Enslaved, and everything that’s wrong with modern metal

First, the disclaimer. I do not bear Enslaved any ill will. Their early output up to 1997’s ‘Eld’ represents better than average black metal. 1994’s ‘Vikingligr veldi’ deserving special mention as a classic. There’s no doubt that the shift in their career in the new century – marked by so called progressive/psychedelic influences – has been dividing opinions ever since. For my part, every album since 2000 has at least a handful of noteworthy moments. 2003’s ‘Below the Lights’ being the closest they came to perfecting their fusion of Viking/black/folk/progressive/psychedelic metal, or whatever we’re calling it this week.

As for Ivar Bjornson and Grutle Kjellson themselves, they come across as descent thoughtful guys in interviews, easy going and without pretention. I have seen them live more times than I can count and each show has been superb. They are great performers regardless of what style they play. Their earlier works continue to receive a fair hearing in set-lists to their credit, and they give their all to performances. The amount of times I have been able to see them is also a testament to their work ethic.

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I am now going to forget all that in order to make a point about modern metal. As an exercise in pedantry, I intend to callously reinterpret their career, to give a highly one sided account of a school of thought prevalent in the metal community (and many contemporary subcultures). It is a point that has been made before. But I believe if we make wild and unfounded claims about the career of Enslaved it may throw new light on the debate.

The trajectory of Enslaved’s career is a classic tale really. Mirrored in many artists up and down the land. Enslaved, the youngest artist to be taken under Euronymous’s wing, started life back in the early 1990s in the shadows of the older, more arrogant, more boisterous heavyweights of the Norwegian scene. This may have given these younglings of ‘no mosh/no core/no fun’ metal a degree of insecurity. Maybe they wondered what they were adding to black metal at the time; obscured by the noise of Emperor, Immortal, and Mayhem. Nevertheless, their first few releases are looked on with love and adoration almost universally within the scene. But the seeds were sown, and their brand of black metal with Viking themed lyrics and the occasional Nordic folk flourish was gradually phased out, and replaced by what is generally agreed to be a Progressive direction.

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The change was incremental, but there was a marked lurch in Enslaved’s sound with the release of ‘Mardraum: Beyond the Within’, released in 2000. The catalyst for this change was clearly Ivar and Grutle picking up some Pink Floyd, King Crimson, and Camel records for further listening. With the recruitment of full time ivory tickler Herbrand Larsen in 2004 they tumbled further down the rabbit hole. Every Enslaved release that followed saw them move further and further away from what could be considered ‘traditional’ black/folk/Viking metal, towards flutes and Hammond organs, clean vocals a-la Opeth, and jarring shifts in time signature and key.

So far, so typical of musicians keen to develop themselves. No one wants to play the same kind of music for twenty years straight. All well and good if that’s true. But I fear that Enslaved’s post 2000 releases show classic signs of ‘Opeth syndrome’. The symptoms include bloated pieces of music with no coherent structure to justify their runtime. Jarring and clumsy transitions from one passage to the next, usually switching from average death metal to acoustic alchemy with only the most limited of sonic stitches to suture them together.

This is often passed off as diversity or even experimentation. The reality can be described as ending one bit of music and starting another bit of music; devoid of any musical architecture to lend coherence to these transitions. Lastly, sufferers can be seen working so called ‘softer’ passages into the music, punctuated by clean vocals that belong in the middle of the road. All this in itself is not a problem. But it is delivered in such a way that – were anyone to voice concern over their presence – the musicians would wave their ‘open-mindedness-music-without-boundaries’ card as a rebuttal, usually with a wry smile.

Image from Book of Opeth www.opethbook.com
Opeth, 1992

People don’t have a problem with modern Enslaved because they dared to develop as artists, people have a problem because it does not work as music. There are some genuinely good ideas there, but these have been chucked in a blender with weirdness for the sake of weirdness, and average to less than average riffs. Democratic ideals have no place in artistic decision making. Not all riffs are equal. Not all ideas deserve a fair hearing. If discipline is lacking when sketching the blueprints, the resulting musical architecture will be a disconnected patchwork of unrelated ideas.

