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Enslaved - "Vertebrae" (CD)

Enslaved - "Vertebrae" CD cover image

"Vertebrae" track listing:

1. Clouds
2. To The Coast
3. Ground
4. Vertebrae
5. New Dawn
6. Reflection
7. Center
8. The Watcher

Reviewed by on September 3, 2008

"They’ve realized there’s no need to be flashy and have instead focused on coloring cumbersome atmospheres and conjuring emotions, concocting an overall sense of hopeful foreboding, a sonic contradiction that resolves itself naturally."

Still bridging the gap between black metal and prog, infusing a bit of psychedelia along the way, Enslaved continues to maintain a delicate balance between despair and hope, storm and serenity, all the while infusing a little more optimism than ever before. Like their peers in Opeth, Neurosis, or Paradise Lost, their creativity has yet to wear thin, even late in their careers, and by all accounts they actually seem to be improving with age instead of slowly rotting into irrelevance. You’re going to recognize a few of these riffs as “Isa” or “Ruun” material, but this time around they’ve embraced a more subdued and subtle approach and because of this, the success of this record is heavily dependent on the sum of its parts. Taken by themselves or out of order, the songs can seem lacking, resulting in an album that is excellent as a whole but still nothing truly groundbreaking. They come together to champion the beauty of contradiction, simplistically manipulating tension and orchestrating strife into fifty minutes of contemplative post-metal melody, but despite meeting expectations, “Vertebrae” isn’t going to change your life.

“Clouds” opens the disc on an upbeat and somewhat disconcerting note. The pungent odor of cheese emanating from the keyboards smells like you might be destined for a journey with Yes to outer space. Luckily, the more rock-oriented riffs they began to explore with some sense of vigor on “Isa”, and perfected on “Ruun,” begin to play the dominant role and the eerily soothing melodious vocals make for a relatively tranquil atmosphere until the edgy, raw growling comes in as a startling, yet natural juxtaposition. The Rush keys that appear in what is the closest you’ll come to a chorus may also put people off, as it again sounds like the band is peddling bad 80’s synthpop instead of moving towards something interesting. As the song progresses, this eclectic mix somehow sorts itself out and talks of witnessing “a cosmic marriage” sum things up nicely as the song ends abruptly.

"To The Coast" begins harshly but the chorus brings it back to easy-listening. There’s an abundance of the more traditional black metal parts that hint back to their early work, but these quickly parlay back into the premises of "Ruun" styling. This is followed by "Ground," which initially beams hope with flowery strumming moving into a drawn out adventure in atmospherics. The stunted riffing that’s been making an appearance at regular intervals finally moves into an acoustic Pink Floyd inspired melody and is completed with a solid classic rock solo that seals the deal; it’s time to turn on the lava lamp and light up the bong.

"Vertebrae" is noticeably darker than the previous tracks, even in moments of serenity, and continues in this vein for the duration. It’s a prime example of how they’ve managed to join cleanliness and filth, flirting with menace whilst reassuring with respite, all with a new-found appreciation for self-restraint. It may not be the strongest song on the album but there’s a good reason it’s the title track.

“New Dawn” starts off with a promising, driving, old-school riff but moves into a really awkward and poorly executed interlude that marks a minor yet catastrophic flub for a song that had potential to be a show-stealer otherwise. The groove that introduces the bridge and chorus is a nice surprise and again, throughout the song their affinity for dynamics is glaringly apparent. “Reflection” jars out of the gates then moves into another rock riff that is easily recognized as “Ruun” material.

“Center” is more pensive and downtrodden than the previous two, almost haunting at times, especially when the music dies out and the words are whispered slowly over the atmospheric keyboards and quiet melody. The song comes back around with mammoth riffing just in case you forgot Enslaved are here to fuck with your head. Ending “Vertebrae” on an unsettling note, “The Watcher” ties up the loose ends and brings the album full circle.

What’s really obvious when listening to this album is that Enslaved have gotten older and their musical direction has matured significantly with the passing of time. They’ve realized there’s no need to be flashy and have instead focused on coloring cumbersome atmospheres and conjuring emotions, concocting an overall sense of hopeful foreboding, a sonic contradiction that resolves itself naturally. Some may despair over the loss of overt complexity but they have replaced their exploration of nuance by challenging themselves with subtlety. Toning it down has brought them to a new level: they’re taking it back to basics with the knowledge of lessons learned, and while “Vertebrae” is distinctly Enslaved, it is essentially different from what they’ve done before because of this new focus. If you haven’t been keen for the past couple albums, don’t bother. If you’re of the mindset that their later work is their best, it could honestly go either way.

Highs: The album sees them endeavouring to uncover the secrets of restraint. They’ve paid more attention to building atmospherics.

Lows: It’s not nearly as nuanced as their previous efforts, there are no certifiable hits, and many of the riffs are a little too reminiscent of "Ruun."

Bottom line: It’s nothing groundbreaking and it’s certainly not their best album but it’s a solid effort from one of the best and brightest in black metal. A thoroughly enjoyable listen that’s better suited to chillin’ than ragin’.

Rated 4 out of 5 skulls
4 out of 5 skulls

Rating Description
Rated 5 out of 5 skulls Perfection. (No discernable flaws; one of the reviewer's all-time favorites)
Rated 4.5 out of 5 skulls Near Perfection. (An instant classic with some minor imperfections)
Rated 4 out of 5 skulls Excellent. (An excellent effort worth picking up)
Rated 3.5 out of 5 skulls Good. (A good effort, worth checking out or picking up)
Rated 3 out of 5 skulls Decent. (A decent effort worth checking out if the style fits your tastes)
Rated 2.5 out of 5 skulls Average. (Nothing special; worth checking out if the style fits your taste)
Rated 2 out of 5 skulls Fair. (There is better metal out there)
< 2 skulls Pretty Bad. (Don't bother)