Battle Royal: Opeth vs. Enslaved – Two Bands Enter, One Band Leaves

Battle Royal is ideally intended to hurt. It is intended to hurt our readers, and it is absolutely, unquestionably, 100% intended to hurt whichever staffers are knuckleheaded enough to partake.

Battle Royal is having a Gatling gun put to your head and being forced to choose between Star Wars and Star Trek, Alien vs. Predator, Freddy vs. Jason, Marvel vs. DC, no metal forever in Heaven vs. Priest’s Demolition eternally in Hell. These are the sorts of decisions that truly build character. And in the case of Battle Royal, these are the kinds of choices that force you to binge on hours of great music that conceivably helped shape you into the terribly impressive metal nerd you are today.

Previous BRs have pitted Slayer vs. Metallica (80s only), Judas Priest vs. Iron Maiden (GASP) and Suffocation vs. Immolation (brutalation!), and our latest encounter hopes to be equally as… Wrongful.

But Opeth vs. Enslaved? Is that even a fair fight? The internet doesn’t seem to think so:

Opeth’s Facebook following: 1,436,665
Enslaved’s Facebook following: 265,941

Opeth’s Twitter following: 168,000
Enslaved’s Twitter following: 45,000

Most would agree that the odds ain’t exactly in Norway’s favor. Adding to the issue: is a match-up between death and black metal even appropriate? Stripped to the core, that’s basically what’s on tap.

But wait! Look up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s… It’s…

It’s a really high dude in a Gentle Giant shirt listening to endless King Crimson and ELP records.

Prog is clearly the equalizer here. While both bands crawled from very different primordial pools in the Bronze Age of heavy metal, a mutual love of the sort of progressive rock that developed from the 60s psychedelic scene has helped to soften and “weirden” the edges of both projects to a degree where it’s now become completely and wonderfully prudent to see Opeth and Enslaved sharing the stage across our (largely not-so) green and (often not-so) pleasant lands.

But is a shared appreciation and influence from Mahavishnu Orchestra, Camel and Atomic Rooster enough to give Enslaved an attractive snowflake’s chance in the helliest of Hell against a powerhouse like Opeth? Of the two bands, Enslaved is more likely to be considered “still on an upswing,” at least with regard to actual heavy metal, even if 2015’s In Times seemed to disgruntle almost as much as it managed to satisfy. Conversely, the scoundrels in Opeth continue to defile their roots in favor of pushing the band’s overall sound further and further into a rock terrain that’s mostly “heavy” in the same sense that hippies used to refer to the Vietnam war.

Despite any indication of a feasible imbalance, we’re here to pit two Generals of progressive extreme metal against one another, because it should be a great fight based on the quality of the cumulative output. At the least, the resulting selection will be agonizing enough for most interested parties to wish for death, which we’re about to confirm in our blurbs below.

Is the runestone loaded into Davidssøn’s sling powerful enough to topple the Swedish Goliath? We’ll soon find out.

[Captain]

 

THE CONTENDERS:

  • OPETH: 
    • Formed in Sörskogen, Stockholm, Sweden in 1990
    • Twelve full-lengths: Orchid [1995], Morningrise [1996], My Arms, Your Hearse [1998], Still Life [1999], Blackwater Park [2001], Deliverance [2002], Damnation [2003], Ghost Reveries [2005], Watershed [2008], Heritage [2011], Pale Communion [2014], Sorceress [2016]
  • Enslaved:
    • Formed in Haugesund, Norway in 1991
    • A handful of significant EPs and splits, plus thirteen full-lengths: Vikingligr veldi [1994], Frost [1994], Eld [1997], Blodhemn [1998], Mardraum: Beyond the Within [2000], Monumension [2001], Below the Lights [2003], Isa [2004], Ruun [2006], Vertebrae [2008], Axioma Ethica Odini [2010], RIITIIR [2012], In Times [2015]

 

ZACH DUVALL:

Oof. This is the toughest yet for me. Opeth and Enslaved, while coming from different countries and scenes, have always been strongly aligned in my mind for reasons far beyond the obvious extreme metal-progressive rock melding. You see, I was a late bloomer. It wasn’t until my early-mid 20s that I really started to get a taste for extreme metal. Opeth and Enslaved were there to help ease me into all things growl and blast.

