Imagine, if you will, a Radiohead that consistently releases an album every two years. Imagine if Radiohead shifted toward a new sound with each release that always threatened the band’s original fan base, yet always ended up garnering new, appreciative fans in the process. Now imagine if Radiohead was a progressive black metal band. Congratulations, you now have some perspective on the opinion the global metal community has on Norwegian quintet Enslaved.
It’s always strange talking about metal music of this sort as an American, because the U.S. is notorious for shunning metal artists critically as well as commercially. Most Americans, metal fans included, probably couldn’t tell you who Enslaved is, although the band has been consistently releasing acclaimed aggressive music for nearly 20 years. With maybe the exception of new albums by American bands Converge and Between the Buried and Me, Enslaved’s 12th album, RIITIIR, may be the most anticipated metal album of the year. They are one of those bands that critics say, “If they had stopped in ____, their legacies would be set,” except that year would be, like, 2003. And yet the band has continued to release challenging music, and RIITIIR is no exception.
RIITIIR is more musically elaborate than its predecessor, 2010’s also excellent Axioma Ethica Odini. At over an hour long, it is the longest Enslaved album to date. The music here isn’t so much distinct from song-to-song as it is with every four measures, as every few seconds introduces a new idea. RIITIIR’s tracks, often exceeding the seven-minute mark, blend into one another to the point where I question where one song ends and another begins if I’m not listening closely. The first respite on the album comes with the title track, five songs in. By then, the album has been reeling for 35 minutes.
This density can be quite imposing, even to longtime Enslaved fans. But, if you stay patient, RIITIIR’s overflowing creativity can be a great treat. “Death in the Eyes of Dawn” drastically shifts from an emotive guitar solo to a rockabilly riff, like a satanist stumbling into a square dance. “Materal” is led by Cato Bekkevoid’s off-kilter drum pattern, creating just enough rhythmic incongruity to keep you engaged. Enslaved shifts between the acoustic flourishes of folk metal, the intricate axework of progressive metal and the blastbeats of black metal with the ease of professionals. At a certain point, I became so enthralled with the group’s seemingly unlimited inspiration, I began to anticipate each new measure, just to find out what the band would blindside me with next.
There are moments where Enslaved’s ambition overreaches. “Storm of Memories” begins with a sonic reversal, placing the guitars and drums in the background and Grutle Kjellson’s bass and Herbrand Larsen’s electronic textures in the foreground. While it is interesting, it feels more like a rote experiment than good music. Final track “Forsaken” is a little too concerned with its unsettling piano melody, creating more of a meandering closer than a decisive one. And, of course, if screams in music repulse you, RIITIIR will be a riddled with hurdles to overcome. Nevertheless, if you are looking for something outside of your comfort zone, check out RIITIIR, but I would first suggest listening to the more melodic Axioma Ethica Odini. And, if that’s a little bit too steep for you, there’s always Metallica or Deep Purple or The Ramones or that heavy metal lover song off the latest Lady Gaga album. No matter how far down the chain you start, just make sure you find your way back to RIITIIR. You won’t regret it.