Photography by Kierra Thorn at Manning Bar Sydney, @KierraThorn Review from the Prince Bandroom, Melbourne
After 25 years in the progressive metal game, Enslaved continue to evolve without letting go of their roots.
The Norwegians have been making some of the best black and progressive metal for about as long as your reviewer has been alive. Many bands in their position would be happy to rest on their laurels, or otherwise distance themselves from their earlier material in favour of a different, ‘more mature’ direction – á la a certain other progressive metal act who put out an album this week. Yet Enslaved show no signs of slowing down, and they certainly haven’t forgotten where they came from.
With 13 outstanding and critically lauded albums under their hefty belts, Enslaved offered fans an intriguing premise on their 25th-anniversary tour Down Under. For this monumental circuit, the five-piece would be doing two sets each night – one representing the earlier, black metal oriented part of their career; and one showcasing their later, more progressive offerings – with fans picking the sets from a list of 16 songs for each, provided by the band.
If the Melbourne show is anything to go by, it was a very successful experiment indeed.
The earlier set saw the Norwegians pulling out such deep cuts as the sixteen-minute long ‘793 (Slaget om Lindisfarne)’, from their 1997 record, Eld; as well as some more straightforward, blackened Viking metal cuts such as ‘Heimdallr’ from their 1993 debut, Vikingligr Veldi; alongside ‘Loke’ and ‘Fenris’ from, early favourite, Frost (1994); while even pulling out ‘Slaget I Skogen Bortenfor’ from their 1993 demo/EP Hordanes Land, which guitarist Ivar Bjørnson kindly reminded the crowd he wrote when he was just 14.
Although Enslaved have probably received the most attention and critical acclaim for their more recent work, bands with a history as long as theirs’ reputation is often built on their earlier works. It is these albums that establish them and provide a foundation for what they become later in their careers, and this is something Enslaved are fully aware of. These earlier renditions weren’t just a special event, with such equally early cuts like ‘Allf?ðr Oðinn’ (also from Hordanes Land), being used to close out their sets as recently as 2013, during their previous visit to these shores.
It’s easy to dip back into older material when you have a back catalogue behind you as strong as Enslaved’s. Yet the Norsemen didn’t truly come into their own until their later, progressive, period. The night’s second set saw a greater contribution from, clean vocalist/keyboard player, Herbrand Larsen and, lead ‘solo’ guitarist, Arve Isdall, who each joined the band around the release of their seminal, progressive records, Below The Lights (2003) and Isa (2004). Surprisingly, it also saw the crowd going harder and getting more involved than they had during the harsher, early set.
Although the set was lacking in any entries from softer, less extreme metal-inclined albums like Vertebrae (2008) and, the band’s most recent offering, In Times (2015), it nonetheless showcased some of the most progressive compositions ever to be incorporated into the body of a decidedly ‘extreme metal act’. Surprisingly, the set was also noticeably scarce of tracks from their 2012 record Riitiir, which fans and critics (your reviewer not included) often point to as the band’s best. Instead, there was a much greater focus on Enslaved’s earlier, progressive period – with Below the Lights and Isa seemingly emerging as fan favourites.
Unfortunately, the relatively small PA system of The Prince Bandroom didn’t quite seem to be able to handle the Scandinavians’ extensive mid-range. The keyboards, clean vocals and Isdall’s solos were all but whipped out amid the chaotic mix, which made the band sound sloppier and less fulfilled than they have been on previous outings; or that visual evidence implied they should have been.
Ultimately, it was the first of the two sets which came across as being the strongest on the night. The more abrasive compositions actually benefited more from the unbalanced mix, while the later set was unable to truly do justice to Enslaved’s later – not to mention phenomenal –progressive output.
Enslaved are truly one of the most valuable and forward-thinking bands ever to emerge from the metal scene. They’re also, arguably, one of the most underrated, even if their profile has raised significantly in recent times. That this band – who have released 13 incredible records, none of which really sound the same – are stuck playing a closed off room in an upstairs bar; while Opeth – a band who haven’t released a decent album in about eight years, and who are seemingly doing everything they can to distance themselves from their earlier material – can sell out the Sydney Opera House, might be seen as somewhat of a travesty.
Enslaved are a progressive band in the truest sense. Their music continues to evolve in new directions, while persistently seeking out (and often attaining) new heights. Yet they have also never forgotten where they came from, nor let go of their roots, and continue to play their earlier material with the same passion and gusto as they do their later, more advanced (and arguably more accomplished) work – all with an endearing sense of joy and giant smiles on their fetching, Nordic faces.
Here’s to the future and another, spectacular, 25 years.