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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."