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If you've encountered any of my shameless gushing over Enslaved in the past, then it goes without saying that the Norwegians' latest full-length RIITIIR was one of my most anticipated recordings of 2012. By this point Vertebrae (2008) and its successor Axioma Ethica Odini (2010) have received hundreds of plays between them and remain, at least for me, flawless and relevant evolutions of the group's Viking/black metal roots into a wider spectrum of progressive and psychedelic rock; flirting with accessibility without jumping lanes onto Mainstream Avenue. Last year's EPs also proved an eclectic, varied amusement, and my first few previews and inevitable post-purchase spins through this latest full-length yielded a pleasurable listen, perhaps their 'smoothest' and friendliest to date in terms of its stylistic songwriting dichotomy and production values.
And then a funny thing happened: I listened to it more, and more, not for the sheer magnetism of the music, but because I kept second guessing myself over the lack of lasting impact RIITIIR has had upon me. For all intensive purposes, Enslaved is a band which thrives on this plateau of adventurous genre-blending in which memorable licks and melodies are intertwined with the blackened, Mythic bombardment of their roots. The records they write tend to hit me not only with a strong, instant attraction but then by pouring on layers of depth, nuance and meaning that I find engaging and, frankly, eternal. RIITIIR champions all the strengths of its predecessor Axioma Ethica Odini, and has no gaping flaws of note through the substantial 67 minutes of content. There are hundreds of techniques happening through its length. Stark, wintry grooves. Atmospheric, hostile barrages of tremolo picked notes and uproarious Grutle growls. Proggy, spatial electronics and soft, shining organs serving as backdrops for the meatier riffs. No shortage of thought was placed into any given measure. No two tracks feel quite the same, even if the album has a more internal consistency than many in their lexicon. To deny the fulfillment factor of RIITIIR as a work of art would seem dishonest, and yet there is some nigh invisible barrier which prevents me from lavishing it with the utmost praise...
Perhaps it stems from the fact that this album, for all its range, does tend to play it rather safe when one examines the content of their last decade of work (beginning with Below the Lights). The clean vocals are even more unwrinkled and prevalent than the earliest attempts to incorporate them, and a lot of the plodding, slow to mid-paced guitars feel in places banal. There are a number of jazzy, warm floes of chords infused into the black metal sequences which hearken back to the divisive Vertebrae, but I found RIITIIR to lack that same balance of cloudy escapism and unwashed grittiness. The music here isn't exactly settling any new territory, but it's merely refining the rough stone cairn that its forebears once built to mark their passage. Not to say that such an effort is incapable of achieving perfection with the proper songwriting, but Enslaved have consigned this material to the mere realm of 'greatness', one that they have so often transcended. To that end, I would have to state that RIITIIR is a disappointment, in only the mildest sort where I'll fully immerse myself throughout the experience as its happening, but rarely crave it elsewhere.
On technical parameters, the band excels through the eight tracks. Rarely are groups so cohesive on a level of both creativity and competence, and there's really no shining star among the quintet. Herbrand Larsen and the inestimable Ivar let the synthesized elements speak for themselves when needed (generally in brief intro passages), but otherwise the keys dote the landscape of the metal riffing as distant copses of woodland on a grassland hike. The riffing melodies, and in particular Arve's leads simply ooze class, favoring emotion over indulgence and brightness above darkness. Grutle's barks and grunts are quite well rounded here, by this time lacking all awkwardness they might have created in the late 90s/early 'oughts. Cato Bekkevold is yet again perfectly content with the rock foundation that best complements much of the music, but he's always filling in the gaps with intensified reminders that he's very much a metal drummer capable of opening up the field, which of course happens numerous times through pounders like "Roots of the Mountain" or "Thoughts Like Hammers". The bass lines are also pumping pistons where necessary, though the more spacious segues of airier guitars might have been better served by some more interesting note choices in the grooves.
One area in which RIITIIR largely excels is in the poignant, poetic resonance of its English lyrics. A few tunes like "Roots of the Mountain" have a pretty stripped, metaphysical composition, but others rarely fail to echo all manner of imagery through me. 'Static is the common language', 'motion is the mothertongue', I devour that shit, and in particular I'd point out "Thoughts Like Hammers", "Storm of Memories" and the title track itself as my favorites. As pretentious as it sounds, Enslaved remain a very literary, 'thinking person's' metal band, as if William Faulker performed some stoic transliteration of the Poetic Eddas into a novel. This isn't mosh fueled misogynist carnage or cheesy Viking hymnals gouging on imagery that was probably lifted off a Manowar album cover. The band translate their cultural roots into something meaningful that can be applied to a world or a life far removed from the ways of old, and to say this places them in rare company would be an understatement.
Let me be clear: I realize the tone of my reaction to this record paints it as somewhat of a letdown, but that's only because I (like an asshole) place such major personal expectations on a small handful bands (like this one) which would be impossible to fill out year after year ad infinitum. RIITIIR is still a praiseworthy album, and better than most other music you'll hear this year. It's well worth its weight in any currency you could name, and I recommend that all progressive black metal afficionados, or anyone into intelligent and well scripted aural explorations with rock instrumentation and an undercurrent of extremity pick this up. It's snug enough next to its older siblings, or the works of peers Arcturus, Borknagar, Ulver, Solefald and the like. Ultimately though, despite a solid case for greatness, Enslaved didn't quite hit their legendary stride here, instead stopping to dust off the fossils and footsteps of previous outings and display them in a new museum.