In short, Blackwater Park was a revelation. When I heard it, I had no idea that such sounds could be mixed, or that they could be combined with such magical success. I worked backwards into Opeth’s earlier works, and learned about other bands that shared that great period of 90s experimentation (Tiamat and The Gathering are two of the most significant). My life was forever changed for the better. Without Opeth, this never happens, and in spite of this great awakening, it is still the music of Blackwater Park and Orchid and Still Life and the rest of their classics that remain the largest part of that bond. Mikael Åkerfeldt is a genius, pure and simple. And you know what else? I still love the band. Heritage was a stinker, sure, but they more than made up for it with the sublime Pale Communion and the not-quite-as-good-but-still-great Sorcerer. I am just fine with Prog Rock Opeth.

As for Enslaved, they opened up the world of black metal to me. They were my first favorite black metal band, although I got into the band through their more progressive, experimental albums such as Isa. I was quick to embrace Vikingligr veldi, however, and through that came all of the Second Wave and beyond. As with Opeth, the music of Enslaved still remains the strongest part of this bond, despite how much I love Emperor and Darkthrone and Satyricon et al. The weirdness of Isa, the smoothness of Ruun, the cross-genre fury of Mardraum, the arena blackened prog of Axioma Ethica Odini, the mastery of Hordanes Land (despite Ivar Bjørnson being about 16 when it came out) — it all meant and means huge things to me. Such connections are eternal.

Beyond the extreme/prog association and what both bands did for me personally, another massive factor exists: consistency. Each band is only really guilty of one poor album (Heritage and In Times, and that’s the only answer), with everything else ranging from very good to immaculate.

So how does one pick between two bands that are not only two of metal’s all time greats and innovators, but also represent two of the biggest watershed (nyuk) moments in my life as a music fan? Easy, resort to raw emotions. And how does one do that? Get drunk. When I’m putting together a late night playlist with friends, several beers into the festivities, both Enslaved and Opeth typically join the fray. But one song is not only among the most ever played, but finds its way as the final song of the night very often. That song is “Blackwater Park.”

Zach’s choice: OPETH

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MANNY-O-WAR:

These Battle Royals are never easy. They see us torturing ourselves by pitting two of our favorite bands against each other in a winner-take-all, Kickboxer 3: The Art of War, pit-style combat. Of course, the bands themselves aren’t fighting. Rather, it’s a bunch of middle-aged men of mediocre intelligence and subpar looks (aka the staff at Last Rites) arguing about minor imperfections, ranking discographies and looking into the intricacies of splits, demos and EPs. Opeth v. Enslaved was no different. A few of our crew members passed away from battle-related injuries and more than a few friendships were strained, tested and ultimately broken. The kind of fractures that can only be cured by a weekend-long drinking getaway full of metal snuggles and sweatpants.

So, get to the point Manny, amirite? Well, of all the Battle Royals that we have done, this one was, by far, an easy snap-decision for me. Recognizing everything that Mikael Åkerfeldt has done for heavy music, and all the risks he’s taken — most of which have paid off — it’s without hesitation, and without remorse, that I declare Enslaved the winner by TKO.

The Enslaved discography is, for me, pretty much unrivaled in metal. With only one miss, In Times, the boys have pumped out metal across the spectrum of progression, experimentation, black, viking and clean. And, with very few exceptions, all of it has been great, with Below the Lights perhaps best highlighting the diversity with which Enslaved attacks their compositions.

It seems like nothing is off the table with regard to ideas and trials for these guys. Maybe it’s Ivar Bjornson’s jovial nature, humility and willingness to work with others that allows their group compositions to take such magnificent shape, because whether it’s Grutle Kjellson or Herbrand Larsen (before he made the insane decision to leave the band) writing alternate, well-balanced aspects, Ivar’s vision is ultimately a group vision that leads to breathtaking conclusions that are not only enjoyable to audibly digest, they are musically perfect. Dissonance balances with clean passages, heaviness balances with lighter-than-air atmosphere, and each track is carefully engineered to walk the listener through a forest of emotions.

