My anticipation for the new (now sadly delayed) Enslaved record prompted a full voyage through their whole discography. Unsurprisingly, my response was “holy shit!” I first jumped aboard around 2007 with Isa, and still have trouble making sense of some of the more arcane Mardraum/Monumension freakouts. But the eclecticism and mastery shown from Frost onwards (not so much Vikingr, sorry) is nothing short of legendary.
Perhaps most impressive is their ambition. Though slightly derivative out of the gates (having one Emperor record (Vikingr) and one Immortal record (Bloodhemn) as they do), Enslaved managed to eclipse both of these black metal giants by never stopping their growth and never backing away from their instinct to make the less obvious choice.
Ranking albums is kind of my thing here, but with such distinct eras and such a vast discography, let’s celebrate these extreme metal champions with a list of their best songs:
–Convoys to Nothingness–Monumension
Monumension can be frustrating because the genius is constantly obfuscated by the bizarre. The exception is Convoys, which powers through with clarity around the 2-minute mark with a memorable mid-paced riff. Of course, Enslaved then bizarrely mutates that riff, notably at the five minute mark, where a down tempo shift renders it less and less recognizable until it finally disappears into… I don’t know, maybe that painting on the cover?
This structure, though still loose, helps shape a “song” out of the collection of sounds. The tension between chaos and coherence is vital to Enslaved’s later period, and though they still were figuring out how to navigate it here, it is thrilling to experience the sheer inventiveness.
–Secrets of the Flesh–Isa
Who doesn’t love an extreme metal instrumental? Secrets of the Flesh rips right out of the gate and never stops kicking your ass. As perfect a riff as they’ve ever conceived, it is a shame this one isn’t a staple of the live set.
Note–I’m aware there is nothing from Below the Lights on here. That was not a mistake.
TOP 10 ENSLAVED SONGS:
Ground contains beautiful passages, a soaring solo, and an iconic moment in Enslaved history (“There’s a sound made by…BURNING…FLESH!!!). Without the clean passage–solo–BURNING sequence, its debatable whether Enslaved would have found that groove of songwriting they enjoyed until In Times. From 2:45 until the end, Ground is as good as extreme metal gets.
9. Ethica Odini–Axioma Ethica Odini
As soon as Ethica’s riff hits, you know Enslaved hadn’t taken even a tiny step back, somehow, as their blistering streak continued. This is the album that cemented them as the best extreme metal band on the planet.
Eschewing a slow build, the need for momentum, and the entire notion of easing in, Ethica Odini roars out so ferociously that it is literally difficult to catch your breath. Ethica Odini represents a band perfecting their balance–clean v. harsh vocals, keys v. guitars, dark v. light. The beauty of the song is that even after 100 listens, knowing all the moves doesn’t diminish the magic.
And at 6:20–that clean vocal passage into the soaring solo…
Admit it, you cried the first time you saw it live. Don’t worry, so did I.
8. Death in the Eyes of Dawn–RIITIR
RIITIR was different than Axioma. Now Enslaved was using extreme metal instrumentation to play prog rock songs, instead of playing progressive extreme metal songs. Death in the Eyes of Dawn crystalized this notion, and though I have grown increasingly bummed on this transition as we get into E territory, it is excellent here. The emphasis is still on Rock and Song, even while the Prog is being turned up. This is Enslaved passing through that sweet spot of Axioma towards their current period.
Frost came before my time–I was not super grym as an 11 year old. The Enslaved of this era seems like an entirely different entity, but once you stop looking for through lines and just enjoy the early records for what they are, there is plenty to savor. Frost is probably the fan favorite, and Fenris is its best song. This fucker grabs you and holds on viciously.
I always like my blasting black metal with a side of Celtic Frost, so give me early Darkthrone over Mayhem or Immortal, and give me Fenris over anything else from this period of Enslaved. It’s all about that crunching, galloping main riff, which Dissection would have been proud to put on Storm of the Light’s Bane. Keep this one in the set as long as you want boys.
