of the Mountain” from that offering. The tradeoff? In Times is tighter, more efficient, and carries forward the progression of the Bergen five-piece’s sound that has been ongoing since they made their debut with the Hordanes Land EP in 1993. It is a rare band who continues to offer something new each time out beyond three or four records, let alone 13, but while In Times pares down certain elements of Enslaved‘s sound, it’s also their most progressive outing to date, songs like “Nauthir Bleeding” and the 10-minute title-track directly marrying the extreme metal roots of their early work with the boldness of melody and expansive craftsmanship that has evolved in their sound over the last 14 or 15 years, going back to when 2000’s Mardraum: Beyond the Within and 2001’s Monumension set the genre-defying course they’d continue to follow throughout 2003’s Below the Lights and the two subsequent landmarks, 2004’s Isa and 2006’s Ruun. And much to the credit of In Times, it’s not a case of black metal and melodic prog fighting it out in the band’s sound. Opener “Thurisaz Dreaming” — after a lull-you-into-a-false-sense-of-security couple of quiet seconds — explodes into ripping extremity, bassist/vocalist Grutle Kjellson‘s phlegmy rasp at the fore, but it’s not long before the gallop takes a turn and keyboardist Herbrand Larsen emerges with the clean vocals that have become a defining signature in Enslaved‘s approach.

The key? It works. It flows. I’ve said on multiple occasions before that Larsen‘s growth as a vocalist is among the pivotal elements — if not the pivotal element — in Enslaved‘s progression since he joined the band in 2004. That’s not to take anything away from the songwriting of the group as a whole, KjellsonLarsen, guitarists Ivar Bjørnson and Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal, and drummer Cato Bekkevold, but in hindsight, Larsen‘s first parts offsetting Kjellson‘s raw-throated cackle and Bjørnson‘s periodic roars seem tentative compared to the confident mastery he shows throughout In Times, not just a backing presence, but a leader in the band, if one situated at the rear of the stage. He leads off second cut “Building with Fire,” nails the later chorus hook of the title-track as a defining moment of the album — Bekkevold‘s precision kick work and the tightness of the five of them in general certainly don’t hurt there, either — and there’s no sense of conflict between his and Kjellson‘s vocals. Each serves a purpose in the song and both make the other seem stronger. “Building with Fire” is one of several particularly triumphant moments throughout In TimesIsdal‘s solo as they push toward the midsection a reminder of just how many weapons they have in their arsenal, but one of the key aspects of the record is that it’s best taken as a whole, rather than as individual pieces. One doesn’t necessarily have to hear it front to back to appreciate the dynamic, but more than most of their other output, it feels geared toward an LP flow, and accordingly is tighter in its expressiveness in a way that meshes well with the crisp production. To look at the tracklist, with all but “In Times” itself hovering between eight and nine minutes long, one might expect a sort of staid process, the band pushing through routine execution of an established sound, but the truth is more complex and even within and between the first and second halves there are palpable differences in structure, “One Thousand Years of Rain” once again pushing the more blackened core forward while keeping a melodic underpinning in the keys and guitar of its verse and the vocals topping its chorus and post-midsection slowdown, a Viking-style chant arriving before the pickup of the song’s finale.

enslaved

While on vinyl it requires a flip not only of sides but of actual platters, the transition between “One Thousand Years of Rain” and “Nauthir Bleeding” in a linear format — digital or CD — is one of the most telling moments of In Times‘ as-a-whole intent, the latter track something of a comedown that flows directly from the preceding extremity, gentle guitar noodling interspersed with miniature fits of aggression that gradually take hold after some sparse lines of vocals from Larsen and themselves prove hypnotic before Kjellson swirls in atop a signature gallop. It’s not as big a chorus as “In Times,” which follows, but the arrangement of the two vocalists, the progression of the guitars and keys, and the solid rhythmic foundation on which the melody plays out make “Nauthir Bleeding” an even more archetypal example of In Times‘ varied strengths. When it does arrive, “In Times” feels enough like a landing to earn its position as the title-track. An initial two minutes hypnotize with a repeated riff and some psychedelic-style swirling lead guitar, but a sudden cut to double-kick and Kjellson‘s screams snap the listener back to reality with the first verse. They cycle through twice and break into a melodic vocal highlight break that moves farther and farther out into finally deconstructing to drum thud, far-off guitar and whispered vocals, then, like the beginning of the song, it snaps back to a raging tumult, the band essentially toying with a sonic mismatch. “In Times” ends crashing and chanting rather than ripping, and while that might leave closer “Daylight” to feel like something of an afterthought, the chanted vocals and multifaceted shifts back and forth provide an underline to the point of the album as a whole, which seems to be that Enslaved aren’t a band that can be easily tagged by genre anymore, and that the creative pursuit at their center remains intact even as they approach a quarter-century’s duration. In Times ends by booking “Daylight” with the chants and stomping riff from its beginning following more twists and turns, and for a record as densely packed, pummeling and forward-thinking, its final reinforcement of structure only adds another layer by which one might appreciate its composition. I’ve said many times I’m a fan of the band I remain one, but I think even behind the sturdiest artiface of objectivity, it would be hard to call Enslaved‘s achievement here anything but significant. It’s been worth taking a little extra time to appreciate.

Enslaved, “Thurisaz Dreaming” lyric video

Enslaved on Thee Facebooks

In Times at Nuclear Blast

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