Early in their career, when Enslaved was mostly straight-forward black metal, they produced some of the best of the genre. Eld is a masterpiece that the band still pulls off flawlessly live. As they progressed into the viking era, Blodhemn saw progression and a willingness to compromise, and perhaps a vision toward the future sound of Enslaved. It was only two years later that Mardraum: Beyond the Within was released, knocking metal back on its ass. Enslaved had raised the bar monumentally. Even if they took a step back on Monumension, the band powered into their later career with Below the Lights, which will forever hold a place in the top-tier of the pantheon of metal greats. Isa, Ruun, Vertebrae and Axioma Ethica Odini cover a six year span and provide little snippets of what are almost companion albums. The band is forever stepping forward and rarely taking time off, touring relentlessly across their entire career.

2012 saw the release of RIITIIR, which they pronounce with awesome rolling R’s. There was hesitation — the cover was a photograph, which was a departure from their previous works, but much like the production on the album itself, the artwork was clean and glossy. RIITIIR even featured a massive amount of clean vocals, comparatively. When all was said and done, Enslaved had dropped an album that could easily be considered most any band’s best work, but for them, it was yet another masterpiece landing amongst a nearly unbeatable discography.

In my opinion, the band’s only misstep came in 2015 with In Times. And it’s only a misstep because of Enslaved’s enormous potential and the expectations (some might say pressure) we place on them with each subsequent release. That pressure now lies squarely on their shoulders once again with the imminent delivery of their fourteenth LP simply titled E. I expect great things from that album, as I always have from Enslaved, as they are a band that always manages to get the hairs on my neck and hands to stand at attention.

Manny’s choice: ENSLAVED

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KK:

The Last Rites Battle Royal exercise is, if anything else, a great excuse to blast through two massive discographies and compare them to one another. It’s a refreshing break from sorting through new music that has yet to truly sink into our increasingly limited brains and just enjoy the things that drove us to fall in love with metal in the first place. What makes this Battle Royal so unlike any of the others is that, well, how does one compare any band to Opeth’s brand of sometimes black-leaning progressive death rock? And what viking-black-prog outfit could hold a candle to even one quarter of Enslaved’s soon-to-be fourteen album discography? For over two decades now, Opeth and Enslaved have cunningly lured music by the hand through the seas of unfamiliar and uncharted territory, and both have uncovered entire new worlds of sound. Which of the two would I want to live in? Well hell, Charlie, that ain’t no easy choice. It really comes down to peaks and plateaus, doesn’t it?

Enslaved’s origins come from the frostbitten fjords of the second wave of black metal, and over the years, the band has played through the dark winter and gracefully ushered in the embrace of Scandinavia’s seldom-setting Summer sun. With very careful footing and increased injections of Pink Floyd, Enslaved’s progressive brand of black metal has been a slow, gradual evolution, and as a result, the band has rarely experienced a misstep. Opeth’s evolution has been a bit more pronounced from album-to-album, and it’s brought listeners genre-defining classics as well as complete letdowns. While I’ll die swearing by My Arms, Your Hearse as Opeth’s crowning achievement, Still Life is a guitarist’s wet dream, Blackwater Park obliterated any notions we had as to the limitations of heavy metal, and Deliverance has solidified Mikael Åkerfeldt’s legacy as one of the greatest songwriters in the history of anything involving a guitar. So as we all sit around our Last Rites picnic table and drink Chartreuse, pineapple rum and lord only knows what else, does it really matter if one of us thinks Damnation is a bullshit album? Or if “Black Rose Immortal” is way too long? Or if any complete album after Ghost Reveries is even worth a shit?

Looking at everything Enslaved has done from Vikingligr veldi to their most recent album’s sample track, listeners are presented with a masterful plateau of progressive perfection that changes slope slightly, but never drastically. The band’s progress has been very gradual, and it was probably fully-realized on Isa, even if the vast majority of the albums that followed were no less exciting. It’s a big, beautiful discography filled with nothing but rewards for the keen ear. Opeth’s discography is filled with highs, lows, and lots of pointless fucking singles and boxed sets as of late. But hell, so is life. It’s a sad thing… losing faith in one of your favorite bands, and its not a stretch to say mine has been completely gone for about ten years. Enslaved, on the other hand, probably has one or two more progressive black classics hiding up its sleeve, and that makes this the most difficult Battle Royal yet. Hell, I didn’t even know which band I would choose until right this very moment. But here I sit, stuck in a crevice from which I may never escape, with wind in the form of recycled prog-rock riffs and salty water in the form of terrible album covers slapping me in the face before they collide with the rocks. But I’m looking up at a mountain and its peak goes above the clouds. And on its peak, I can hear the distant melodies of “Demon of the Fall,” “Dirge for November,” and “Harlequin Forest.” And all I can do now is smile knowing I climbed to the top of that fucker a few times, and that experience alone made everything else worth it.