6. Fusion of Sense and Earth–Ruun
Though no Isa or Vertebrae, Ruun shouldn’t be overlooked–it is maybe the last time Enslaved raged. Nowhere harder than on Fusion…, with a thrashing storm of a verse and a huge stomping riff (first appearing at :50) that lends serious heft to the affair. This is still 3rd era Enslaved though, so that ethereal spirit journey is never far away. That they were able to…oh no…FUSE all these elements together (sorry) on this track makes it a stand out.
I mean…it’s sixteen minutes of Viking metal at its highest level, what more do you want? For me to break down each minute? Fine, if you insist:
1–Ominous intro, bad early black metal keys–pretty standard
2–I’m guessing this is the soundtrack for Grutle making his way to that throne on the cover. Not looking unlike Joffrey Baratheon, disturbingly.
3–Grandiosity levels are increasing, but this still sounds like some Mortiis shit, until…
4—Guitars acoustic and electric spring forth into a Bathorian stomp
5—Ok, here’s a hot take for you—this is the same riff as Ethica Odini. At the very least, the chord progression (I think that’s the term, I don’t play instruments, fuck off) is strikingly reminiscent. Not a bad thing.
6–The acoustic and electric guitars, still pounding that…familiar…mid-paced riff create a pleasing contrast, pushing the folk aspect to the fore not unlike the style Moonsorrow has perfected
7–Excellent lead comes back over the Ethica Odini riff
8–Back to Bathoryville
9–Now off to Blashyrkh–abrupt but awesome transition, a hallmark of the 2nd era
10–The band breaks it back down as an emotive, almost tragic lead takes center stage
11–Some folk instrumentation that I can’t quite identify, it works just fine in a Nightside Eclipse, lets-pretend-these-keys-sound-good sort of sense
12–The tragic lead is back, another remarkable transition providing the organizing principle for the back half of the song
13–Mid-paced stomper breaks out–had to tip the cap to Darkthrone
14–Didn’t last, back on the longship home to Bathoryville. Riff really beefs up at 13:20 before…
15–Blast us home!
16–The acoustic guitar cycles back around to the end.
A singular entity in their discography.
4. The Beacon–Axioma Ethica Odini
If I don’t listen to this whole record front to back, it’s usually because I’m so emotionally ravaged by The Beacon that I can’t bear to continue. The opening riff storms right out of the gate, the chorus does not let up though the dynamics shift, the clean vocal-bridge is perfect and then the main riff comes back with those flourishes in the lead. It is such a perfect first two minutes that it is hard to imagine what they could do to top it.
So what does Enslaved do? Subtle tempo change for the chorus, clean bridge into a pure moment of savagery (STRUGGLE!!!), into the most pleasingly straightforward headbanging session on the album. Then Monumension real quick before heading back to the chorus.
Got all that?
Isa has reached iconic status, an absolute lock in the live set. This is the song, and maybe more importantly the riff, that signaled Enslaved’s entry into their 3rd era Golden Age. Belting it out as one is about as fun as a metal show gets–altogether now—
2. To the Coast–Vertebrae
This one might be a little out of left field, but for me, To the Coast is (almost) the pinnacle of the transcendent Enslaved feeling. Equal parts engaging, open, harsh and devastating.
1. Roots of the Mountain–RIITIR
Put your hands to the sky and let the spirit take you away:
Feel the flames, the streams of life below
Feel the flames, that blind your inner eye
Seek and find, what lingers deep inside
Seek and find, but do not try to understand
Spread the wings, and fly into your mind
Spread the wings, and find the eagle in the sky
Find the source, the ancient passion play
Find the source, the roots of the mountain
Every aspect of the song is breathtaking, but pay attention to the glorious double bass and guitar solo passage starting around minute three. And, of course, that final chorus when the clean and harsh vocals intertwine, elevating you at last to transcendence.