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Each time I visit this album, I'm more convinced that this is Enslaved's finest album. There are days where Axioma Ethica Odini and even Vertebrae might stand to dispute that claim-- at least in my eyes. Nonetheless, I don't think it would be fair to peg a different album as the one that made Enslaved everything they are.
Below the Lights is a masterpiece, and part of me thinks it's the result of the album being in the right place and time. Look at the band's output chronologically to see what I mean. On Mardraum and Monumension, Enslaved were lunging out of their shells as a undisputedly progressive band. I have a lot of respect for both albums, but as time's gone on, I've come to see them as transition pieces. Enslaved knew what they wanted to do, but it came across roughly. However brilliant the music was in large part, Mardraum in particular always comes off as an overcrowded mess with too much to prove. It would take a few years before the band became masters of the ideas they wanted to express, but they would get there.
I know there are fans that hail Isa (directly following Below the Lights) as the band's masterpiece, but it's never a feeling I've shared. Rather, in the albums after this, I actually believe Enslaved went too far with their control. Even the latter-era albums I loved sound like they've been brushed over with a fine-toothed comb. The blackened aura I loved on the early material was washed away. To call Below the Lights the "best of both worlds" wouldn't serve to express the inspiration they delivered this time around, but it might suggest why this one stands above the rest. However consistent they've been over their career, there have always been issues holding the band back, and it took an album like this one to prove just how good they could be.
Below the Lights is the only Enslaved album I could think of as a masterpiece from both a black metal or progressive standpoint. Other albums made compromises between one or the other. Below the Lights finally made due on their promise to marry the two genres as one. The album's unforgettable opener, "As Fire Swept Clean the Earth", demonstrates it superbly from the start. The intro is awash in vintage mellotron, as if Enslaved drew directly from a page out of Genesis' "Watcher of the Skies" off the classic Foxtrot and willed to twist it with black metal murk. Which they do, of course. The riffs here are thick and aggressive, and unlike most of their other albums, the production is rightly organic. Even Grutle Kjellson's throaty screams, which do little for me most times, have a fierceness to them you might assume had been muted by their proggy twist.
While the golden ratio between styles is a big part of why this album works so well, it would mean little if Enslaved had lacked for creative fire. When all of the songs included are full-bodied and distinctive, it's quickly obvious this isn't the case. While they've always been talented songwriters, this may be the most consistent batch of tracks ever released under the Enslaved banner. All of the tracks here offer a distinctive character. "The Dead Stare" follows the pummelling opener with quick-footed riffs and unexpected sonic interruptions of the space-kraut variety. "The Crossing" is a sweeping epic, replete with Opethian acoustics. "Queen of Night" is simultaneously one of the proggiest yet most oppressive tracks they've ever penned, so it's no wonder why it's a favourite for me on this album. Following that with Viking might come "Havenless", the black "Ridicule Swarm" and psychedelic "A Darker Place", I don't think there's a weak moment on this album.
It might be said that the final two tracks on this album don't quite live up to the par of the rest, but even then, I'd be hard-pressed to agree on most days. After all, "Ridicule Swarm" is host to one of my favourite ideas on the entire album (that part beginning around 3:15) and "A Darker Place" as a distinct Porcupine Tree glean to it that I cannot argue against. This may be the only point in Enslaved's career where they could do no wrong. Of course, that leads to the tragic element of this album; as quickly as they found their golden ratio, they abandoned it. I can't complain about a band continuing to evolve-- after all, that's the reason they're still successful-- but I don't think Enslaved will ever beat the masterstroke they achieved on Below the Lights.