“Witness: march of the giants.”
Few bands or artists of any media forge a legacy in which their fans can be one hundred and ten percent confident that new work will give them the thrills they are used to. To me, Enslaved is one such band. After ten albums shifting slowly from black metal to prog, they have maintained a constantly high level of quality and innovation. Even so, I felt myself becoming too comfortable with them, as if I was being lulled into an eventual No Prayer for the Dying-or Technical Ecstasy-type falter–some album that makes us finally and permanently question their immaculate creativity. This small but notable anxiousness is understandable, and I am not alone in having a few shorter fingernails as a result of anticipating their next Norwegian platter. After all, as their catalog becomes increasingly voluminous, and as they continue to experiment away from their blackened roots, it is only natural for us to assume that some misstep is bound to happen, right? Won’t I eventually be disappointed by Enslaved just as I have been by all of my other heroes of mythical metal might?
Not a chance, at least not yet anyway. The evidence was clear from the onset of “Ethica Odini” and only amplified by the song’s triumphant chorus: I was floored, and as the minutes passed I was only further engrained into the linoleum. Axioma Ethica Odini, the band’s eleventh album, is larger than life itself. It is a towering colossus, guaranteed to not only find its way onto year-end lists, but likely to top them for numerous fans and critics. Only the ensuing adjectives referring to size and enormity do justice to this album’s sheer mass and majesty. Everything–Ivar Bjørnson’s riffs, the deft compositional touches, the production, the melodies, Grutle Kjellson’s harsh vocals, Cato Bekkevold’s stylistic-yet-classically-metal drumming–seems to be cranked all the way (pardon the reference) to eleven. It is an album for which the idiom “firing on all cylinders” is perfectly apt.
As with each step in Enslaved’s career, Axioma Ethica Odini maintains the constant, if subtle evolution from recent albums. Remaining is the texture of Vertebrae, but with a much heavier delivery. Compared to Ruun and much of their recent work, it is more epic in scope–four songs at almost eight minutes and an album length of nearly an hour. The blackened roots remain, but the band also finds time to inject new styles into these prog landscapes, such as the doom/death which introduces “Giants.” But the most strikingly fresh aspect is the clean vocal delivery, performed as usual by both Kjellson and keyboardist Herbrand Larsen. No longer reserved, the singing here contains much more emotion and inflection, adding to the album’s quality at every turn and giving would-be ballad “Night Sight” a unique sensitive vibe hitherto untouched by the band.
One cannot say enough for the hard work and attention to detail that went into constructing these songs. Every track on Axioma Ethica Odini (outside of the tasteful and surprisingly necessary intermezzo “Axioma”) is a compositional clinic and musical journey, immediate in quality but rich in rewards for the repeat listener. Little details emerge, such as how the chorus of “Giants” starts without vocals to increase anticipation, or how the layered and sorrowful crescendo of “Raidho” gains intensity and reaches its peak with the song’s guitar solo finale (Ice Dale, we salute you). Closer “Lightening” is perhaps the best example of how the band builds a track while foreshadowing its climax. A section towards the beginning overflows with the sense of finality, but it is in how Enslaved returns to this idea over nearly eight thrilling minutes (including a wild bridge) that not only moves the song along but also ends the album in spectacular fashion. Only silence can properly follow.
Now… a special nod to THE RIFF, because Enslaved hath unleashed the proverbial hordes. The dissonant and mountainous chorus of “Waruun,” the neck-jerking and evil-grin-inducing heaviness anchoring “Singular” (not to mention the bitchin’ prog noodling), the galloping verses of “Raidho,” and the harmonized rhythm chords in “The Beacon” are just a few examples of the torrential riff raining that floods this album. I could go on and on really, but there is no need, as each aspect of Axioma Ethica Odini is incredibly organic and free of pretentions, with every element ensuring that not a dull second exists. So while you listen, forget my ramblings and just take the album in, because every listener is bound to discover their own favorite moments. There are countless to choose from.
The only question left unanswered is the ultimate one: is this masterpiece also Enslaved’s masterstroke? Time will tell, but it shouldn’t have to. Ranking their catalog has always been pointless and will remain thus. In a career in which every release is light years away from the ho-hum, all feel irreplaceable while spinning. So for the most part I will choose to leave that question unanswered. There is, however, something extra-special about Axioma Ethica Odini, as if it is the culmination of what this particular Enslaved lineup has been trying to accomplish for years. If this is so, and if they are only now hitting their stride as a unit, the competition is urged to throw in the towel now before they find themselves being permanently maimed.
As for that opening quote, it isn’t just a lyric from the album, but a fitting metaphor for where the band has taken their career. They truly are giants. May they continue to march.