Enslaved - _Vertebrae_
(Nuclear Blast, 2008)
by: Jeremy Ulrey (8 out of 10)
There is a time and place for rehashing the argument of whether Enslaved were better off sticking with the populist, sandpaper angst of _Frost_ and _Eld_ or the progged out "wankery" of _Mardraum_ and _Monumension_, and that time and place was 2000 beneath the smoldering remains of a Norwegian stave church. At this point in the game Enslaved have established themselves as an experimental ensemble, to the point that it's the traditional black metal early on in their career that seems like the diversion, and not the more avantgarde side of the band's recent muse. We can go beyond that, beyond the band itself. Come 2008 the extreme metal genre as a whole has come to represent experimentation, and anyone who still worships Emperor and Dimmu Borgir has started to seem stale and behind the times by now. That's not to say traditionalism in black metal is dead, but unless you have the raw, suicide bomber approach of a Wold or Dodsferd, the meek need not apply.

Indeed, by the time of _Vertebrae_ the extreme metal scene had shifted quite a bit, now almost universally in line with what Enslaved were doing with _Isa_. After the water-treading effort of 2006's _Ruun_, it would seem a given that Enslaved had peaked ahead of the rest of the genre and receded with the weaker elements of the lunar tide -- what with the cross pollination of Opeth, Gojira, Meshuggah and other far less profiled but no less progressive metal acts over the last couple of years. The fact is, despite the high reviews at the time, in early 2009 _Ruun_ not only seems like a minor retread of the prior _Isa_, but regardless of comparison either album now seems almost... quaint. The bottom line being: Enslaved cannot heretofore afford to merely rebound to _Isa_-like heights, they need to take it to the next level. In that regard, _Vertebrae_ could not have come any more highly anticipated, nor been subjected to higher expectations. Does it deliver?

What were that a black and white question. The quick answer is: yes; yes it does. From the first tremulous reverberations of "Clouds", it is well apparent that Enslaved have chosen the "keep metal weird" route -- though I have to say that the press release-driven, all too frequent comparisons to Pink Floyd really annoy the fuck out of me, and whether you dutifully copied it off the label's formulated, jingoistic comparisons or not if you've been responsible for anyone whose $15 were on the fence re: the purchase of this album forgoing it because they don't really dig _Dark Side of the Moon_... well, I'd say I owe you a nice Texas ass whippin' if 'n' ever we should meet. Sure, I guess if progressive metal means either the Rush-like technicality of Dream Theater or else the psychedelic virtuosity of, maybe, Voivod -- and probably more accurately: Voivod's cover of -ahem- "Astronomy Domine" -- then _Vertebrae_ is more Floyd-like than Rush-esque, but if it's that limited a dichotomy you're on the wrong fucking track in the first place.

The upside is that Enslaved have always managed to incorporate new influences without sounding like anyone else, a trend which _Vertebrae_ adds to, and when compared to a record like Gojira's recent _The Way of All Flesh_, they maintain far more originality. Being a man that prizes originality, I regretfully inform that _The Way of All Flesh_ is nonetheless a better album. Enslaved have made a habit in recent years of blowing you away with the first track of the album, only to have the rest of the record fail to live up to that hype. _Vertebrae_ is no different, "Clouds" being the landmark cut here and each subsequent track fading more and more into pleasant interchangeability. "Ground" has plenty of ringing, sustained soloing over subtle acoustic guitar rhythms, which I guess loosely recalls Pink Floyd if -- again -- you're such a stick-in-the-mud headbanger that _Nothingface_ is the most far out album you've ever heard; but the truth is Enslaved are becoming more and more adept at incorporating a range of influences without betraying any blatant debt to anyone.

A noble pursuit, to be sure, and _Vertebrae_ is likely the most compelling album the band have produced since the underrated _Blodhemn_. But compared to the far reaching, downright -fucked up- shit going on in the extreme metal world in this day and age, Enslaved have now exceeded their own ambition, but nonetheless found themselves falling short in ambition to even the mellowed out likes of Anathema, let alone keeping up with the jazzed up extremities of the aforementioned Opeth, the rejuvenated Moonspell, or the genre hopping panoply of Ihsahn's solo work. Gorgeous but far from daring, satisfying but arguably a trifle...

Contact: http://www.enslaved.no/

(article published 31/1/2009)

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