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I feel that to endear an album with the term 'Enlightenment' is often to reek of some attempt at pretentious misdirection, and yet there is no other choice I could use to so accurately describe Enslaved's 7th full-player, Below the Lights. From the rune inscribed, unforgettable and glum cover image to the 46 minutes of near impregnable aural genius on parade, this is a band reaching a new vista of potential and simultaneously airbrushing the Norwegians' previous excursions into experimental, progressive territories into a portrait for the ages. Up to its release, I admit to having viewed Enslaved as 'that band who released the stunning Frost and then a bunch of other albums which were gradually scaling in range and quality. But thanks to Below the Lights, my favorite album of 2003, they have become one of the acts I most closely pay attention to, eagerly anticipating each new studio effort and never having been let down since.
This is pretty much a template for how to incorporate varied stylistic influence into a cohesive fusion and vision so seamlessly gelled that I simply cannot imagine it ever fragmented into its scattered roots. Progressive rock of the 70s and 80s, psychedelic overtones, historical and folk cognizance, 'wall of sound' or 'shoegazing' guitar passages, and lying deep at its heart, the same polished and potent black metal rasping and riffing the band introduced in the early 90s. It's not Enslaved's first dance with self-production and engineering, as they had been locked in the DIY mentality for several prior albums, but Below the Lights was clearly the very best the band had managed to its day. An earthen authenticity enriches the dynamic guitars, and much of the disc feels as if it could translate directly into the live setting. And yet, there is nothing 'pop' about it. Just a cloying sadness and darkness to the album worthy of those underground recordings that continue to thrill the core, devoted black metal audience.
The use of subtle orchestration and ambiance is but one of many weapons in play here, and a solemn synthesizer piece is used to inaugurate the opener, "As Fire Swept Clean the Earth". Immediately one can glean a sense for the warmer, jazzier textures being incorporated to the guitar chords, and the swerving complexity of the bass, and yet there are brazen tremolo lines and Grutle rasps so isolated and defiant that they could condense the clouds to darken the sky and induce a steady, cold precipitation. Cleaner vocals and guitars are threaded through the verses, while warbling whammy effects and sprinkles of sporadic lead melodies create an even denser palette of experience. But, as excellent as this piece is, it can't even begin to cover the myriad pleasures that await the listener throughout the album's duration...
I can only point out a few of the highlights, otherwise this would turn into a 10,000 word propaganda polemic. "Queen of Night" wins enormous marks for its transition from eerie, Jethro Tull flutes and acoustics to leaden, winding prog-metal grooves, bottom feeding bass ruptures and then it even explodes into this frenetic speed/thrashing sequence around the 4 minute mark. "Ridicula Swarm" begins with another engrossing, layered synthesizer sequence that transforms into a slew of violent riffing redolent of the band's earlier albums, and back again. "The Crossing" opens with a tranquil sensibility, tiny organs in the distance beyond its acoustics; but then flattens you with a massive wall of resilient electric melodies over an almost tribal foundation, Dirge Rep yet again proving that he's more than just a blaster on his swan song (with this band).
In fact, I think this is the best single album that guy has ever performed on, and not just for his technical ability, but contribution to the lyrics and writing. He even joins the band's internal choir for the intro to "Havenless", which is as swaggering, manly and memorable as you're going to get from anything even tangentially related to the Viking/folk metal scene. The musicianship of all parties involved is never less than stunning, but not just for its technical merits, but the impact of each individual sound. Like the kick drum and bass guitar in "A Darker Place" which create an uncanny, pounding sensation, or the constant contrast of Grutle's grisly bark with the cleaner, more refined melodies that surround it. Or the seemingly random electronic tangents fused into various tracks, which once again reflect the band's proggish influences. It should also be noted that the new guitarist here, Ice Dale is perhaps the perfect match for Ivar's playing.
