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If one cannot discern a spacious, evolutionary gulf between Below the Lights and its successor Isa, that's because there really isn't one, or rather that it's one of membership and studio finish, and not the actual breadth of composition itself. Released the following year, Isa maintains an audibly brighter perspective than the gloomy beauty of its next eldest sibling, a tangible sensation of gliding through some cloudy avian space rather than coarse earthen darkness. Dirge Rep had departed from the band, his kit filled by Cato Bekkevold who might best known from the industrial blackhearts Red Harvest, also of Norway. In addition, the band snatched a dedicated keyboard player in Herbrand Larsen, and this is the lineup which has survived up until the present day, and the one that has released what I'd argue to be the strongest material of their career.
Isa is NOT the strongest, mind you, but it's a pretty irresistible aesthetic stride into a sunnier space than its predecessor. Once more, the band is making great use of thick, streaming textures in their guitars, but this time out the warmth is magnified. For some, this will undoubtedly seem a turn-off just like any non-predatory elements in metal, but the band has not at all abandoned their parent genre, even if they are clearly moving into a more accessible terrain here. There is also a liberal use of guest musicians on this album, some playing rather important roles. For instance, Are Mundal performs the synthesizer intros and outros, both haunting ambient pieces that prove compelling book-ends to the Enslaved material. Abbath (Immortal), Nocturno Culto (Darkthrone) and numerous others contribute guest vocals, so if you were listening through and wondering where Grutle came up with these new 'tricks', well...he didn't. But none of these 'features' in any way provides an obstacle to the consistently attractive music.
Favorites for me include "Isa" itself, which canters along with a swaggering black & roll groove that would not sound out of place on one of the more modern Satyricon albums, then explodes into this textured, warm chorus which is almost impossible to forget. Similarly, the dense and melodic breaks woven through "Violet Dawning" cling to the memory like tarred angel feathers. "Neogenesis" stands out for the crisp, speed/thrash threads that somewhat reminded me of the later 80s material from Canadians Voivod, and though it's about 12 minutes long, with a bit of obvious excess fat, there is for the most part a good reason to stick with it, especially to hear all the little Floyd-like blues leads. I also found myself enamored of "Return to Yggradsil", with its writhing, warlike roots, and instrumental "Secrets of the Flesh", which is deceptively simplistic and savage, but succeeds due to the harsher ambient sounds affixed to the pummeling chord patterns.
Not all the songs are equally amazing, and I occasionally felt a sluggish reaction to pieces like "Lunar Force" and "Bounded by Allegiance", but even these are still superior to most of what I was hearing on a week to week basis in new music, and the entire 51 minute experience here proves admittedly consistent, if not so utterly absorbing as Below the Lights. I really like that they've brought Larsen on, as his pads seem quite tasteful in extracting a lot of those 70s and 80s prog aesthetics that Enslaved strive for. Conversely, I felt like some of the dual clean folk vocals bordered on cheesiness. Where in the past, they've always been used sparsely and to a great, brooding effect, there are some points on Isa where they grow a little too 'campfire', if you know what I mean. In all, though, these are small complaints in the grand scheme of the album, and even though some might balk at the 'happiness' here, Isa is nonetheless another winner for this tireless wonder of a band. Maybe not a Grand Prize, but close.
To say I have been anything but a big fan of Enslaved in the past would be an understatement. From my first impression with them on 'Vertebrae', through their next album 'Axioma Ethica Odini' and then through some of their early work as a legendary Norwegian black metal act, I've found myself more or less consistently impressed with the work that this band has put out, often pushing me to the point of calling their work masterful. In that sense, it is ironic that I come to what has been referred to me as being their 'greatest album' so late into knowing about the band. With 'Isa', Enslaved has certainly found much of their sound that they would eventually realize in greater depth with later albums like 'Vertebrae', but there's one crucial aspect lacking from this album to my ears; passion.
