Matthew Cooper’s take:
More often than not, the word “progressive” is used as a locator, a sonic line of demarcation, rather than an actual meaningful descriptor. The word is tailor made for Enslaved, a band that somehow manages to offer something different with every release. They are progressive not just in the way they incorporate said genre elements into their own signature black metal, but more importantly, in how the band has grown in continuous, incremental steps. Enslaved continues to mutate in measured, linear strides while remaining remarkably consistent and patently impressive. Not that the band necessarily improves with each release—who’s to say that Vikingligr Veldi is any less impressive than Isa? They’re as good in their own rights as they are diametrical. Enslaved’s penchant for prog infused, artful metal seemed to reach a zenith with 03’s monumental Below the Lights. It was there that the band reached a sublime balance of old world aggression and forward thinking flourish. Isa, the following year’s effort, nearly matched its predecessor, but just as importantly, it established that the multi talented Norwegians had passed a point of no return in black metal. For Isa, the band continued to tinker with the ingredient ratios, edging up the progressive metal factor, and the law of opportunity cost prevailed. It should come as no surprise that the Enslaved train has kept on rolling down the tracks to the next natural stop, in this case as predictable and clearly marked as the maps along the walls of subway cars.
Ruun sees the band continue their push into increasingly progressive territories, but it seems as though the mutating Vikings have finally rowed their longboats onto the shores of the land of diminishing returns. Enslaved has always been thinking man’s black metal, but the sound of their newest effort furthers the transition from what was a balanced mind/gut reaction to a style that tickles your cognitive sensibilities rather than your gut level passions. Aside from Grutle’s kingly, passionate vocals and the occasional icy riff volley, Ruun is noticeably short on fiery immediacy. In fact, it’s quite likely that upon initial listen, many will saddle Ruun with the damning accusation of being uninspired. That’s not it though. Pay enough attention and it’s hard to deny that Ruun is carefully and meticulously crafted in true Enslaved fashion. Nobody who really listens can accuse the band of phoning this one in. A more tangible example of how stylistic concerns shouldn’t be confused with quality ones can be found in the tremendous consistency between songs. There’s no filler to be found, and every track contributes to the effort in its own way. But it’s that same cognitive/gut dissonance that has so far made it difficult to assign a quantitative assessment to Ruun. This is a very good album, and possibly even a great one, but struggles to have the stirring impact of the band’s other work. This is one of those albums that is better reviewed after the listener has developed some history with it, as Ruun seems to have the potential to be a true grower.
As the album begins, the opening measures of “Entroper” conjure thoughts more consistent with Rush than corpse paint. Once the crisp, dissonant, striding riffs and harsh vocals of the verse are introduced, the architects of the song are immediately recognizable. In other places on the album, glimpses of Pink Floyd and King Crimson are evident. “Fusion of Sense and Earth” offers the most consistently speedy and heavy riffing of the album, and given the context, serves as one of the most powerful and cathartic songs on the set, although “Tides of Chaos” is a close second. Along with the less heavy, more rock styled riffing, one of the other noticeable changes for Ruun is a more consistent vocal performance. Isa offered a host of guest vocal cameos, and while the idea of complaining about Grutle’s vocals is ridiculous, the guests did provide some depth and diversity that leaves Ruun sounding slightly more streamlined than its predecessor. Changes aside, there’s plenty of what Enslaved does best, and Ruun brims with beautifully conceived and skillfully executed epic grandeur. Based on the amount of coverage this album is receiving, I’ll leave the more detailed song discussions to my colleagues. But what I will say is that at the best of times Ruun delivers in full on the massive abilities of majestic modern Enslaved. Ruun will even further put off fans that took umbrage with Isa’s direction, but those who embraced that album will find much to love in this one. As I said, assigning a score to Ruun is limiting and somewhat misleading. Even though it falls just shy of the bar set by the band’s fantastic catalog, it is without question a class effort that easily separates itself from the pack.
Since the release of 2000’s Mardraum, Enslaved founding members Ivar Bjørnson and Grutle Kjellson have consistently shown the extreme metal world they’re not afraid to lead fans into boundary-crossing waters. 2001’s bizarre Monumension, 2003’s incredible Below The Lights, and 2004’s near masterwork Isa are all albums that not only challenged the players, but their listeners as well.
Something immediately noticeable with regard to the Enslaved of the last two years is the fact that each member of the band is now making serious contributions to the recordings. This was already apparent with Isa, and it’s even more apparent with Ruun. The general black metal modus operandi of spotlighting brazen vocals with in-your-face guitars has morphed into a genre-defying entity that now allows each musician ample opportunity to flex their talents. Newcomer Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal’s guitar work, especially during soloing, has more room to breathe; Cato Bekkevold’s drumming sounds more organic and intrepid than previous skinsmen; and possibly the most noticeable change, we hear newbie Herbrand Larsen’s atmospheric keys and surprisingly elegant vocals (it’s his clean voice we hear on track 2, “Path to Vanir”). These elements prove Grutle and Ivar have grown quite comfortable with sharing the creative process behind Enslaved.
Ruun steers the ship even further into the King Crimson waters with even heavier use of keyboard elements, rockier riffing, and decidedly non-black metal song structures. However, despite these leanings, prog-rock fans will likely despise the rasped vocals, and old fans of the band might be put off by the even cleaner sounding riffs. The album is still heavy, but the band is clearly interested in balancing metal’s inherent ugliness with a strong sense of gracefulness.
