Album of the Week 43-2012: Enslaved – Riitiir

Usually I’m not too interested in the Norwegian Black Metal scene. This would have been true for Enslaved as well, had they not adopted a strong progressive take on their music about a decade ago. That’s when at least as many Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath influences crept into the music as there are Immortal references. Also, adding keyboard player Herbrand Larsen to the fold was exactly what the band needed. Not only are his seventies psychedelia inspired keyboards an indispensible part of what makes Enslaved such a good band nowadays, his clean vocals are among the most pleasant to listen to in the business. All this combined led to the downright brilliant ‘Ruun’ in 2006. Their brand new, extremely progressive masterpiece ‘Riitiir’ might just be at least as good.

First things first: Grutle Kjellson’s harsh vocals still irritate the hell out of me. I’m not a fan of this school of singing anyway, but Kjellson’s vocals are even more of a throaty phlegm than usually heard in the genre. His bass playing, however, is very capable and the warm, full sound of his bass is exactly what the low end of this record needs. In fact, everyone involved seems to be interested only in what fits the music best rather than having the urge to shine individually. Ice Dale’s  dreamy, Blues-influenced leads pop up every now and then, but are hardly more dominant than Ivar Bjørnson’s dissonant, atmospheric riffs and Cato Bekkevold’s drumming isn’t the hyperspeed blasting you might expect from a Scandinavian band, but instead among the most powerful in the business.

Though it might be known that Enslaved has been taking a progressive road since ‘Isa’ (2004), ‘Riitiir’ takes the whole thing a step further. The songs are long – none under five minutes, half of the album nearing the ten minute mark, with the fantastic closer ‘Forsaken’ even surpassing it – and the songs take quite some unexpected twists and turns. Don’t expect any nervous, restless Prog with time measures tripping over each other though. Rather think of the spacious sound that bands like Opeth and Porcupine Tree are known for. Bjørnson’s riffs have a mighty, monumental quality to them that invites you to drift away with them. This is exactly why Bekkevold’s drumming fits so well here, though he definitely has the chops to do something uptempo, as evidenced by his brilliant work on the intro to ‘Roots Of The Mountain’ or the near-blasts on ‘Materal’.

In the past, my favorite Enslaved songs have always been the one where there was a lot of room for Herbrand Larsen’s soothing and often multi-layered vocals, something which may explain my strong preference for the title track from ‘Ruun’. However, lead vocals are divided quite evenly among Larsen and Kjellson on ‘Riitiir’. Also, the parts where their vocals work together are very powerful climaxes to the songs. For me, this all adds to the listening pleasure of the album.

Owning the vinyl double album may even be the best way to hear ‘Riitiir’. Not only because the warm and spacious sound screams for vinyl, but the best songs are the ones closing both records. ‘Roots Of The Mountain’ is a dreamy, atmospheric song, containing many different sections flowing over into each other perfectly and ‘Forsaken’ is more like a suite combining many different sections into a musical story. The desolate piano opening and closing the song is just amazing. ‘Storm Of Memories’ is somewhat of a strange beast, starting out extremely psychedelic, but later containing what is probably the most “Black Metal” passage of the album. ‘Death In The Eyes Of Dawn’ ends with a downright beautiful acoustic guitar passage and ‘Veilburner’ is somewhat more accessible and as such, the ideal song to look up if you want to hear what ‘Riitiir’ is about. But really, the entire album deserves attentive listening. Luckily the songs invite you to do so.

With ‘Riitiir’, Enslaved has reached a new highlight in its carreer. I’m sure fans of their early Black Metal days – although the appropriate term is “Viking Metal” if I’m not mistaking – will not agree with me, but if you view ‘Riitiir’ as what it really is, being a progressive work of art, you don’t have to pay any attention to the band’s past. I’d rather look to their future if it contains more stuff like this.

Recommended tracks: ‘Roots Of The Mountain’, ‘Forsaken’, ‘Veilburner’

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