Of course, many casual listeners may take a look at black metal and dismiss it as mere 'noise' or 'screaming', but I have found that it is a genre of music that has a very deep potential for emotion and feeling. Not only in the compositions themselves, but also in the way that the musicians play the music. Here, I would admit that 'Isa' is full of great moments in which the band's skill for songwriting comes out clearly. With the exception of the lengthy closer 'Neogenesis' and two brief soundscapes, each track here is kept fairly to the point and concise.The end result is a batch of songs with lots of cool ideas thrown into the writing, but there is never the impression that Enslaved ever really let loose and let the madness take over.
Most clearly, this can be heard in the performance itself, which is about as straightforward Enslaved could possibly make it. The compositions- particularly one of my favorites 'Ascension'- sometimes have beautiful keyboard parts that are mixed well into the music, but the songs are usually centered in on the guitars and raspy vocals, both of which feel constrained and without feeling. Instead of letting dynamic, organic passion and the ferocity I generally associate with black metal through, the performances here are lifeless, which is a shame considering that many of the tracks here show potential to be something much greater.
The production here is certainly a large step up from the sound they had with such albums as 'Vikingligr Veldi' or their earliest demos, but still feels a little too clean and straightforward. I have really liked the way albums like 'Vertebrae' were produced, but on 'Isa', the heavily guitar oriented, mid-tempo metal feels too mechanical to get the good feeling across. Instead, the strength lies in the arrangements and composition of the music, which is generally very good. Although the musicianship here is by-the-numbers and blank, I find that the guitar tones here work very well for the sound, and the keyboard nuances are mixed perfectly in with the music, always coming in at the perfect time to create extra melodies, and never being overdone.
Unfortunately, this has been the only time thus far I have been greatly disappointed with Enslaved's work thus far, having it been recommended to me as their crowning achievement. Cold, mechanical, yet intelligently written black metal.
So this was the first Enslaved album I heard – not a bad representation of their new sound; then again it isn’t the most current. A lot of fans prefer the older works, but so far this is the latest I’ve heard; I actually like it more than say the first two albums. The formula remains unchanged, but the execution is far beyond cute. Instead of pure atmosphere and chaotic drives to flush out the tracks, we’re given more electronic influence and an edgier attitude – the outcome is more bizarre than I could have imagined.
Of all Enslaved’s progressive years, this album sounds the most strange to me – the foggy production, frantically thin riffs, eerie keys, and the gloomy / false hope tone are giveaways. It’s like the album was a “secret project” that found itself smashed between the more “complete“ albums of Below The Lights and Ruun. It’s hard to follow such an album lyrically – something I more than never pay attention to for peace of mind. However, the catch is to get lost in the songs; what I mean is this: this album is like an insane person’s thoughts set into a plot format, with us (the listener) taken on this odd journey. I know Enslaved are capable of writing compelling lyrics, but the complex music speaks louder than what’s on paper.
While all the instruments are respectably heard on all tracks (when they play a role), their duties are convoluted in no small part: guitars are extremely hypnotic on distorted and clean parts, bass is like a demon with tourettes, and the vocals are frenzied when screaming / growling and tranquil / vibrant when clean. Drums seem to be organic and unaffected by such a spell, but the make-up for lies with the awe-inspiring keys. They’re like a nymph – totally in control over your mind, body , and behavior. In dominant songs like “Ascension,” they’re trance and vibrancy is captivating over the lunacy with the rest of the band. They’re used more in a psychologically serene way than in an overly gay way. Even their subtle impact on the track after with the dominant guitar spasms show them to be in control.
Riff wise, “Bounded By Allegiance” also tops the others – that’s the only rational part. Repetition usually works for doom, but here it lures us deeper into the depths of our imaginations. In my opinion, the pinnacle of both important players (guitars and keys) occurs on “Return To Yggdrasil;” drums have a catchy, tribal style here. The two main instruments compose themselves suitably with the production by issuing more of a spellbinding soundscape than anything else. It invigorates a person with a greater sense of warmth and longing – coated by Grutle’s soothing an deep clean vocals / sporadic cries, and we’re on the edge of sanity. “Neogenesis” is a longer progression of this take, but I find it to be less concentrated than “Return To Yggdrasil.”
