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.