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Ænigma was my first encounter with Norwegian trend-buckers In Vain, and I can only assume they have stepped up their game with this release otherwise we surely would have crossed paths sooner. This is an album of incredible depth, sprawling soundscapes and a dynamism that would make Chuck Schuldiner proud. Essentially, there are three parts to this album. We begin with two tracks of raw visceral energy before a short, smooth interlude ushers us into a more soulful, melodious midsection. To the Core reignites the brutality, and Floating on the Murmuring Tide rounds out the album. It would be a mistake though to pigeonhole any of these tracks, the record as a whole is a tie-dyed tapestry of sound, and patches of ugliness are regularly followed by passages of beauty.
At the centre of these sounds is a strong foundation of equal parts abrasive, melodic and atmospheric blackened death metal from which flow a variety of progressive elements. Songs meander down expertly composed lines, taking the listener through epic landscapes, twisting and turning, doubling back and leaping forth. Strong riffing, tremolo picking, catchy hooks, blast beats and a relentless refusal to even acknowledge any existing template for extreme metal all characterise this release.
However, arguably the most remarkable aspect of this album is the vocal performances. I have never heard such a range of styles so seamlessly combined in the one album. I stopped taking notes at seven distinct vocal styles, including malevolent death growls, caustic black metal screams and clear, resonant cleans. Their lyrical themes traverse the human experience; covering war, travel and hope and loss, tortured existences, inner struggles for meaning and a snapshot of mankind's interaction with nature. All songs bar one are in English, but between google translate and the poetic nature of the Norwegian language, Hymne til havet loses nothing to foreign ears.
Any of the three lead singers could comfortably front their own band, and married to the sheer instrumental dexterity on show here we end up with an extraordinary collection of music created by a group of world class musicians all firing, all the time. They feed off one another, entwining and encircling, teasing and retreating, branching off in unexpected directions before returning to the theme. A comparison might be drawn to a less dramatic, more united Ne Obliviscaris. It is worth noting that this album features nine guest musicians, most of whom do not possess a background in extreme metal. Trombone, trumpet, cello, violin, hammond organ and vocals from Lazare (Borknagar, Solefald) all appear, with the standout guest performance being an exquisite saxophone lead on the final track.
The rush of adrenaline and surging of power we receive from our favourite bands is an individualised experience, but from start to finish Ænigma infuses me with that conquer the world feeling and with so many bands out there recycling old ideas it truly refreshing to be swept away by a new and groundbreaking performance. I look forward to exploring In Vain's back catalogue and hearing what they do next, and having listening to over 200 albums released in 2013 I feel at least vaguely qualified to spruik Ænigma as the album of the year and essential listening for any fan of extreme music. Go and find yourself a copy.