PS – Towards the end of “Lunar Force” Lemmy from Motörhead makes a cameo! Then I read that it was actually Abbath and went back to my Mountain Dew.
Ever-changing, ever-developing, and never the same album twice; that is Enslaved. Enslaved, one of the most over looked and best second wave black metal bands, as well as one of the few ones in modern times that have kept their shit together and produced challenging and impressive albums time and time again. For me, every Enslaved recording contains something I like, the dazzlingly long songs off their amazing debut, the epic almost power metal approach of Eld and Blodhemn, or the more prog metal styling of everything from Mardraum and on; they all have their merit and particular value, some more than others. One of those "some more than others" cases is Isa.
While being one of mine, if not my all time favorite albums, Isa is as emotionally spellbinding and enthralling, as it is catchy and freezing to the touch. Yes, it's their unique mixture of prog-black metal, or post-black metal, or whatever you call it, yet it produces a cold, biting, and somber atmosphere, something countless "grim" bm bands strive for. Everything is in sync on this album, not one misplaced riff, not one shaky vocal line; this album is absolute and extremely well composed.
Lunar Force is a perfect example of Enslaved's mastery over song writing. A simplistic tremolo picked melody remains constant as a simple, yet jarring and arrhythmic piano part is played on top of off-kilter drumming which combines with the passionate and powerful vocals for an attention demanding beginning to the album and overall amazing song.
On paper, this album looks like any other favorite of mine: powerful, diverse, and extremely well executed vocals, catchy, melodic guitar riffs, talented and complex drum work, and a strong atmosphere, but it is so much more then that.Songs like "Lunar Force" as well "Bounded By Allegiance" really show off Enslaved at their strongest, and brightest moments. As far as I'm concerned, "Bounded By Allegiance" is the best song they've ever written (that's saying a lot if you don't know Enslaved well, being that every album has a handful of amazing songs). The build-up, and powerful apex of the song along with the enchanting slower midsection of the song and the vibrant, but violent sounding double bass section make this song a bit multifaceted but cohesive. Admittedly, the song isn't too complex, but then again that's always been Enslaved's style. Whether it's the beautiful and somber sections like at 1:51, the gripping and venomous vocal of the section like 2:40 or the magnificent and awe inspiring buildup at 5:07, which explodes to one of my favorite riffs and an awesome solo at around 5:40. My explanation does this no justice, please if anything at least just listen to this song, dismiss what you will but listen to this song.
Enslaved does an excellent job with maintaining a frosty atmosphere, with a chilling guitar tone and little synth effects here and there that sound as if ice had its own melody. The production is just clean enough to give that slick and cold as ice feel that everything carries, yet not so clean that it makes it devoid of any human aspect. The vocals dominate each track, yet never drowning anything out and giving equal spotlight to the guitar and drums. Grutle has always been a favorite of mine, his black metal rasps are matched by one, his clean bellows are powerful as they are majestic as well as his more death metal growls contain a ferociousness only matched by a polar bear (couldn't avoid the cold weather animal comparison, heh). His voice is always in tune with what is going on, he is far from the style of someone like Attila who has a more free-from to his voice, yet Grutle's vocals never feel constricted to the structure or sound of the track; he reaches a perfect equilibrium with the rest of the band.
I like to view this as the pinnicale of Enslaved's ever-growing career. While they still have decent output (RUUN had some great tracks, notably "Entroper" and
"Essence" and, well Vertebrae hasn't gotten a real chance in my rotation) Isa will always be their best to me. There's enough black metal guitar work and vocals, as well as atmosphere, but then there's enough progressive elements in the drums(more integrated and interesting drum work, no blast beats, not regular snare on 2&4 and what have you), as well as the guitar playing, vocals, and use of synth. A song like "Violent Dawning" is a great example, the part at 1:24 for example. One of the best screams i have ever heard erupts and yet a somber, almost post-rock sounding riff and nice majestic keys along with a simple, but constant double bass drum pattern make for a deeply moving and powerful section of the song, one that showcases the blend of Enslave's history.
