Enslaved has officially entered rarified territory, or rather, they did a while ago and just keep reaffirming it. Their consistent dependability would make a sub-stellar album not just disappointing, but downright shocking. Opeth at least eased us into the half downer that was Heritage with some merely “very good” albums, but after Enslaved seemed to be putting out their own “settled career” works in Ruun and Vertebrae (both of which are actually quite excellent), fans applauded the extra levels of intensity and growth shown on Axioma Ethica Odini. After two stop-gap EPs, the Norwegian lords return with RIITIIR, their twelfth album in 18 years. Beyond being yet another exemplary album, it may also be the most revealing of their career, showing exactly how permanently hungry and restless they are, not to mention completely overflowing with quality material. Quality, monstrous material.
But this monster comes with a disclaimer, or two… or three. If you’ve never been a fan of the black / prog hybrid Enslaved has been destroying for over a decade, you likely won’t like this, and you might also find fault if you’ve felt that Grutle Kjellson’s harsh vocals have been continually out of place as the band’s music has moved further away from pure black metal. Also, if you felt that Axioma had a criminal shortage of Ice Dale soloing, well, you’ll be happy to know that he’s a bit more featured here, but still isn’t going nuts on every song. However, as was the case between Vertebrae and Axioma, the band seems have grown even more as a cohesive unit since their last album, so even the skeptics are encouraged to dive in.
Now then, with that in mind, new album time…
Those expecting Axioma Part II aren’t going to get it, but those expecting Enslaved to repeat themselves don’t get them. Sure, the basic threads of the previous long player are certainly present, but where that album was an immediate, direct, and hugely powerful collection of damn-near-anthems, RIITIIR is complex, challenging (but never alienating), and multi-faceted, with as many huge moments as its predecessor but with a much deeper support structure. Put simply, RIITIIR is dense, clocking in at nearly 70 packed-to-the-brim minutes of busy and brilliantly-crafted blackened prog. And prog is the key. Some of the material is as black as the band has written in years, but the total package feels like a prog album, complete with twists, turns, song movements, and a near complete rejection of conventional structures. Enslaved has come quite close to this for a while, but this is the first time they seem to be completely disregarding convenient setlist selection in favor of lengthy, ambitious songs.
RIITIIR does not burst out of the gate with triumphant force as its predecessor did. “Thoughts Like Hammers” has neither the instant drive nor all powerful chorus of “Ethica Odini,” but over the course of its nine-and-a-half minutes, it reveals an equally staggering power. A dissonant intro leads to a fairly typical modern Enslaved riff grouping (punctuated, infectious, and ever-so-cold), lots of Kjellson’s growls, Herbrand Larsen’s croons, and eventually a prog moment at 6:40 that signifies exactly how special this album is going to be. It’s another of the countless moments that the band has grown so adept at, lifting up their material with a few extra special riffs, phrases, or singular details, and the technique is used throughout the album. The hook in the title track, Kjellson’s key growl at the end of a killer Ice Dale solo in “Materal,” and Pink Floyd vocal touches in “Storm of Memories” are all such flourishes. If the devil truly is in the details, Enslaved has conquered the underworld.
This also offers heaps of variety and nods to the past, with plenty of call-backs to the riff fountain of Ruun and the intentionally off-kilter feel on much of Below the Lights. With the extended ambient passages in closer “Forsaken,” the band even harkens to Monumension, albeit with what would be a modern take on that underappreciated psychedelic gem. Elsewhere, “Veilburner” brings a fiercely intimidating verse, “Death in the Eyes of Dawn” offers the opposite with a beautiful chorus, the aforementioned “Storm of Memories” contrasts its Floyd moments with plenty of soaring tremolo harmonies, and that title track shows off some serious technical twitchery with its riffs.
Perhaps the epitome of this heighted sense of detail and variety is album centerpiece “Roots of the Mountain.” A furious black metal intro quickly gives way to a chorus of epic proportions on which Larsen reaffirms that he is much more than just the clean vocalist now, he’s a true lead singer (touch of falsetto is perfect… again, details). Later passages seem different upon first spin, but often reveal themselves as variations on earlier themes, driving the song’s development with mysterious, emotionally ambiguous intent, presenting both light and dark with Opethian skill. The final act may go down as one of the band’s signature moments, growing to the most crushing and effective climax they’ve written since Isa’s “Neogenesis,” but still leaving the album plenty of places to go after. You can throw the biggest punch in the middle of the fight, as long as the soft final punch (finale of “Forsaken”) leaves the listener knocked out; and it does.
Enslaved is a band for which the term “elite” does not begin to do justice. They’re simply operating on a separate plane of musical existence from about everyone else. There are good bands, great bands, and then those special types of collectives that are on a plateau with very few others. Enslaved has called that plateau home for years, and with RIITIIR, they continue to impress even those that they share it with. If Axioma Ethica Odini was the sound of a solidified band finally achieving the heights for which they were designed, RIITIIR is that same band showing that they’ll simply never be satisfied. They are consumed with achieving greatness, no matter how many times they’ve reached it in the past.
If you’re wondering where this ranks within their untouchable catalog, I believe a wise strip club bouncer named Budd can best answer that:
“If you’re gonna compare a Hanzo sword, you compare it to every other sword ever made… that wasn’t made by Hattori Hanzo.”
That’s a bingo.