It’s pretty unfathomable that this is Enslaved‘s 14th album. This is a band who has been relentlessly putting out quality albums for 26 years, and it’s no surprise that E is yet another notch on their belt. What is surprising, though, is how different it is. Ever since they adopted a progressive tone in 2003’s Below the Lights, they’ve been pretty consistent with the sound they’ve employed. E changes that up. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that keyboardist/vocalist Herbrand Larsen joined the band after said album, and left before E. Armed with a slightly changed line-up, the band have yet again reinvented themselves, diversifying their sound while focusing on the core elements that have come to define them for years. As such, E might be slightly controversial, but the end product justifies its own existence confidently.
There are two main differences in E that would be immediately apparent to a longterm listener. Larsen’s vocal style was quite distinct, and his absence is noticeable. Not in a negative sense, as the album is not lesser for the different vocal style of his replacement Hakon Vinje. It’s simply that, in hindsight, the clean singing was a core element of their sound, and as the style of the vocals has changed, so have the rest of the band. Larsen was more folky and comforting, whereas Vinje has more of a progressive tint, and he’s more soothing (if the distinction between comforting and soothing doesn’t make sense right now, upon listening it should). To reiterate, this is not a negative, just a change. Perhaps reinvigorated by the addition of a new vocalist, lead singer Grutle Kjellson has also very slightly changed his style. Over the past few albums, his voice had been sounding hoarser and harsher. With E, he has sharpened up his screaming just a bit. He sounds tighter as a result and the band’s overall sound improves as a result.
Speaking of the band’s overall sound, that’s where the real change is. While the core of E is still good old Enslaved, they have geared their talents towards an interesting direction. Before going into exactly what that is, there needs to be a bit of a preamble. The band’s last few albums have consisted of a few key elements. A general folk tinge, long sections of build-up with a progressive bent, atmospheric segments, and classic black metal elements. Perhaps owing to guitarist Ivar Bjørnson’s collaboration with Wardruna frontman Einar Selvik, Skuggsja, being exclusively focused on folk, we see less of that style on E. It’s still present, but not the central driving force. Now it’s an equal ingredient in the mix, and there’s a newcomer introduced here. The band have always been playing with prog sounds, but they’ve finally taken the plunge to adopt a full on 70s prog vibe. Any longtime Opeth fan has probably taken to their liquor cabinet after that previous sentence, but Enslaved have navigated this transition a lot more deftly than the Swedish progressive (formerly death) metal band.
Instead of a jarring tonal shift, Enslaved subtly glide into their 70s clothes. The key here is retaining their core elements and transforming the relevant parts of their sound. The progressive riffing, keyboards and singing already existed in their repertoire, they simply shifted the stylistic influences of these to sound more 70s. It’s almost like they effortlessly turned a dial. The rest of the sound is distinctly Enslaved, but it feels like a whole new perspective on the band. Here’s how it may be a controversial decision. On one hand, enough is different to consider E a deliberate change, on the other hand enough is the same that what one wants out of Enslaved is still delivered. The line is for each individual listener to draw, but the end product is of great quality regardless. In Times was a good album, but it felt like a band at the end of their creative gas tank. A change was needed, and this is definitely an interesting direction. Each track surprises, is still full of classic Enslaved moments, and bears returning to.
In the end, E is an interesting move by Enslaved. A band 14 albums in would be hard pressed to come up with something original, and we’ve seen other artists crash and burn when trying to ape a retro 70s prog formula. Instead, Enslaved deftly weave these elements into their classic sound and deliver an intriguing album that is as familiar as it is fresh. With a line-up change that perhaps brought fresh blood into the mix, the Norwegian masterminds keep surprising and pleasing with their craft as usual.