I hated Vertebrae for nine years.
Unless you’ve been a part of the LR crew, you probably weren’t privy to that particular tidbit. And now that you are aware, it’s quite likely that you don’t really care. The admission is a significant one, however, because I’ve carried that indignation for a long time, and I never really allowed myself to fully enjoy anything Enslaved did post Vertebrae because of it. Critical, considering I counted myself a serious fan of band’s works all the way through Ruun.
The particulars behind my Vertebrae animus seems immaterial at this point. Suffice to say that it was mostly rooted in an inability to wrap my head around an even less heavy, more jarring approach that simply felt…unpleasant…for nine long years.
Fortunately, whatever vulnerabilities In Times exhibited must have wooshed out the door behind departed vocalist/keyboardist Herbrand Larsen, because full-length number fourteen, E, finds the band back on a familiar upswing. There was zero animosity involved in Larsen’s flight last year, and the fact that Ivar Bjørnson has been entirely responsible for Enslaved’s songwriting for quite some time makes it clear that 2015’s modest stumble was far from Larsen’s liability. It just goes to show that sometimes a shake-up in the starting lineup is all a team needs in order to jump things back on track.
In truth, Larsen left some mighty big shoes to fill. Keyboard and clean vocal priorities have escalated from one album to the next, and Larsen’s technique became as integral to the overall Enslaved sound as a square sail on a longship. Luckily, Håkon Vinje proves himself more than just a capable replacement, as his voice is quite similar to Larsen’s, and even more notably, his work behind the keyboard is paramount to this record’s success. Proggy Deep Purple organs color a generous portion of E’s corners and backdrops, and a burning Jon Lord-ly solo hits around the three minute mark of the fantastic “Sacred Horse” that pretty much solidifies the notion that this guy could very well wear bellbottoms to bed. But it’s the emphasis on Håkon’s atmospheric keys that renew just the right amount of “sweeping” in the 2017 formula that also generates a pleasing Autumnal sense of home & hearth throughout the record. The beginning moments of closer “Hiindsiight,” when paired with some notably alluring guitar work, for example, or the sublime manner in which the keys swell and swirl shades of red, orange and yellow around the 4 and 10-minute mark of “Storm Son.”
Also working in E’s favor is the restored emphasis on trippy, dark & drifty connections to the band’s gray/blue era. The darkness is sometimes brief and reserved for edging, but the lengthier cuts—“Storm Son,” “Sacred Horse,” “Axis of the Worlds” and “Hiindsiight”—all feature stretched measures of hypnotically repetitive spellwork that harken the Mardraum years, with “Sacred Horse” making use of a particularly ensorcelling war-drum stride for three minutes before a belt of maniacal laughter sends the closing seconds into a whipped fury.
The essentials are all present, too. Grutle hasn’t lost an ounce of grit or gravel—neither has Ivar, for that matter—and E feels as if a wee more attention is placed on the lower bellow that helped launch tunes from Below the Lights through the roof. Also, as is often the case, Ice Dale’s lead work is largely low-key, but he occasionally splits the sky with a burst of color at the most opportune moment, e.g. two minutes into the absolutely cracking “Axis of the Worlds.” And finally, E most certainly delivers the quintessential Enslaved innovation that In Times desperately lacked. The riffs and the overall guitar work is proggier, heavier, nuttier (is that a flippin’ Epiphone Wildkat at the onset of “Axis?”) and quite simply ten shades more interesting compared to most of what the band has done since Axioma Ethica Odini. Plus, the addition of subtle bits of flute (Daniel Mage), guest vocals from Wardruna’s Einar Selvik (on the record’s sole tune sans extreme vocals, “Feathers Of Eolh”), and liberal use of some of the most unusually fitting saxophone (Kjetil Møster) you’ll hear this side of Ihsahn’s After, particularly throughout the album’s closing epic, all add well enough ornamentation to ensure the record will preserve its legs for years to come.
There’s really not much to find fault with here. The production is robust and perfectly balanced, the songs level the wildly progressive bits and straight-forward galloping in a more effective manner, the renewed stretches of psychedelia are used to a greater advantage and more often, and the band simply attacks everything with a renewed sense of vigor. Exhilarating would be a great descriptor. Encouraging. Exceedingly Enjoyable. In essence, this is the sort of record that fits perfectly within any Enslaved binge that stretches the full discography, and although it will likely take a while to determine where it will ultimately land in your personal rankings, you will very much enjoy the process of getting to know E‘s wonderful details.
Let the bender continue.