I cannot see how anyone can mark this as boring, being for the most part, Enslaved had drifted away from the super long songs that created a trance of keys, blast beats, and tremolo guitar work and opted for a stronger focus on structure and development of the particular song. The vocals are constantly developing throughout the album, never repeating the same tone more than they should, but not fearing to stray from a safe zone of repetition. The same can be for the great riffs present. Enslaved exhibit just the right amount of "proggyness" no spastic changing whatever they're playing every 10 seconds, yet never hammering any melody into the ground until it becomes boring and painful to listen to.
Isa is a whole, and sound album, a connect the dots, so to speak of how to incorporate a progressive element into an orthodox genre and not sound pretentious, water downed or just shitty. The last track exemplifies this better than I ever could. The mid-paced clean vocals and relaxed guitar playing give way to Grutle's ravenous black metal rasps and a thrash drum beat kicks in paving the way for a catchy yet, ultimately metal sounding riff; which then drops away to a beautiful and traditional metal/rock sounding solo. The album is full of change and development: none of it bad.
Isa is able to pull away from the boring and "too proggy" parts of the 2 albums before it, yet avoids the mellow and restrained vibe of the 2 albums that follow after it. The right mix of aggression, catchy melodies, atmosphere, and an overall sense of tranquility complete this album and make it the most developed and powerful Enslaved album out there. On a personal note i usually hate anything remotely deemed as "progressive" but as you can see this album had a significant impact upon me, so be open when approaching it.
Highlights, "Bounded By Allegiance," "Violent Dawning," "Reogenesis," and "Lunar Force."
What does a band do once they've created a masterpiece like 'Below the Lights'? Do they try and find other ways of scaling the awesome mountain or do they plateau out for a couple of albums and hope people eat 'em right up? Enslaved chose the third option; cock it all RIGHT UP. 'Isa' was produced with no real direction in mind it seems, it is a progressive and fun little journey but it just doesn't do anything and when contrasted with their previous album it's shite. Enslaved begun to shed even more of their black metal imagery and style with this release and as a result the songs have become a bit shorter and now have gapping spaces where real fucking riffs should be. 'Ascension' was produced from this idea of simply filling the gaps with keyboards and clean passages, now this would work in juxtaposition with harsh sections or more conventional structures but for the most part it's alternating simply between harsh and clean vocals with either prevalent guitars, which do nothing but strum out insipid chords, or keyboards that wouldn't sound out of place in a laser light show back in the 80's.
Unfortunately a lot of the album is just that. I can respect bands that want to move away from their beginnings or try to expand their horizons by introducing new elements into their music but there's a limit to how much you can achieve before everything comes crashing down, and for Enslaved it was as though they had built their lumbering, but awesome juggernaut with a skeletal structure made from soufflé. Their indulgence of keyboards and clean sections ruined what could have been a potentially epic album because progression seems to equate with songs that go nowhere and make no fucking sense. The final song "Reogenesis" is actually pretty awesome because of all the sections it progresses through; it's the seafood platter of progressive black metal I suppose. The song has a large enough momentum to keep going but mixes it up and keeps you guessing without being jarring, quite the achievement. Songs like "Isa" fall terribly short due to using fruity keyboards, simple song structure and shite riffs. The keyboards in this particular album are extremely awkward, even in the better parts of the album; their sound is very off-putting regardless of the music it is backing up or even fronting. It's hard to describe but the word sci-fi comes to mind despite not being a very good adjective for fucking music, but still it sounds rather extraterrestrial and out there rather than the dark and brooding keyboards of albums past. The keyboards are the equivalent to cancer for this album; they multiply with frightening speed and begin to poison all the good elements the band once poured into songs like "Convoys to Nothingness" and "Queen of Night".