Overall, Below the Lights represents a balance of brilliant ideas and meticulous execution, which I would deem utterly flawless were it not for the final track ("A Darker Place") slightly lagging behind its forebears in eloquence and compulsion. And by slightly, I mean that it's still superior to most of the other tracks in the band's backlog, it just feels like it's marginally shier in ideas and distinction than those leading up to it. But otherwise, this is mandatory material, less jarringly developed than Mardraum and more thematically consistent than Monumension. It looks good, it sounds superb, and it even reads wonderfully! Simple, searing imagery rooted in folklore is well integrated to the emotional shifts in the music. Once more, Enslaved proves that growth need not come at the expense of credibility, and this record remains a hallmark for 'progressive black metal' or whatever sonic niche you deem to place it.
Although- in my humblest of opinions- Enslaved has never played a 'typical' sound for black metal, it is an irrefutable fact that the band has made steps towards a more progressive and left-of-center sound with each new release. Before releasing what are now considered to be their greatest 'prog' albums, Enslaved experimented with the new prog rock elements with such albums as 'Monumension' and this; 2003's 'Below The Lights'. Personally, I have found that the band started off quite strong, but took some time to properly incorporate the prog fixtures into their sound. It is surprising then, that 'Below The Light's has worked out to become one of my favourite Enslaved records to date. Despite still sounding like a progressive metal that was still trying to get on their feet, Enslaved shows some of their greatest promised here, delivering the same ferocity they had starting out, with the new additions to create a record that is flawed, but all too pleasantly so. An excellent album from these Norwegian black metallers.
Although I am sure it will put off the orthodox black metal fans like a bad case of the bubonic plague, 'Below The Lights' starts off with a melancholic mellotron passage; a surprisingly effective way to lead the listener into the intense riffing to come. The closest comparison I could draw to this combination of styles would be Opeth, due to the fact that both bands combine black metal and prog rock, but don't necessarily blend the two as one. In other words, there are aspects of the mix that are uniquely 'prog' and others that stay true to Enslaved's roots. Regardless of this though, the sounds generally work together quite well, and when they don't, it seems to be more a fault of the album's rather inconsistent production, which is certainly cleaner than on Enslaved's earlier material, but it's sometimes muddy and flawed sounding recording makes it sound like the engineer was more of a weekend warrior than a full-time professional. Be this as it may, Enslaved's performance is none the lesser for it.
While I am quite a fan of the music that Enslaved makes, and has made over the past twenty years, their presentation of the music sometimes lacks the sort of bite that I would generally come to expect in black metal, and things are no different with 'Below The Lights'. Although nowhere near as big an offender as 'Isa' when it comes to sounding cold, the way the guitar riffs are played sometimes feel a little too by-the-numbers and lack some organic feeling that would have otherwise made the music come more alive. In the scheme of most of Enslaved's progressive albums though, this one is certainly performed with a greater level of intensity, and the music is made all the more enjoyable for it.
In terms of album flow, cohesion was certainly not the biggest priority on the band's agenda at this point, but the first six tracks flow with some nice precision. The first and sixth tracks ('As Fire Swept Clean The Earth' and 'Ridicule Swarm', respectively) both open up with similar mellotron passages, and it feels as if it gives this series of songs a nice 'beginning and finish' feeling to them. The seventh track is- of course- the true closer to the album, but in terms of listening to the album, it does feel as if it is left out from the way that the record was put together.
Enslaved's 'Below The Lights' is certainly flawed, and the flaws are pronounced enough to clearly identify them in my eyes. However, it is the added sense of organism that this album has that endears me to it above many other albums by the band. An excellent album from Enslaved, and a great marker of the band's progress up to this point in their career.
'Below the Lights' is an ironic title for this quirky release by the viking-crazy Enslaved; it quite easily represents the peak of their creativity during the second, more progressive half of their musical releases. At this point they've moved on from creating atmospherically dark albums such as 'Monumension' and 'Mardraum - Beyond the Within' and started to mix things up by using the tried and true formula of throwing random passages and sections at the listener whenever they damn well feel like it. As much as I'd like to lament this clichéd and embarrassing hack of an attempt at progressive music it works quite well, really well in fact. Enslaved have managed to utilise the ever-popular formula without being a bunch of cockwits about it, most likely because they don't simply insert gratuitously long and meandering melodic passages for the sake of lengthening songs nor do they get the spontaneous urge insert a section from a completely different genre of music with no real purpose except to give me the shits. There is method to their madness; the brutal death metal style breakdown in "As Fire Swept the Earth" is a perfect example, it comes right out of left field and clocks you in the bollocks, it proves to be a powerful combination thanks to the strength of the main riff and keyboard work. The military snare drumming break in "Havenless" is also another interesting example and in the case of that song is probably the only thing preventing it from being a total loss on all fronts except for the fucking awesome Nordic chanting.