KK’s choice: OPETH

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CAPTAIN:

I was introduced to the world of Opeth through My Arms, Your Hearse back in 1998. My initial reaction was laughter directed squarely at the goofy title, but that snickering was quickly crushed beneath the weight of the record’s near-perfect atmosphere that balanced beauty and grimness like an elegantly attired corpse. It remains my favorite Opeth album today, and listening to it in preparation for this piece elicited the same level of seduction as it did twenty years ago, which is testament to its importance in my overall Heavy Metal Timeline.

In truth, I haven’t listened to Opeth in quite a while—something that unfortunately happens with a number of great bands when you’re in the business of getting slaughtered by new releases every day. Battle Royal is great in that it forces our crew (and hopefully you) to hard-reconnect with records in your past in an attempt to re-conjure the emotions that left you thoroughly charmed during first contact. For me, this meant reawakening infatuations with Morningrise, My Arms/Your Hearse, Still Life, Blackwater Park and Deliverance, all of which carved sizable imprints on the brain many moons ago. Knife to my throat, I’ll admit right here and now that I do not believe Enslaved has a five-album stretch of equal strength, although I’d confirm that Isa, Ruun, Vertebrae, Axioma Ethica Odini and RIITIIR make a damn strong case.

But as great as songs like “Ridicule Swarm,” “Return to Ygdrasill” and “Entroper” are, they’re not quite up to the Herculean level of “Demon of the Fall,” “Godhead’s Lament” or “Bleak.” Harsh, for certain, but true. Then I hear a song like “Ethica Odini” and my entire premise gets shot to shit. Damn you, Battle Royal; damn you to Hell.

Luckily, voting against Opeth, which I’m about to do, doesn’t negate or lessen the impact of the above-mentioned albums in the least; it simply demonstrates just how valuable I consider the current and active Enslaved’s significance to be on heavy metal today, and it rightly emphasizes how big an influence their current yield will continue having as we move into the immediate future. The relatively muted effort of In Times notwithstanding, Enslaved are doing so much more with the progressive influence in their modern output, and they’re preserving what I consider to be an absolutely crucial balance between “the lovely and the ugly” that’s infinitely more interesting and challenging when compared to the contemporary minstrel era of Opeth that produced Heritage, Pale Communion and Sorceress.

As much as it pains me to admit, at this point in time, Enslaved ARE and Opeth WERE, and what the former is producing in the modern age is great enough that I find myself returning to it as often as the records that were part of the latter’s remarkable prime, so Enslaved gets the nod by an inch. I sure am grateful to have them both, though, and being dead in a ditch is the only thing that will keep me from listening to them for the rest of my days.

Captain’s choice: ENSLAVED

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DAN OBSTKRIEG:

Ideally, instead of sinking into pits of despair and regret by forcing ourselves to choose one or another of these sterling bands, we would step back and marvel at the 25 or so albums they have collectively produced. And really, no matter what side you land on, that’s really something: though sounding very little like each other, Opeth and Enslaved have arguably trod similar arcs, provoked similar passions, and created similarly engrossing sound-worlds. (Yes, sound-worlds. Kiss my ass.)

But beyond that, there are so many different ways to compare the bands that it’s almost overwhelming. Although neither band has released an outright bad album, their respective worst albums are illustrative: Opeth’s Damnation is a damp towel of an album that is mystifyingly overvalued by so many, and yet, as an intentional side-step/companion piece to Deliverance, it did not particularly indicate a derailing, with Ghost Reveries bringing the band to their widest prominence (both via a new contract with not-yet-desperately-floundering Roadrunner and via a set of wickedly smart tunes). Enslaved’s In Times is less of a departure from their sound than Damnation was for Opeth, but without hearing the upcoming E, it’s difficult to know if it was an unfortunate misstep or the first sign of a gathering decline. Regardless, In Times is, well, just plain boring — modern progressive Enslaved by the shiny, rote numbers. Nevertheless, it murders Damnation. Murders it dead.

