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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.