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Enslaved is a band that has never been afraid to push the envelope. They arose out of the 2nd wave of Norwegian black metal, along bands like Mayhem, Burzum, and Darkthrone. Enslaved at first played much the same kind of black metal - viking themed straight-ahead blast-beat filled black metal. Enslaved, however, unlike the rest of their ilk, was never content to keep playing the same kind of music for any length of time and began to experiment with other sounds and themes to their music, constantly growing and changing - something that has both gained and lost them many fans. Enslaved today cannot really even be called a black metal act, as they have been slowly evolving further and further away from the kind of sound that they started off with, moving further and further into the world of progressive metal while still retaining an air of their viking roots. The change has not been swift by any means, and they have released many albums between 1991 and the present with a heavy black metal vibe but some really interesting influences and experimentation. Between 2001-2003 they released 3 of the most compelling works in their library - Mardraum: Beyond the Within, Monumension, and Below the Lights. All 3 are brilliant works in their own right, but today I'll be reviewing Monumension, which I picked up at War on Music in Winnipeg.
Monumension is a wall of an album. There is so much going on here that it's hard to know where to start when comprising an opinion, let alone a critical review on such an album. Nothing quite like this has been made before or since in my knowledge, so there is not a lot to compare it to. Monumension is essentially what happens when Norwegian Vikings with a flair for the experimental listen to way too much Pink Floyd. Yeah...exactly...
Enslaved have brought something to life here that is truly special. It retains a lot of the viking black metal style that helped make Enslaved popular, but blends it so perfectly into a 70's prog type feel that it's hard to believe no one has done this before. Everything just flows smoothly, like a bunch of tie-dye wearing vikings smoking a hookah on an ice flow riding down a river of blood.
It would take more than the space I have to go into each track in depth, so I'll pick some moments I found particularly memorable. The second track, "The Voices", begins with a killer black metal riff that continues to surface throughout the song, tying together the metal "majority" of the song with the bluesy riffs and synthesizer melodies that emerge throughout. The song maintains the feeling of an ass-kicking viking metal track, but also begins to reveal some of what is to come later on in the album. "Hollow Inside" is the first real dose of the Floydian influences at play here. Vocalist Grutle Kjellson takes on a very ethereal, dreamy tone as his vocals float about proggy blues riffs and keyboard melodies. It reminds me of kind of a Steven Wilson channeling Roger Waters voice, that suits the music perfectly. Half way through the song it builds and suddenly explodes in a very heavy version of what was previously playing accompanied by heavy, intricate drumming, guitars, and Grutle's very doomy sounding vocals. The change in pace is sudden, but flows so perfectly it gives me the chills every time I hear it.
"The Cromlech Gate" is probably my favourite track on the album. This track is heavy in a doomy sort of way, with vocals more reminiscent of doom/stoner metal than black metal a slow, prodding series of riffs that truly give you a mental image of the aforementioned tie-dye vikings coming across a monumental stone gate, adorned with gargoyles, impaled corpses, and a foreboding message of doom to any who traverse it, while being a little too high to deal with the situation. This song is just brilliant and serves as the perfect central point to the album. "Enemy I" has some really interesting overlays of spoken word with growled vocals, as well as harmonizing of high and low harsh vocals, over a very straight ahead viking metal style riff.
"The Sleep: Floating Diversity" is the other true standout track on the album. This song has a lot of sounds and vocal sections that sound straight off of "The Wall" and truly encompasses the influences behind the album as a whole. Grutle sounds exactly like Roger Waters in some parts of this song, so much so I thought it was a different vocalist at first. This song perfectly plays out the album and trails off into "Outro: Self-Zero" (which didn't need to have its own track IMO).
(Oh, there's also that weird viking chanting track, "Sigmundskvadet", that totally doesn't fit the album, but it's a bonus track, so I'm not counting it)
In closing, this album is the embodiment of genius when it comes to blending two very separate genres of music. It's works like this one that go to show how far separated Enslaved is from their peers in the Norwegian music scene - a band that has evolved, while still remembering their roots, bringing progressive viking metal to life in new ways with each release. If you're new to Enslaved I would recommend this album or their 2003 "Below the Lights" as a starting point, as both albums really show off their instrumental and compositional chops. Whichever you would choose doesn't change the fact that Monumension is a landmark album and should be owned by any progressive metal enthusiast.