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On paper at least, Enslaved would appear like a dream come true to me. Unlike a lot of others, who got their start in black metal through Darkthrone and Bathory, I initially became interested in the genre because a fervent obsession with progressive rock ultimately led me there. Keeping in mind this is going back almost a decade ago, I may have expected a band like Enslaved to bridge the gap between sounds for me.
Strangely enough, where it was actually more abstract black metal acts like Deathspell Omega and Blut aus Nord that finally sold me, there are stretches of Enslaved's extensive career that have always left me cold for one reason or another - at least colder than the popular opinion would tend to indicate is normal. Of these, Isa's possibly the most frustrating. I know black metal fans and proggers alike that rank it among the best of the new millennium. Is there something I'm missing here? Isa is as crisp and refined an album as they come, but for its many strengths, it missed out on the essential blackened atmosphere I'd hope to have heard on it.
Isa unfortunately represents one of those albums where I'm usually quick to criticize whenever it comes up. Very few things about it actually strike me as being weak, but in light of the lavish praise fans heap upon it, I usually feel like the odd one out. Although the proggy influence was apparent as early on as Vikingligr veldi, Isa (released a decade after the debut) finally brought Enslaved to the point where the lines between genres were blurred. Compared to the Floydian homages in Mardraum and Monumension, Isa embraces the complete fusion of those elements. With it came an extremely modern-sounding production sheen. The comparisons I could make between this and Blackwater Park are many. For Enslaved and Opeth alike, these albums represented the point where their maturation came full-force. The progressive draw ceased to be experimental, instead coming off as a second nature derived from what they'd grown up listening to. This ultimate maturation isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the integration of these elements doesn't sound as daring as it did on their less polished efforts.
This wasn't a one-way street for Enslaved. My favourite albums from Enslaved lie on both chronological sides of Isa. The polished sophistication would lead them to masterpieces with Vertebrae and Axioma Ethica Odini. In a way, Isa may have represented a more daring risk towards alienating the blackened sector of their fanbase, but the potential of progressive rock was put to far better use later on. For the sake of Isa, you can tell the prog influences run deep and heavy here, but the wild potential of their sound is kept on a very tight leash. I've joked a few times that Enslaved are the AC/DC of progressive black metal. The comparison has nothing to do with the latter's waning quality so much as the incredibly clean way their otherwise heavy music is executed. Whether Isa may be seen as black, Viking, progressive, whatever, there's an overwhelming sense that Isa was recorded with too much emphasis on refinement and clarity. The guitars sound ridiculously controlled for a black metal album, and the dominant mid-pace of the music serves to intensify the issue. On the other hand, in spite of this overly refined sound, Isa surprisingly manages to nail an organic, warm-sounding production.
I remember being bored to tears of Isa when I first heard it in high school. As years have gone on, my appreciation has grown in some ways, stagnated in others. In particular, the songwriting has stood out to me more on more recent listens. Although "Lunar Force" and "Isa" strike me as overplayed by this point, the album's deep cuts have plenty to offer. "Ascension", "Violet Dawning" and the twelve minute "Neogenesis" have become some of my favourite Enslaved songs. The tendency for slower songs doesn't interest me on average as much as the biting early material, but Isa has more going on for it than I first gave it credit for. Even so, my lasting impression of Isa is as the overgrown "middle child" of Enslaved's canon. It may have brought new maturity to their sound, but it would be a couple of albums still before they finally became masters of it.