The bands’ best albums are harder to compare, in part because both are masterpieces in their own right. Blackwater Park is remarkable not only because it is nearly flawless, but because it somehow managed to improve from and build on the already outrageously good albums which preceded it. Isa, on the other hand, is a potent distillation of the black metal fury of Enslaved’s early days and the mottled experimentation of Mardraum and Monumension, while at the same time marking an inflection point toward the increasingly expansive progressive metal that has become their recent hallmark. Blackwater Park ekes out the win, however, because its songwriting is just so mindbogglingly great and vivid and complete.

We could go on (Logo? Thor’s hammer in Enslaved’s logo sure as hell trounces Opeth’s… fancy O that looks like it’s been embroidered with butterflies?) and on (Stage banter? Mikael Akerfeldt is one of the most understated yet hilariously charismatic frontmen in recent metal’s history.) and on (Opeth’s world-beatingly righteous streak of albums from Orchid through Deliverance is unmatched by just about any band in the past thirty years), but ultimately, it simply comes down to feeling. My brain says Enslaved, but my heart says Opeth. A big part of that is the overall affect (call it gestalt if you want to be a dick [note: I do]) of each band: Opeth is music of the earth, while Enslaved is music of the cosmos. These days, I feel like walking in the woods and tilling the soil while it lasts, so Opeth is the one true harvest.

Dan’s choice: OPETH

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OPETH

The filthy Swedes take the crown! The sparkling Swedes! The talented Swedes! The Swedes.

As is surely the case for most metal fans with a vested interest in this particular battle, an outcome such as this could very well be expected, but either choice is (delightfully and) emotionally draining. We’re clearly fortunate to have both Opeth and Enslaved in our lives, and the fact that they’re both active means there’s always a possibility that the tables could turn in the future. All that’s left to do now is hear how YOU would vote, so we welcome your comments here, on our Facebook page, or through our companion Twitter poll below. And keep your ears peeled for the new Enslaved album, E, due October 13th through Nuclear Blast.

• • •

Here are two potent primers to help get the fires crackling:

Long may Enslopeth reign!

Posted by Last Rites

GENERALLY IMPRESSED WITH RIFFS

  1. I love both bands, but Opeth is still on top for me, too many legendary songs to choose from.

    Reply

  2. ENSLAVED rules all realms!

    Reply

    1. Heck yes they do!

      Reply

  3. Nice read! A tough choice, needless to say. While I’d choose Opeth’s Still Life and Blackwater Park over anything by Enslaved, the latter are far more consistently good. I have no use for metal-free Opeth. Dan’s statement–“My brain says Enslaved, but my heart says Opeth.”–rings true for me, but I ultimately have to agree with Captain’s assertion that “Enslaved ARE and Opeth WERE.” It’s tantalizing to think that Enslaved can still deliver a great metal album. Opeth, we know, will not. In the end, I vote Enslaved.

    Reply

    1. I love it when we agree. Let’s do it more often!

      Reply

  4. Why would you do this to yourselves? This is an exercise in masochism. I choose no side, both bands are equally important to me. Opeth’s Deliverance got me into extreme metal, and Enslaved has constantly changed my perception of what black metal and progressive metal can be.

    Reply

    1. That’s no fun! You have to go through a very rigid phase of self-loathing, fueled by alcohol and regret, to find the answer!

      Reply

  5. Dan,I would submit that any opeth greatest hits cassette requires windowpane and closure. Love this feature

    Reply

  6. Enslaved.
    Before Heritage, it would’ve been Opeth, without a doubt, but come on, when I listen to Opeth, I want to listen to Opeth, not Camel or Gentle Giant.

    Reply

  7. I bought ‘Morningrise’ at a Rasputin’s Records in 1996 based on the cover alone. Far and away, it’s the best ‘on a whim’ purchase I’ve ever made. Their entire discography through ‘Ghost Reveries’ still gets regular spins. I adore Opeth, but Enslaved is the correct answer.

    Opeth was groundbreaking from the jump. Enslaved, part of ‘a scene.’ However, now, Enslaved pushes the boundaries, lives at the bleeding edge. Opeth … are a retro act. I argue that if they released any of their last three records first instead of Orchis or Morningrise. They never would’ve been considered for a Royals. They’re trading on their name now. Enslaved is still making a name with their music, not riding on the glories of their past.

    Reply

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