It all boils down to the loss of atmosphere for Enslaved, they stop producing music with discernable emotion and weight to it; preferring to peddle progressive but penultimately pathetic songs that meander about thanks to the mediocre riffs they write backed by bizarre and distracting keyboards. This tradition would continue with 'Ruun', at the very least they had realised their error of neglecting the guitars and produced a few good riffs and a solo or two; "Fusion of Sense and Earth" comes to mind in particular. 'Isa' isn't a complete failure; other than the final song there are a few talented tracks that manage to combine black metal sensibilities with progressive elements, "Lunar Force", or are simply a few okay riffs and ideas strung together to fill the void between the longer songs, "Secrets of the Flesh" and "Violet Dawning". Of course people will say otherwise, "You just don't get this album" they'll recite ad infinitum, hoping that my ass will spontaneously combust by the combined power of their chanting. I will say that 'Isa' is an adventurous but greatly underwhelming progressive album, but the day I say it's a fucking brilliant album is the day I proceed to jam two benzene-coated whiteboard markers up my nose whilst breathing heavily from a paper bag full of asbestos fibres coated in anthrax.
I know a lot of people don’t like the way certain bands have changed their style of music over the past few years, but sometimes it’s actually for the better. I say this because I feel that Enslaved are one of those bands that have changed for the better. I am a very big fan of this band and consider them one of my favorite bands ever. I liked their early Black/Viking metal albums, but I actually like their past four albums a lot more, especially their latest opus, Isa.
I’ve had the album since it was released and I still can’t stop listening to it. I compiled a list of albums that were my favorite of 2004, and this one was near the top. It’s an outstanding release and quite possibly my favorite release by Enslaved. But I made this list before I really sat down and listened to this album. So if I had the time back, this album would easily be number one.
When I first heard the album before this one, Below The Lights, I was amazed. I didn’t think that the band could get any better than that. I was wrong. They blew me away with Isa. There aren’t a lot of albums that hold a great power over me and keep listening to it over and over. But Isa managed to do this.
The progressive element they used on this album was great, and it was even better with the combination of black metal. The riffs were very well done and kept me listening. But then again, Enslaved have always had great riffs in their songs. But there is just something magical about this album. It’s hard to explain but it’s far better than I had anticipated. I guess that shock element comes into play, because I did not expect an album as good as good as this.
One of the many things I really enjoy about this album is how well and fluently the songs run together. At some points you just get absorbed by the music and you have no idea that the songs are changing and that can be a good thing.
Another thing that really stands out about this release, other than the style change and additions of keys, is Grutle’s vocals, especially his clean vocals. They are all over the place on this album and that makes me happy because I love his clean vocals! For example, near the ending of track four, Ascension, his clean vocals at a certain point give me the chills each and every time I hear it. And there aren’t a lot of vocalists that can do that to me, so I guess that’s a pretty good compliment to Grutle, haha.
Another standout on this album is the guitar work. It’s not just the heavy riffs on this album that are outstanding, but the acoustic riffs and leads are outstanding as well. Take the last 5 or 6 minutes of Neogenesis, they use a lot of bluesy-type guitar solos which are just… wow! Or the acoustic guitars that they use under the electric guitars in Return To Yggdrasil. I know a lot of bands use this, but I think it fits beautifully with the ups and downs in this song in particular.
So needless to say, Enslaved have outdone themselves with this latest album. Chances are, if you’re not a fan of bands who constantly change their style, then you won’t like this album. But for those of you that like Enslaved no matter what, this is a must have!
3 favorite tracks: Isa, Ascension, Neogenesis.
This guys take a lot of risks in their music. From Viking/Black Metal to Progressive Black Metal, you really have to admire this guys for doing something unique and different for the genre.
Isa is an album that still has that Black Metal spirit, but experiments using riffs and drum patterns from other genres as well. Enslaved has always been a band with no limits, and are not afraid to add their own spice. Here are my descriptions for some of Isa’s songs:
“Intro: Green Reflection”: Kind of a tecno-ish intro. Nothing much I have to say about it, it’s cool.
“Lunar Force”: The first time I heard this song, I thought Enslaved had gone doom on this album, cause some of the riffs on this song just seem too depressive, I don’t know if it’s just me, or if it’s true, but that sense of doom gives the songs kinda of dark feel to it, and it helps build suspense for when the hard parts start to rip through your stereo.
