Enslaved is back with another slab of weirdness that only they can conjure. The band has been at it for more than 25 years now; their name is etched on the black metal pantheon for eternity. But to just call a band like Enslaved ‘black metal’ is patently absurd in 2017. That’s fine – they haven’t “just” been a black metal band for a while. The guys in Enslaved have paved their own way, for better or for worse. They’ve gained fans and lost fans by not sticking to the same pattern, and whether you like them or not you have to respect them.
The good news here is that though this is a new beast with an evolved sound, this isn’t so far off the deep end that it would alienate fans of the band’s material since the mid-aughts. Sound-wise, this would stand toe to toe with an album like Ruun or 2015’s glorious album In Times. “Storm Son” has been released as a single for several months, and it is a fantastic way to kick the album off, containing both an intriguing ambient intro and then a really nice segue into absolutely resplendent harmonized clean vocal sounds. The band added keyboardist Håkon Vinje this year, and I believe his addition has added much needed color and fullness to the clean vocal arrangements here.
“Storm Son” in particular is a very dense 10-minute epic, replete with periods of black metal fervor and more progressive riffing patterns that are touched up with tasteful keyboards not unlike what you’d hear on a more modern Opeth song. It’s a song that masterfully does not feel at all like its length, which is always nice to see on an album that approaches an hour in length. “The River’s Mouth” contains none of the ambient flourishes of the album-opener, and instead begins with bombastic heavy metal chords and Grutle Kjellson’s unmistakable raspy vocals. Distant in the background we hear more of the clean vocals, reminding me of something Moonsorrow might do to give the song a more “epic” sound. It is little touches like that, including some really nice sounding synthesizers that make for a dense listen, and one that is rewarding the more you listen to it. Some of those clean vocal parts are my favorite moments on this entire album.
Some of the latter songs on the album have some really impressive guitar work, by Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal. His rocking pentatonic solo at the beginning of “Axis of the Worlds” is really interesting with the proggy chords being strummed underneath. It also makes me happy that at no point on this album are the guitar solos a self-indulgent shred fest. Instead, they serve as little dramatic flourishes that just enhance the overall musicality on display here. The music is dense and layered, but at the same time it doesn’t make for a hard listen. This is still an album you can put on and bang your head to. It drives forward and doesn’t seem unnecessarily disjointed like some “prog” metal can.
I don’t have the lyric sheet in front of me, but the lyrics I can discern through multiple listens of this album still call upon some of the same Norse and “Viking” esotericism the band has been known for since their early days. The album’s title, E, is actually the Elder Futhark rune ehwaz, as shown on the cover art. It is said that ehwaz represents a pair of galloping horses. Lyrically on this album, swinging swords and galloping warhorses abound. And with song titles like “Sacred Horse” and “Feathers of Eolh,” it seems they’re still drawing from the Scandinavian folklore that made them forebears of the whole “Viking metal” genre in the first place. Progressive, yes. Weird, yes. Epic, absolutely.
E is a highly enjoyable album that is all the same accessible to the ears and extremely complex at the same time. Hearing new things every time I press play is truly a rewarding part of listening to this album. I think the album is a fantastic follow-up to In Times, which I think is one of the best offerings in their post millennium career. When this album drops, get it and play it over and over.
WILLIAM SEAY rating: 8.9/10