But it's not all about the jack-in-the-box passage insertion technique, the majority of the songs flow smoothly from section to section without much fuss really. "Queen of the Night" starts off with some pansy but effective flutes before moving into a mid-paced riff that moves into an ass shredding solo! To be honest I didn't think they had it in 'em but they play decent solos when they need to. After that they move into a clean sections and then solo yet again! "Queen of the Night" is definitely one of the better songs, being highly instrument focused and moving through varied sections without feeling like you're running the 100m hurdles up a flight of stairs. "The Dead Stare" also mixes things up without being jarring, and contains a great solo which is ruined by the guitar tone being rather 'soft'. Most interesting however is the excessive use of samples, keyboards and clean vocals during the breaks in the second half of the song, this style serves as a forerunner to their far more progressive offerings 'Isa' and 'Ruun'. Whilst in this song it's not too bad, it could probably do without the weird samples which really don't offer anything constructive or talented for that matter.
"The Crossing" is a god-awful song, 9 minutes of bland as fuck riffing. This song is a notable sign of Enslaved losing the plot; it's just such a boring song, so boring it could probably put a coffee taste tester to sleep. The first 4 minutes contain some bland riffing, some acoustic work, and then not much until the vocals and the bland riffs kick in again. Some other wank happens towards the end but who cares since it's at the end and nobody wants to even sit through 'til the end. I'd almost call it some sort of horrid failure at an attempt of post-rock aesthetics but it's not even that, it's just shite progressive wank. "A Darker Place" is a good song, unfortunately during the first verses there are some of the most terrible keyboards I have heard in a long time; they sound like a crystal xylophone being played with a broom. As nitpicky as it is, especially considering the chorus is actually good, they are quite awkward and again serve as warning for what would come in the future.
'Below the Lights' was their first step in shedding even more of their black metal style whilst adapting more progressive aesthetics, and it strikes a very clear balance between the two without treading too deeply into either waters and sucking more than a Thai hooker on two for one Tuesdays. It's tragically hilarious to note that the band has gotten worse by abandoning black metal, well by abandoning too much of it's black metal history at least. Then again Emperor had hit their zenith with 'In the Nightside Eclipse' and then proceeded to water down their sound further by shedding the corpse paint and adopting more traditional elements that produced convoluted albums like 'Equilibrium IX'. Enslaved's ultimate downfall that would become readily apparent in their subsequent albums is having plenty of progressive elements but not enough black metal to give the music an appropriate atmosphere and frankly enough balls. At least this album will stand as a testament of just how talented this band can be; the powerful guitars backed by dark keyboards while rasped out vocals sing tales of vikings and Norse mythology.
Enslaved are one of the founding fathers of the genre known as viking metal, the lineup has gone through many changes over their illustrious career, yet with each release they manage to produce something new and original.
'Below the Lights' brings in elements of death metal and progressive metal along with the typical viking metal that Enslaved is known for.
As Fire swept clean the earth: This song is such a great way to start of this album, it begins with an interesting sound from the synthesizers, sort of like an old record player but with chords (hard to explain) but it fits perfect. This leads into this song, typical tremelo picking and screams, very nice. The song features interludes with chants and spoken vocals along with a more mellow guitar, before blasting back into the tremelo picking. About midway through the song, a death metal approach is taken, seemingly out of no where, this soon slows down to a mellow riff, with a short guitar solo. The song then blasts back into tremelo picking and finishes on the same opening to the song.