“Isa”: My second favorite song on the album. This song has a romantic element to it, I guess because the lyrics are talking about a women his trying to forget, I dunno, but that’s what I got from reading them. Anyway, the song follows the typical song structure “verse, chorus, verse, chorus”, even with that in mind it’s still a good song, and the lyrics are pretty cold if you read them carefull, and in my case I can relate to them, something I couldn’t do other bands that only write Satanic mambo-jumbo.
“Return To Yggdrasill”: My favorite song, this song just radiates some kind of tranquility when the acoustic parts kick in. It leaves me in a kind of trance that slowly, but surely, takes me into the hard riffs of the song. This song features clean vocals that are just great, no complaints there, and of course the Black Metal vocals that are just as good. Everytime I hear this song it takes me away in some kind of day dream, how many songs do that!? Especially a BM song?!?! Come on!!
“Secrets of the Flesh”: An instrumental track, it follows the same riffs, but their nice and have a rock n’ roll feel to them.
“Reogenesis”: The longest song in the album, and also the longest. It starts with clean vocals and a slow beat, but after some time, the song kicks in into high gear with it’s blues-influenced riffs, and that is a pretty nice touch, it kinda helps giving the song a spacey-ambient feel. At the end of the song that’s when you can really hear the blues-riffs take over, making the listener just how diverse and unique Enslaved are. And oh yeah, at the end of the song you get to hear another set of those trance-inducing riffs!!
The rest of the songs I didn’t cover are great too, just that this songs are the ones I liked the most. Let’s hope Black Metal will follow Enslaved’s footsteps.
Oh, the joy of listening to a new Enslaved disc. Enslaved have made some massive musical in roads since their formation in1991. However, if anything is assured with this mob of Norwegians, it’s their unpredictability.
Sticking steadfast to their ‘odd-ball’ nature, Enslaved have returned once again with ‘Isa’, an album that proves to be just as innovative and accomplished as anything they have done over the past dozen years. Certainly since the psychedelic, prog-like exploration first tackled on ‘Monumension’ and brought so eloquently to fruition on last years superb ‘Below the Lights’, ‘Isa’ marches to the same, yet ever so distinctive tune.
The progressive nature expected of this band is very much a given nowadays, their musical path continues on a upward trajectory whilst still maintaining a base line link to their halcyon black metal roots. Believe me ‘Isa’ is still a black metal album, but like Arcturus and to a lesser extent Borknagar, Enslaved present a much more sophisticated and accomplished form of the music. Fans of Carpathian Forest won’t find prog-laden intricacies to their liking, but hey, Enslaved were never a straightforward Black Metal band anyway.
Like their previous material, ‘Isa’ is rife with that dark, ice-cold Viking atmosphere we’ve all embraced so willingly. ‘Isa’ also proves that Enslaved still refuse to play by the rules – there are moments on this disc where you could be forgiven for thinking Grutle and co have opted for a ‘steady as she goes’ approach, but then true to form, the changes of direction and almost awkward but no less enthralling appear with striking unpredictability. There are challenging twists and turns embedded everywhere on this.
The band also continues to use the subtle combination of lighter, psychedelic, spacey, whatever you want to call it sections that open up their whole progressive, quirky musical nature even further. The production, like their runic title (symbolizing ice) is harsh and bleak to the very bone, yet this is superbly offset by the use of well layered 70’s moog/keys to provide that oh so grand and epic like Viking atmosphere.
It seems there is no stopping this band. They are still as dynamic as ever and even more unpredictable. In terms of providing value for money, Isa is worth every cent – Enslaved have made sure they continue to progress. This sounds like an Ensalved album no question, but not once can you accuse the band of rehashing a formula. ‘Isa’ is savvy as hell in the song writing, innovative and dynamic to its very end. In a year of some outstanding releases, ‘Isa’ is easily one of the more ‘essential’ ones you need.
Originally written for www.pyromusic.net