It's weird; in one way, ENSLAVED have traveled light-years beyond the chainmail trappings that defined their early attempts at progressive black metal. They're full-on psychedelic nutters now, creating otherworldly soundscapes using layered madrigal vocals, minimalist guitar washes and fluid, expressive FLOYD-ian soloing. But then again, of all the post-metal bands who started out in the lair of the subterranean and then evolved into fancy-pantsery, ENSLAVED still possess the most graven grime from their primitive origins. Be it in their pained black metal croaks or the chilling tundra drone of some of their guitar lines, these guys have managed to keep the most primal aspects of their past alive even as they jettison themselves into outer space and get all lysergic and freaky.
The sparse openness of "Clouds", along with its harmonized clean vocals and subtle hint of Hammond organ, might cause you to take a second look to make sure you didn't grab your OPETH CD by mistake. But give it a minute, and the vocals turn into a mean snarl, mixed loud and raw enough that you can smell fetid breath, and the guitar lines get creepy, choppy and disjointed. A few seconds later, it's galloping along at a thrash beat, with layers of sinister black metal riffing. It all works, too, although some songs flow better than this one — the effect is dynamic and timeless, occupying some windswept headspace where blackened barbarity and melancholic beauty not only meet, but intermingle until neither works without the other.
Case in point: "New Dawn" starts out like a catchy, likable, but none too surprising black metal stormer, with a galloping double-bass drum line and a razorwired riff slicing like it's 1993. It launches into an expansive, soaring hook of emotive, melancholic clean vocals, laden with syrupy strings… all over a thundering blast beat. Later, the chorus (at least I guess it's the chorus) features more clean vocals, sung in a lower, more sinister register, over a sparse, insistent riff. ENSLAVED pack a lot of livin' into five minutes and change, the end of the song seeming miles away from its beginning, but it's a journey that makes sense, and indeed wouldn't be as hypnotic any other way.
All this song-by-song dissection misses the point, and so do the simple ad-ready taglines about "progressive post-black-metal" or whatever we're calling it this week. The best thing about ENSLAVED is that they expanded their sound without discarding anything from their past – black metal, their mid-period doomy vibe, the prog-rock spaciness of the last couple records, all mashed together in an improbable cohesion. They're at the point now, though, where there's so much in their sonic stew that calling it anything seems limiting and incomplete. Drop the needle on random bits in "Reflections" and you could probably convince someone they're listening to a promising Krautrock band, while someone hitting the end of the song might think something else entirely about the melodic, atmospheric keys, the chiming guitar line and the duel between the black metal rasp and the multilayered ALAN PARSONS PROJECT vocals. It's all in here, it all works, and while it just about defies description, it's the band's most compelling work to date and it's a must-have for any adventurous fan, metal or otherwise.