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I count myself amazed that my opinions can change so wildly given enough years. I used to be a devoted Enslaved listener-- far more than I am now, admittedly. They did more than fuse black metal with progressive rock; they demonstrated how organically an artist's sound could change over time, and all of the steps were interesting in their own right. Above anything else however, I preferred the two polar ends of their career, that being the prog metal phase from 2008's Vertebrae onward, and the frigid black metal glory I considered to have ended in '97 with their third LP Eld. For whatever reason, I initially condemned Eld as the ushering in of an appropriately middling mid-period that did little to move me. I thought this was the point where Enslaved had supposedly lost their edge. Well, it doesn't happen often, but there are times where I consider myself fortune to be wrong. This is one of them.
Ironically, as my appreciation of Eld has grown upon revisiting the discography of these guys, my opinion towards the earlier work has waned. Why is it that I had thought Eld sounded thin compared to Frost years ago, and feel the total opposite these days? If there is anything from my initial impression that still rings true, it's that Eld strikes me as a polished combination of their first two albums. The Norse orchestrations and complexity of Vikingligr veldi met their match in the blackened grit of its successor. It was interesting to hear Enslaved playing two wildly different sounds within 6 months of each other-- and in that order, no less! Listening to Eld now however, I have no doubt that the two approaches complement each other. Not that Vikingligr veldi ever lacked for energy, but it's a greater joy to hear that album's guided approach fuel far better riffs than were heard on either of the first two albums.
There were three years between Eld and the first pair of albums. Despite spending the arse-end of the Second Wave in relative silence, it's clear that they didn't spend the time idly. It's often hard to believe that Enslaved were a trio at this point in their career. Although I'm sure concessions would be made for their live shows, the arrangements are remarkably well fleshed out. Although they arguably went overboard with the 1970s homage on latter albums, it's fascinating how Eld manages to imply prog-inspired ambitions without bending over for any of the genre's tropes. The only exception, possibly, is the 16 minute "793 (Slaget om Lindisfarne)", an epic devoted to the raid that arguably began what is known as the Viking age. It's fitting that Enslaved chose such a significant event to cast a shadow over Eld. Unlike a lot of other albums (including some in Enslaved's own catalogue), the Norse themes never serve to slow down the music's pace. Grutle's clean vocals are remarkably evocative here, far moreso than Herbrand Larsen's tepid cleans on recent albums. Harald Helgeson does a much better job fitting in the band behind the drumkit than the frantic Trym Torson (see: Emperor) did on the last album. More than anything, Ivar Bjørnson raised the bar with his riffs on Eld. He actually manages to make his riffs sound more biting by fleshing out the rawness on Frost with technique and melody.
Listening to it now, there's a part of me that now misses the golden ratio Enslaved struck on Eld. It's wild to think I once thought of this album as a low-point in their career. The overly clean direction post-Below the Lights almost belittles the intelligence they could demonstrate without it. While they hadn't yet reached their peak with this one, it should be enough to say that this is the first album where their reach finally caught up with their noble ambitions.