5/5 Great song
The Dead Stare: This song is a little more upbeat than the first, a mid paced riff along with good drumming here makes for a nice combination. Soon enough, there is a solo that fits in with the upbeat part of the song, even though the first part of the solo is a bit cliched. The solo leads right into an interlude, a very good one at that, this in turn leads into blasting tremelo picking with the drums balancing it all out. The song then takes another turn for the slower, sort of like parts on Arcturus' 'The Sham Mirrors.' The song then finishes by playing the same riffs from the beginning of the song, again.
3.5/5 A good listen.
The Crossing: Acoustic intro here, played very nicely, dwelling in both major and minor chords. Soon the acoustics are broken with some tremelo picking, and some synthesizers in the background for an extra dimension to the song. After this tremelo picking has taken effect, in comes another acoustic part, played to perfection. This same part is then played with distortion and drums, it sounds very good. About halfway through the song, the song picks up with a typical Enslaved riff, this really picks up the song. Good stuff all around. This part also includes spoken and chanted vocals. About 6 minutes in, there is a solo but it serves the purpose of a lead part here. Towards the end of the song, it really picks up before slowing down and fading out at the end.
4/5 Good track
Queen of the Night: This intro is very weird, almost jazzy mixing an acoustic guitar and a flute along with the drums going in the background. Leading into a nice, typical Enslaved riff. The next part (along with most of this song) incorporates lead parts and melody, very well executed. The solo in this song is one of the better ones on this cd. The first lyrics on this song are sung, and they are sung very well, i love this part. This next part really picks up the pace, intense drumming and very fast guitar riff, along with screams. This is more like the older stuff that Enslaved did, this is prove that they still have skill.
5/5 Probably my favorite track on the album, though it's hard to pick.
Havenless: This song starts off with a chant, with guitars blaring in the background, it makes for a very interesting intro. This goes on for a little, then into a typical Enslaved riff, with some palm muted stuff along with screams. Nothing bad here. Soon comes in a cool riff, somewhat like a Quo Vadis song, but slowed down and if you added in chants and wind. This part is very interesting. This goes on for quite a while before returning to the original riffs in the song. The song then ends the same way it started, with the chant.
3.5/5 Solid Song.
Ridicula Swarm: This song starts off with cello (synth) it's a very sad and depressing intro, i love the atmosphere that it gives off. The song then gets extremely fast, fast. A very fast song, with technical drumming and an awesome guitar riff. About halfway through the song, there is a symphonic interlude, along with clean guitars. This is quickly broken with viking chants and great guitarwork. This song rotates in and out of traditional viking metal and a more black metal approach.
5/5 In the running for best song on the album.
A Darker Place: A sort of slower guitar part to open this song along with some synth parts. The song then picks up a bit, along with great vocals here, they are sung particularly well. This song then goes into black metal mode, along with death metal growls. This song gets very fast at this point, good stuff. The song eventually returns to the parts with great vocals. At about 4:30 the song stops for a second and the sound of nature comes in, followed by a beatiful acoustic part. With some guitars in the background, nothing big though as the acoustic is still the main focus of the music. The song fades out with this acoustic part along with the guitar solo. This song ends on the sound of nature. Thus ending the album.
4.5/5 Awesome track
Brilliant album all the way around, though at times it can be a bit repetitive.
For a very long time now, Enslaved has been one of the most intriguing bands within the black metal scene. They originally carved their own niche into the scene with their addition of Viking styled clean vocals (which have sense become very popular), traditional Norwegian folk influences as well as classic 70’s progressive rock influences. Over the years Enslaved has evolved, leaving their many clones in the dust, as their music has become more and more progressive. Here we see Enslaved continue to climb that mountain, letting the progressive elements shine forth more then they ever have before. “Below the Lights” is a collection of original, dense, artistic and creative songs each with a completely different song structure and set of emotions then the previous. While most metal albums, including most of Enslaved’s previous works, tend to try and keep one overriding theme or atmosphere throughout (a style I am not attacking, as most of my favorite albums take this route) Enslaved has opted for a different route, allowing each track to create its own little world for the listener. With this new approach Enslaved has managed to create the best album of their career as well as the most interesting metal album of 2003.
