he fact that Enslaved isn't huge is a damn shame. Within the metal world, the band gets due respect and universally favorable reviews. But outside of the genre, the group pales in comparison to the sort of recognition that bands like Mastodon and Pelican enjoy. It’s hard to understand why: Enslaved is melodic and isn't easily labeled as metal, the two keys to metal crossover success. In fact, take away the vocals, and one hears a rich stew of prog, shoegazer, and psychedelic rock. And with Ruun, the band has completed a three-album streak that no metal band has matched in the past few years.
Enslaved began like most black metal bands, with lo-fi sonics and cold, dark songs suggestive of their Norwegian home. But after 1995's The Forest Is My Throne/Yggdrasill split CD with Satyricon, the band's sound evolved. Its next album, Eld, began with a 16 minute opus that combined acoustic guitars, blastbeats, and prog atmospherics. The rest of the album had plenty of classic buzzsaw black metal, but the die was cast. Blodhemn further pushed the prog envelope, and Enslaved came into its own on 2000's Mardraum. The gorgeous clean guitars of its first minute and a half could have passed for The Cocteau Twins. But crushing riffs and dramatic vocal harmonies followed; the rest of the album was just as epic and unpredictable.
Excellent as Mardraum was, 2003's Below the Lights was an incredible step up. The album found the band in full control of its powers. While shrieking vocals and tremolo-picked riffs showed black metal roots, the rhythm section had newfound, purposeful heft. Songs confidently mixed acoustic guitars with richly arpeggiated riffs; "Voivod does black metal" is one apt description of latter-day Enslaved. 2005's Isa was even better, with smooth singing and psychedelic interludes adding depth. If Voivod, Swervedriver, and Pink Floyd got together to play black metal, they'd sound like Enslaved.
Ruun is much along these lines, although it trades some of the sonic grandeur of Isa for more focused songs. Thus, riffs are more memorable and songs are identifiable more quickly. Right off the bat, the band hits hard with "Entroper," the kind of abstract, driving-down-the-highway rocker that Swervedriver did so well. The key to Enslaved is its chords, which have lush, complex voicings. Normally, complex chords plus distortion equals mush, but the guitar tones here perfectly balance crunch and clarity. The best example is the rideout of "Essence," which strongly recalls its counterpart in Helmet's "Milquetoast." "Fusion of Sense and Earth" floats complex chords above a thrash groove, while soaring melodies grace "Api-Vat" and "Heir to the Cosmic Seed." The latter, a majestic march, is an advanced version of what Isis has done in recent years.
The highlight is the title track, a stately Phrygian Dominant workout that succeeds where Lacuna Coil failed on Karmacode. In this song, one can see what probably prevents Enslaved's mainstream success. The average listener can probably get with the Alice in Chains-esque vocal harmonies, but the shrieked vocals might not go down so smoothly. Luckily, most of the time, anyway, the band balances it with warm, clean vocals—giving you little reason to turn away from one of the best metal records to be released in 2006.
Hear songs and watch a video from Ruun here.