A serious side effect of this method is unjustifiable length. Enslaved’s ‘Maudraum’ is nearly an hour in length, with nowhere near enough ideas to warrant this length. The same could be said for Opeth’s first few albums. The same could be said for too much modern metal that dares to dabble in unapproved influences. The danger for younger musicians is that they get caught up in their own sonic melting pots, and feel that a longer runtime is warranted because all the ideas deserve a fair hearing. The frustrating thing about Enslaved is that we know they can do better, we know that with a little focus, a little brevity, genuinely interesting metal could be crafted from this undisciplined but fertile soil.

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If you look at the classics of metal from the 1980s and early 1990s, rarely do they stretch beyond the forty five minute mark, and many barely make it to half an hour of noise. Of course there are material conditions that partly explain this, producing a halfway decent record is easier and cheaper than it’s ever been. The cost of releasing records on vinyl places physical limitations on musicians and how much material they can release in one go. By comparison, digital recording offers limitless temporal space to stretch into. But then you look at an album like Atheist’s ‘Unquestionable Presence’ released in 1991, which packs more unexpectedly stimulating ideas into the space of half an hour than Opeth have had in their entire career, and you wonder how far a little self-discipline would go.

The problem is not entirely of Enslaved’s own making. Initially they were honest musicians who tried something different and it didn’t really work. But then someone said poo-pooing musicians for going in a new direction is close minded. Stop asking for the same thing over and over again. Try new things or shut up. Stop being nostalgic for a past that never really existed.

Enslaved bought into this myth, and began pillaging a broad spectrum of different musical influences for ideas.. But because no one told them that weighty compositional ideas are necessary for coherent music, the results were always the same. A disconnected jumble of sounds, with some workable passages scattered across an album.

Modern commentators such as Sam Dunn have held Enslaved up as one of the key artists pushing extreme metal into new and unique directions. Along with the likes of Gojira and of course….Opeth. And it is important to note that such ideals are worthy; particularly if you believe that extreme metal is a highly restricted creative space. But in reality the opposite is true. Back in 1996 black metal – a subgenre of a subgenre – could offer you releases as diverse as Summoning’s ‘Dol Guldor’ and Ildjarn’s ‘Forest Poetry’ and everything in between.

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Sam Dunn

Now it’s very easy to read this as one long rant about music I don’t like; a mean spirited attempt to put down a decent artist and call their fans phony intellectuals. But if you can tell me with a straight face that you genuinely enjoy the music of modern Enslaved, try explaining what it is about their music that is so damn unique, referencing composition alone. Without mentioning any surface level adornment that sits atop the actual musical structure that makes up an Enslaved album post 2000.

As a comparison, take the career of Emperor. It was clear that by 1999’s ‘IX Equilibrium’ that they were heading in a progressive metal direction. But their conversion was marked by nothing more than the way they wrote music. 2001’s ‘Prometheus’ was basically an Ihsahn solo album, Samoth and Trym having lost interest in the musical direction they were taking, and relegating themselves to session musicians as a result. To Ihsahn’s credit he did not carry on under the Emperor name for his solo work, but the transition from the first two Ihsahn albums represent a clear and smooth development of the ideas found on ‘Prometheus’.

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Ihsahn’s musical development over the years has gone hand in hand with his transformation from evil goblin wizard to hipster Captain Haddock

Since then his music has gradually gone full prog, exploring a range of ideas seemingly catered to piss the elitist ANUS crowd off. He has borrowed from jazz, industrial, Norwegian Folk, Yes and…Opeth. Now whether you like what he’s been doing is beside the point. The changes have come incremental, and each track on each album fully embraces the style he is emulating, rather than flitting wildly between a range of different influences. Instead of writing music from a confused jumble of post-it notes, he has patiently honed his craft with each release. Which means if a saxophone or techno beat crops up it makes sense in the context, and serves to illustrate how his music has changed since the early 2000s.

But to end on a high, maybe there will prove to be some good to come out of the modern Enslaved project. In their own clumsy and imperfect way they genuinely have cleared out new creative spaces for metal. New roads have been opened for more subtle artists. Artists who are focused on honing their craft before honing their surface level aesthetic. Enslaved may have bought into their own mythos. In the same way that so called innovative modern metal has congratulated itself on ensuring the ongoing survival of the subculture for another decade. A survival they believe to be ensured by an open mind as opposed to genuinely original music. But that does not mean that something genuinely new cannot spring forth to nourish the blasted heathland left by modern metal’s scorched earth policy. In order to create something new, we must destroy that which is old.

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