Haunting, swirling, minimalist and somehow progressive at the same time, ENSLAVED have thrived since the original second wave of Norwegian black metal by following their own meandering muse. Even as far back as their "Hordane's Land" split with EMPEROR, they favored long songs, trance-inducing ambient repetitiveness, and a more grandiose vision than their more barbaric counterparts.
On "Isa", they have arguably reached their apex, creating a timeless piece of work that retains the oft-mocked "grim and frostbitten" vibe while simultaneously expanding into infinite horizons. Utilizing a "who's who" of their countrymen on guest vocals, ENSLAVED have seemingly found a weird, subterranean link between the obtuse primitivism of DARKTHRONE, the wall-of-sound voluminous blissout of MY BLOODY VALENTINE and Syd Barrett-era PINK FLOYD psychedelia. The results are strange, organic, hypnotic and harshly beautiful, even — BATHORY on hallucinogens? Shoegazer black metal? They're their own genre these days, it seems.
As with most albums this ambitious (think OPETH for a second), you're better off taking "Isa" as a whole. Tracks slither and slink into each other like classical movements, almost before you realize it, their spacey drones smoothly transitioning to each piece of the whole. Even the faster stuff (see instrumental "Secrets of the Flesh", the closest thing to a single this record offers) maintains a kaleidoscopic drone, swaddled in white noise sound effects to give it the effect of coming through some cosmic tunnel.
Things are at least recognizable as black metal when we start with "Lunar Force", but by the time we get through the title track and its oddly-sung chorus, and the sedate, martial dirge "Ascension", we're firmly encamped in ENSLAVED-land, with few landmarks to bring us back to the familiar. Twelve-minute epic "Neogenesis" combines a prog section worthy of PORCUPINE TREE and a FLOYDian ending with an insanely catchy recurring thrash part, in another instance where the band seems to take forever to resolve the song, but the journey is more than its own reward. In lesser hands, taking such liberties with time and repetition would be self-indulgent and boring, space-filler for its own sake — but "Isa" somehow flies by, intense despite its seemingly rambling zigzag pace, compelling from first note to last.
Definitely a headphones record, and the sort of aural experience that will shift time in subtle ways and move you a step out of normality. "Isa" should, if there's any justice in the world, do for ENSLAVED what "My Arms, Your Hearse" did for OPETH — indoctrinate a worldwide cult eager to fall down this particular rabbit hole of tantalizing, mesmerizing post-black-metal swirl.