01. Thoughts Like Hammers
02. Death in the Eyes of Dawn
04. Roots of the Mountain
07. Storm of Memories
Nordic Prog giants Enslaved work like clockwork. Since 2004, they’ve consistently made a great album every 2 years. After 2010’s great Axioma Ethica Odini (that admittedly had some flaws, but was still great), they come back this year with RIITIIR. If you don’t know what Enslaved sound like, think Borknagar but with less synths and upbeatness and more black metal. Even though they started out their career rooted firmly in black metal, they kept pushing the boundaries of the genre until they broke through, just like the visionary Ihsahn. But after so many years of being at or near the top of the genre-pushing game, do Enslaved still have something relevant to say with RIITIIR? The short answer is: Yes, most definitely. This album is brilliant. The long answer is after the cut:
The interesting thing about RIITIIR is that while it clearly has the Enslaved sound, it doesn’t necessarily draw any direct comparisons to their previous album, Axioma Ethica Odini. The sound present here is a more back-to-basics one. The soundscape isn’t completely dominated by all the instruments, instead creating atmosphere through raw guitars and reverb. This atmosphere is what’s so gripping about RIITIIR. Every section in every song serves a purpose, one of painting a bigger picture. The songwriting is very deliberate, with simplistic elements coming together to create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Individually, some of the guitar riffs or drum patterns can be pretty elementary; but in the context of the riffs before and after them, they sound pretty brilliant. Make no mistake, there are still polyrhythms, off-time riffs, unconventional licks and all those other things that would make any prog metal fan very happy, but that’s just not the point. For example, ‘Roots of the Mountain’ has a very simple bass riff somewhere near the middle of the song, but the buildup to it and release following it make it a genius riff. The succession of riffs isn’t the only impressive thing about the songs. The interplay of simultaneous elements, like counterpoints and harmonies also work very well. Such mastery of composition is what puts Enslaved above their peers. This is an album that absolutely demands you to put the time into it, as the average song length is around 8 minutes. The way that these elements come together over the course of an 8-minute journey is what makes the album click.
Some might take issue with the extremely raw black metal style snarly vocals, but they do fit the music. The ugliness of the harsh vocals accentuate the eerie atmosphere put forth by the other instruments, and they also provide a great contrast to the smooth, soothing clean vocals. Just like the instruments, they are a part of the sound. Doom or black metal influenced sections give way to post or progressive metal sections, and the changes in vocals help sell this whole ordeal.
The production is also top notch. The guitars have just the right amount of mud to sound gritty like blackened metal, yet they also have enough clarity to pull off progressive/post elements. The bass isn’t audible most of the time, unless the song calls for a dedicated bass section. The synths are also barely noticeable during most sections, instead choosing to remain in the background and provide an atmosphere. The drum tone is standard fare for this kind of music, comparable to Ihsahn’s Eremita. The overall sound of the whole album is quite natural and “airy”, kind of like it’s been recorded in a dark, damp cave (not in a bad way). It’s not as pointedly natural as the production on Vintersorg‘s latest effort Orkan, but it definitely has that modern black metal vibe, sparkled with a progressive/post-metal flair that is reminiscent of The Ocean at times.
Going back to the songs themselves, they aren’t as discernible from each other as some other albums, but that’s because they’re not really meant to be. The right way to think about this album is not to take the songs as individual pieces, but to treat them as emotions. The opener ‘Thoughts Like Hammers’ is a powerful romp of rage turning into excitement, the beautiful, haunting closer ‘Forsaken’ is a very emotional and soothing introspective journey. These tracks actually form a perfect full circle, starting strong and ending with grace. Thinking about each track as reflections of emotions makes them more discernible, since the songs slowly go by without drawing attention to themselves. Of course, if one isn’t really into the music or isn’t really feeling these emotions, the album wouldn’t yield as much enjoyment as it would otherwise. But the fact that Enslaved can take such control of a receptive listener’s feelings and provide this experience speaks to the quality of RIITIIR. There aren’t any real missteps with the album, and every moment is either beautiful, or disgusting, either way it’s deliberate. That isn’t to say the tracks aren’t memorable, to the contrary, they all have very memorable moments that you can easily get hooked on; but again, the focus here is on the bigger picture. Enslaved aren’t interested in the small fry of having flashy riffs that stand upon the merits of being flashy. They are in the business of making great songs that transcend the musicians and their instruments.
Going back to our question, yes, Enslaved definitely have more to offer here for both old and new fans. This has been a great year for Nordic Prog metal with stellar releases from Ihsahn, Borknagar and Vintersorg among others, and there’s still the upcoming Wintersun album to look forward to, but there’s no mistaking it: Enslaved are still in the game and changing it. RIITIIR is at least competitive with its peers, and perhaps one of the most enjoyable, unique experiences of the year. If any of the bands mentioned here excite you, or you are into atmospheric progressive metal in general, this will definitely be an album to watch out for.
Enslaved – RIITIIR gets…