I can no longer count the number of masterpieces in Enslaved’s voluminous output. _Vertebrae_ may or may not be this band’s finest work, but in either case it is a soul-stirring journey through a band unique vision of metal. As much as each album changes in subtle ways, the “Enslaved sound” that has been tempered since the stylistic shift of _Mardraum_ is still there and powerful as ever. It works the same way with other metal bands that are REALLY special, like the Opeth sound, the Meshuggah sound, etc. As a reference point, I’d say this is like the sonic explorations of _Monumension_ (many albums ago) with the tighter metal of _Ruun_, the previous disc. The heaviness is perhaps…softened?… because the purpose seems not to rock hard so much as elevate through ingenius riffs and machine-guns drums and fastidiously placed sound effects and synthesizers to something between simple Floydian trippiness and profound mystical experience. And even so, it remains awesome exciting from a metal standpoint as well, so the “softening” is only relative. How many metal bands can accomplish all that at once? There probably isn’t a single metal band with so much darn great productivity.
Recorded in the first quarter of 2008, mixed by Evil Joe Barresi (Tool, Queens of the Stone Age), mastered by the legendary George Marino (Metallica, Iron Maiden, Led Zeppelin) at Sterling Sound, Vertebrae was produced by band members Ivar Bjørnson, Herbrand Larsen, and Grutle Kjellson themselves. Considered by all band members to be their strongest album in the seventeen years of their existence, Vertebrae’s sound, songs, seasoned guitar tone and time-travelling solos and overall atmosphere marks a crowning achievement for the band and the genre as a whole.
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Though Enslaved came to prominence in early days of the revolutionary, youth-obsessed Scandinavian black metal scene, they’ve survived the demise and stagnation of so many of their peers to be one of the most vital, intriguing metal bands on the planet even in 2009. Of course, Enslaved long ago abandoned the most restrictive tenets of both black metal and Viking metal to accept a more progressive and polished approach, though they prove to be leaders and not followers here as well, eschewing the pyrotechnics and theatrics of most modern day prog. (This is much closer to Pink Floyd than to Dream Theater.) “Vertebrae” is a somewhat unassuming metal album, one that, when listened to carelessly, may seem flat or dull. “Vertebrae,” however, warrants a deeper listen, and displays a maturity and attention to craft that is rare in any metal genre. Those who look only for a quick jolt of adrenaline or a few catchy hooks will never find the appeal here, but those with a taste for subtle, atmospheric metal will surely find “Vertebrae” to be well worth their time.
On the surface, “Vertebrae” may seem to be a rather minimalist album: the riffs are often quite repetitive and lacking in flash, while the drums are steady and controlled, not the torrent of hits found in most extreme metal. Even more, this is a fairly laid back album: the distortion is not particularly harsh, the howling is somewhat distant and muted. However, while Enslaved may not hammer the listener with their intensity or sophistication, the depth and subtleties of the songwriting are impressive. Note the title track, where a simple but rhythmically powerful 5/4 riff overlaying whispered vox gives way to the more chaotic, steadily shifting mid-section (5 to 6 to 5 to 8, I believe) before finally settling into the clean, steady final movement which is dominated by simple vocal melodies. Enslaved do not hop from movement to movement, riff to riff, but endlessly build, and while they do not display the sheer instrumental extremity of modern tech metal, they never lack a sense of purpose of continuity. While the rest is generally not as surprising as the title track, a sensitivity for mood and melody is capably combined with an adventurous sense of songwriting/structure all throughout the album.
Like all the best black metal, “Vertebrae” manages a stylistic and atmospheric consistency, but it also avoids the repetition and uniformity which often defines the genre. The most prominent style, found in the first three tracks and “Reflection” is centered on thick, repetitive riffs which alternate with gentle minimalist sections. Conversely we have the aforementioned title track, “New Dawn” which draws old-school black metal riffing and blasting, albeit in a more accessible manner; the grinding dirge “Center,” which some have compared to Tool, and finally, the huge, sorrowful closer “The Watcher.” (This is a brilliant closer with a real Viking metal grandiosity in spite of the short playtime.) Similarly, their consistently unpredictable vocal approach is in evidence throughout, ranging from classic howls and shrieks to whispers and epic, multi-tracked clean (and howled) vocals, and few metal bands combine varying vocal styles as adroitly as Enslaved do here. Again, the variety found here may not be evident on the first listen, as perhaps few individual sections will draw immediate attention, but every song eventually reveals itself to be noteworthy. There is not a wasted minute on “Vertebrae.”
All in all, “Vertebrae” is likely my favorite Enslaved release and among the finest metal albums of last year. (However, I must admit to not owning all of their 90s material, as I find prime BM to be rather hit and miss.) Black metal purists may bristle, but more likely they’ve just stopped paying attention to Enslaved some time ago. Everyone else should check it out.
I have seen many bands lately compared to Pink Floyd if they had gone black metal but this is The black metal Pink Floyd hands down. The clean vocals in many respects remind me of Richard Wright(RIP) and many of the guitar solos remind me of David Gilmour via the Meddle period of Pink Floyd. This is Enslaved most mature album. Nevermind the Pink Floyd comparisons because this is just a band who has established it’s own sound. If you like progressive black metal I would highly recommend this cd. I also recommend Vintersorg,Cronian,Arcturus,Borknagar,Solefald and Primordial.
I didn’t like this very much at first. The guitars aren’t super heavy, and I usually don’t like clean vocals in black metal. In fact, this doesn’t sound that much like black metal, which I was sort of expecting. Sometime around the third time I listened, it started clicking for me. If you just skip around listening to little pieces of the album, or listen to the previews of each track, you miss what it’s about. Somehow all the pieces add up to a unique and excellent listening experience.
The guitars are not obscured by a mass of distortion…they are somehow clean and distorted at the same time. There are great atmospheric cinematic sounds, interesting breaks, weird and wonderful harmonies, lots of contrast and dynamics. I love the shifting time signatures, the overall vibe…..a unique and beautiful album!
Also, I don’t think ‘progressive black metal’ is a good term for this album. To me it is one of those great albums that defies any genre. It is truly it’s own thing.
I have been an Enslaved listener for well over 10 years now, and I have been able to witness much of the musical evolution that has transpired over the last several albums. what I have witnessed is a band not content to rest on their laurels, but a band that has a desire to constantly evolve and create music that is not only challenging, but sonically gratifying as well.
What Enslaved has achieved in the last five years is the ability to wear the mantle of being the leaders in progressive black metal, a title which so few have even strived for. The journey really began with Isa and and is now culminating in Vertebrae. Yes, the others albums prior to Isa, (Mardraum, Monumension and Below the Lights), were leaning in the progressive direction, but Isa really drew the line in the sand that showed Enslaved as a progressively minded band with a desire to defy the conventions of black metal and create masterpieces of art that would stand as musical testaments, much like the progressive rock giants of the seventies, (Pink Floyd, Gentle Giant, Camel, King Crimson).
The musical output on Vertebrae capitalizes on the strengths of both Isa and Ruun and continues even further in the direction that both of those albums so eloquently travelled. Vertebrae is truly going to be a hard album to top. Everything from the Floydesque clean vocal harmonies to the discordant guitar parts are all expertly woven together to create what is their current masterpiece. Truly, this is the album to buy this year, no doubt about it. If you liked Isa and Ruun, then you shouldn’t even think twice about this purchase, and if you are an Enslaved fan, then your collection is seriously lacking without this album. Take my word for it; this album lives up to all of the hype.