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Whether it's been as major leaps or cautious developments, each and every album in Enslaved's discography has felt like a natural development on what came before it. I haven't been as big into their sound as I once was, but I consider their massive reputation well-earned. Much of their career has been defined by their steady, if sometimes tumultuous, ascent towards a progressive rock haven. The overt transformation began in 2000 on Mardraum - Beyond the Within, and was arguably completed a near-decade later with Vertebrae. It was finally at that point where Enslaved had internalized the proggy mindset they'd seen fit to emulate for most of their career together.
Everything following (and including) Vertebrae constitutes Enslaved as a fully-grown prog metal entity. A lot of the testiest legwork was done on Vertebrae. Since then, it doesn't seem like it's ever been so easy for these guys to churn out one excellent record after another. I haven't been discrete about my love for Axioma Ethica Odini; it was one of the safest bets in their discography, but it hit all the right marks. I think Enslaved must have liked what they had done on that album, because RIITIIR does a lot to recreate the experience of Axioma Ethica Odini. It's a meatier sounding record by all accounts, but this album signified that Enslaved had finally found a sound they were comfortable with sticking in.
I suppose with listening to a band like Enslaved, the excitement of hearing a band development was an inherent part of the experience. Despite now being proggier than ever before, the sense of musical adventure was lot around the time of Axioma Ethica Odini. With that said, they've been releasing some of the sharpest material of their career since then. When RIITIIR came out, I was hit with a lot of the same awe I felt when I first heard Axioma, or even Vertebrae for that matter. Enslaved operate as a fairly well-oiled machine at this point, and while I think I'll always miss that feeling of exploring fresh territories with them, there's a different sort of joy in hearing them playing exactly the kind of music they were meant to make.
If anything distinguishes RIITIIR from its predecessor, it's that the production and performance got even livelier. Their restrained sterility held me back from really loving the Isa-era material, and it was finally on Axioma that they reintroduced fire back into their sound. RIITIIR isn't a major step forward in any direction, but you can tell they were becoming ever-increasingly comfortable with the idea of letting loose within a prog context. The musicianhip is still a precise as ever, but there's something about RIITIIR's sound that sounds very earthy and full. The slow, starting riffs to "Thoughts Like Hammers" sound meatier than anything on the comparatively airy Axioma. Certain parts of the album exploit Enslaved's technical skills for emotional gain. Listen to the soaring climax on "Roots of the Mountain"; it's as cleanly produced and performed as anything they've done, but the passion is virtually spewing out of the recording. Even Herbrand's thin clean vocals sound passionate and full. That's not something I think I'd ever have expected to hear from Enslaved. One of my favourite things about RIITIIR is how it managed to prove me wrong in that respect.
"Roots of the Mountain" and "Death in the Eyes of Dawn" are two of the most perfect songs Enslaved have ever recorded; I'd go as far as to say they're better than anything on Axioma. These guys weren't fussing about when it came to the songwriting and arrangement on this album. That said, compared to its predecessor, RIITIIR offers higher highs, and much lower lows. I was very quick to cry "masterpiece" when the album came out. That glow didn't last long. RIITIIR is a great album for your money's worth, but every time I hear it I get the nagging feeling that it's one of the most frontloaded albums to come out in recent years. From the title track onward, RIITIIR falls into a lot of the same slumps that characterized the weakest material on Vertebrae. It keeps self-absorbed, favouring drawn out progressive builds when hooks and compact riffs would have served them better. That's not a condemnation on the intent so much as the way it turned out. Certain progressive bands are better at one approach moreso than another. Despite as much as they've tried to get proggy, taking that goal too far risks alienating some of their best traits. They went a bit far on the latter end on RIITIIR, and there are hefty sections here that kind of bore me as a result.
RIITIIR may strike me in much the same way as Ruun did. It represents a tame but steady progression on the album that came before it. Now that it sounds like they're finally starting to settle down their sound, I was listening to this album wondering where they might end up going a decade from now. In Times gave the impression of moving forward without going anywhere new at all. I suppose it begs the question how you would define a great album. For their part in it, Enslaved did more innovating and risk-taking than most artists ever think of. Judging from the crisp progressive style here, it obviously paid off for them in a big way. Although it's not a gamechanger like the two albums before it, RIITIIR did nothing to slow their momentum. They're every bit as inventive as they used to be, and there's no reason to predict less than excellence from them in the future.