Also more apparent now is the Opeth flavoring found scattered throughout the album. Not that Enslaved are outright aping their Swedish peers –– both parties appear to be studying a similar book of How to Incorporate 70s Style to Your Metal Band. There are moments when the combination of Herbrand’s organ/keyboard and Arve’s ethereal guitar licks will remind listeners of Åkerfeldt and friends, especially during the album’s slower parts.
Ruun places Enslaved at another particularly interesting point in their career. Will future releases feature even more 70s infused prog elements at the expense of the band’s proven formula for ripping black metal? Based on their current path, signs point to the notion that they’ll continue toward more experimentation, and considering the level of skill at the hands of these players, that’s actually pretty exciting.
Another win for the Enslaved crew.
Jeremy Garner’s take:
Really, I doubt there’s too many of you out there who are honestly reading this to discover whether or not Enslaved is a good band. Chances are you want to know how this one stacks up against the rest of their catalogue, especially 2003 release Below the Lights and 2005 release Isa, so I see no point in fucking around describing to you what they’ve done in the past when my comrades and I are all throwing our opinions into the fray.
In true Enslaved form, they have returned with a release that incorporates their whole career, yet in no way dwells completely on past grandeur. I’ve always considered Enslaved a band who has always pushed to change their sound and forge ahead towards unknown territories, in the strongest sense, progressive; I feel no different about Ruun. And for that, I will always have the utmost respect for them.
Album opener “Entroper” kicks things off with an interesting recurring rhythm, which despite the fact that it offers little in the way of modulation or variation, holds interest long enough for a floating ethereal midsection with slightly grandiose chord development to carry the rest of the song from boring shores. With “Path to Vanir”, haunting keyboards and soothing vocals combine with a forward thinking approach adding plenty of edge that forges ahead with little abandon, connected by one of the most interesting leads I’ve heard in some time. Through the use of counterpoint and independent harmonies, “Fusion of Sense and Earth” lands itself as one of the more interesting songs of Ruun by winding its way through interesting climates and poignant melodies courtesy of Ivar BjØrnson and Arve Isdal’s distinctive style. Album namesake “RUUN” seems to drag during the tide of rising and falling action despite its epic, grand scope. Really, the song only becomes interesting once slipping into a hypnotic climax out of nowhere, albeit a climax that isn’t necessarily deserving or worth all the anticipation and build up. The surprising and mildly unsettling “Tides of Chaos” plods along with an atmospheric grandeur creating the perfect backdrop for tromping through an arctic wasteland, the cold wind whipping around you. Grutle’s vehement ability to assault the listener with some of metal’s most abrasive, but distinguishable vocals is showcased here, ripping and tearing apart the listener with an undeniable command of style; the music stands as a scenic backdrop, creating a versatile mood and distinctive listening experience. The barrage of pensive acoustic guitars and dynamic keyboard driven “Essence” lends to the phenomenal pagan spirit of Enslaved with intelligently bleak moments which culminate in a beautifully desolate climactic tension of duality, the beautiful and the pernicious nature of Enslaved. If the whole album had been on par with this song, I would have absolutely adored the album. Another pivotal moment on Ruun, “Api-vat” capitalizes on more technicality than previous songs, merging their past with their present in an interesting and captivating rollicking experience that presents a journey within itself. There’s plenty of stylistic and dynamic contrast within and between the songs, but “Heir to the Cosmic Seed”, (the only song I was a bit put off by has a slight lack of direction) is a prime example of the sometimes annoyingly cyclic nature of Ruun, and of the oftentimes mundane approach some of the material takes. Many ideas never fully develop or expand while some that do aren’t all that awe inspiring or prodigious once they have.
I’ll admit I have very mixed feelings towards Ruun, but I’m willing to give Enslaved the benefit of the doubt because this one grows on me with each listen. There’s a certain sort of suave technicality and layered approach they’ve stepped away from that was extremely prevalent on past material. Also, there is an overall feeling of less detail than I’m used to from the band. Maybe I can’t see the forest for the trees, but the problem emerges from the fact that where I’ve found the majority of Enslaved’s releases to be extremely and immediately moving through the implementation of avantgarde extremity, Enslaved now seem to be capitalizing on softer, more atmospheric progressive tonalities which are often more simplistic rather than the complexity of yore. On a more basic spectrum, they seem to be relying less on black metal touches with a newfound interest in classic progressive rock. This isn’t necessarily a bad move, I just feel less moved by the music. There are plenty moments of genius within the album, it’s just the road traveled to get to them wears down the listener with the slightly dulled approach taken on Ruun. However, all the instruments have a very casually natural sound, fully organic approach with an excellent mix. Each member offers an equally important contribution towards the intelligence and gravity of the captivating, frost bitten final product which stands as a testament to Enslaved’s capacity of ambition.
No real worries, Enslaved still play their own unique genre of Viking metal on their own terms, and always will, but there’s a certain ferocity lacking that I dearly miss that reduces their intensity. For all relative purposes, Ruun is a good album by any standards, but a step down for Enslaved in my opinion. Isa took a good while to fully sink in to a point of reverence and appreciation, and I’m willing to admit that perhaps Ruun is the same way, this one really has the potential to grow and expand with time. I’ve just never been exceptionally fond of albums I have to try to appreciate with baited breath and understanding patience. Next to the masterpieces created in the past, I can’t help but question whether this one is doomed to gather dust after the first few initial spins despite its unique flair, or whether it honestly has the potential to move into the labyrinth of my collection with a fighting chance. Initially, it felt lackluster in many areas, but I’ll still take a mediocre Enslaved any day over about anything else.