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Endless visions, grand ambitions - 94%

captaincrunchy, March 24th, 2014

Enslaved has not dramatically changed its style in all its years of existence; yes, they are largely removed from the black metal trappings of their demos and Vikingligr Veldi, but the prog-inflected viking/black metal they took up not long after has been carried like holy scripture and executed with tact, creativity and precision ever since. Arguably they've only released fantastic albums since 2003's Below The Lights, and that spectacular run is continued with this epic. Also worth noting is the first ten-minute song the band has produced since Neogenesis off of 2004's Isa, showing that even as the band grows older, their ambitiousness in composition has not declined an iota.

But RIITIIR is not just another album in Enslaved's quite stellar discography. It sticks out because it indicates that the band, without deviating from its roots, is capable of shifting focus to different variables in its winning formula. Clean vocals are decidedly more present. The overall sound is less harsh than preceding records. In my opinion, it's all the better for it. Don't worry, it's still very much extreme metal, but it feels like Enslaved has spread its sound out the most since Frost here - work that will pay back in coming albums. The change can be seen readily from the track list; every song stretches on considerably longer than on any album since Eld, packed with dense transitions and tempo changes.

The guitarwork glistens on RIITIIR, and while it is a step down in heaviness from Axioma, it makes up for it with more varied textures and a richer atmosphere. Tremolo picked riffs are used regularly, but Ivar Bjornson also readily doles out crushing power chords when needed. Enslaved, while having never been a particularly shreddy band, does tend to have a guitar solo roughly every other song, and that's continued here- and possibly at their absolute best. Ice Dale's solo in Materal is definitely a highlight moment on the album, taking the surging buildup of the song to an emotional climax. Acoustic flourishes, as they often do, join the electric riffs when called for. Everything is cohered by Ivar's cavernous riffing, coloring the textural backdrop behind the vocal interplay and keyboard flourishes well.

Hebrand Larsen's clean vocal contribution on this record so far has proven to be my favorite he has ever done. The chorus to opener Thoughts Like Hammers is absolutely dazzling - sucking you into the mystical world described in their meditative lyrics. Sounding both dark and soaring, he adds more diversity to his portion of vocal duties than ever previously. Grutle's harsh vocals aren't the wretched screams of old, but who could expect them to be? He continues to provide gritty rasping with all the venom, if not the power, of his younger delivery. His basswork also sticks out in places, filling the depth under Enslaved's complicated soundscapes, though it's never especially distinctive. Some spoken passages appear every now and again.

The production itself is magnificent, and quite possibly the best Enslaved has ever had. The richness of sound that the five-piece churns out is captured in perfect fidelity and delivered directly to your ears unmitigated by muddiness or inadequate mixing. The thick layering rewards multiple listens, adding more to each song every time. The songs themselves, without being excessively technical, are quite complex in their own right and all feel very unique. I can't say myself that there was a moment of filler or a point of waste after a couple full listens. Compositionally, the band have outdone themselves.

RIITIIR has received fairly split sentiments, and not for no reason - it considerably alters the dynamic for Enslaved and those craving more brutality from the vaunted outfit are likely disappointed. But a record like RIITIIR is meant to be taken for what it is, not what it is not; and it is a declaration that as a progressive metal group, Enslaved will not sit still. There is no "good enough" to them, and with their endless voyages into the vast, unexplored borders of extreme metal, they will surely discover more in the years to come. We'll see where Enslaved heads from here, with a new album due possibly in late 2014.

Highlights: Thoughts Like Hammers, Veilburner, Roots of the Mountain, Materal