“Below the Lights” begins with lush mellotrone, playing a sad melody, before the band kicks in. “As Fire Swept Clean the Earth” is equally beautiful, tragic and sorrowful. The riffs are rich with emotion and bring the lyrics to life. The listener can see their self standing atop a hill staring down on a village set a flame with the townspeople running every which way. The melancholic only lifts for a moment during the slow, thick, deathy segment in the middle of the song. The next song, “The Dead Stare” is extremely dark, in fact its one of the more wonderfully dark pieces of metal I have been fortunate enough to come across. After a groovy guitar solo the song pulls you into a dark world, as evil riffs wonderfully layered with a Hammond B3 organ surround the listener pulling them in deeper and deeper. “The Crossing” is slowly builds up from a lone acoustic guitar to an extremely atmospheric metal segment. Next the song alternates between black metal versus and clean choruses. The song concludes as a riff that can only be described as mystical builds up going faster and faster until it finally peaks. “Queen of Night” is another brilliant song. After a jazzy flute led intro, the song switches from rough black metal segments, atmospheric clean segments and extremely intriguing guitar soloing. This is probably the hardest song to get into on the whole album, but in the end is also the most rewarding. “Havenless” is probably the strangest track on here. An extremely catchy, crunchy riff with Viking chants and black metal rasps leads the song. The middle section contains a bunch of backwards vocals over another very tight, crunchy riff. Overall the song doesn’t come off as strong as its predecessors, but is enjoyable, nonetheless. “Ridicule Swarm” is a strong and full of furry. After starting with some atmospheric mellotrone, the band burst into a barrage of black metal aggression. The fury stops for a moment, when a less intense riff kicks in with Grutle’s excellent spoken Norwegian hymns. The highlight of “A Darker Place” is defiantly the ending, which sounds like Pink Floyd jamming in hell, absolutely phenomenal.
Overall Enslaved have managed to make an excellent album, filled with many different emotions, song structures, concepts and instruments. Though many bands put these different elements into use, very few pull it off as well as Enslaved has here. It’s nice to see that Enslaved have taken more then just musical influences from the progressive greats of the seventies, they have also taken on the attitude of constant musical progression, always stretching the boundaries and trying something new. As long as Enslaved keeps this mentality they should reach even more amazing peaks before their career is complete.
Wow. Was I surprised upon hearing this album or what? Not being an Enslaved superfan or anything - although I am creeping closer to that status after listening to [i]Below The Lights[/i] - I wasn't expecting anything as interesting and progressive-sounding as this. Having only heard their [i]Frost[/i] record from 1994, I had(unwisely) made the assumption this disc would sound something like the previous Enslaved material I had heard(abrasive and forceful, like a frostbitten horde of berzerkers ready to raze a village), never once heeding the words of more knowedgable metalheads, who said that Enslaved's last couple records were "really out there". While not as "out there" as I had expected, [i]BTL[/i] is definitely not as straightforward as one may have come to expect of black/viking metal. Enslaved make great use of not only non-traditional heavy metal instruments(check out the jazzy flute passage during the intro. to "Queen of Night"), but also the overused "epic sense" found in most of today's so-called "black" metal (Shagrath & co., I'm looking your way!). Enslaved accomplish this sense of majesty without drenching their music in keyboards and synths, as opening track "As Fire Swept Clean the Earth" shows; it's possible to create a sense of atmosphere and emotion with just the drone of the guitars(the lead guitar work on this one gives me the chills) and drums(alright, alright, so there's synths in the intro. to this song; at least they fit, and only appear again to close out the track). Standout tracks for this reviewer include "The Dead Stare" with it's awesome "thrash metal-meets-psychedelic rock" outro. riff (if you can keep from bopping your head along to this one, seek help), as well as the aforementioned "Queen..." and "As Fire...". "A Darker Place" ends off the disc nicely, with it's (gasp!) [i]Opeth[/i]-esque leanings, the soft-yet enticing guitar outro. leading one to wonder "what the hell will Enslaved do next?" Definitely one of my faves of 2003.