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Enslaved - Vertebrae CD (album) cover

VERTEBRAE

Enslaved

 

Tech/Extreme Prog Metal

4.07 | 133 ratings

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Conor Fynes
Prog Reviewer
4 stars 'Vertebrae' - Enslaved (83/100)

My journey with Enslaved began with Vertebrae. That's undoubtedly a lot later on than many of the band's other fans, but I can't think of a better place and time to have started listening to these guys. They had always been a name on the periphery ever since I began my explorations into black metal some years earlier. For whatever reason, it wasn't until the then-recently released Vertebrae was given a warm recommendation from a friend that I finally opened up to them. Given that I grew up essentially as a prog kid, who turned to extreme metal styles once I heard so many creative acts sprouting out of them, Enslaved's own sound was practically a musical wishlist fulfilled.

Enslaved blended vintage warmth with echoes of a colder path on Vertebrae. At the time, I honestly couldn't get enough of it. The upbeat synths and emotional range of "Clouds", soaring melancholy of "The Watcher", or the inventive chord progressions on "Reflections"; the album took me by surprise. I was slow to warm up to their backcatalogue, so I kept returning to Vertebrae. As it happens, it become one of my biggest staples of 2008. With that experience in mind, I was surprised a couple of years later to find out that the album was actually one of the most divisive in Enslaved's discography. Revisiting the album again after a few years' distance however, and I think I can see why Vertebrae has had that polarizing effect on people.

Vertebrae is, at once, Enslaved at some of their most creative, most restrained, most progressive, and easily their most self-involved. Their career up to this point was defined by a steady transition into progressive rock territory. Mardraum - Beyond the Within in 2000 marked the first overt steps as a prog metal act, and the superficial aspects of the transformation were complete at some point between Below the Lights and Isa. Vertebrae stands out as the first point where Enslaved stopped trying to be progressive by way of aping Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd, and instead adopted the progressive mindset for themselves. I'd say Enslaved are still every bit as restrained as they were on Isa. The material itself is a lot less predictable however. Something always sounds a bit alien about "Clouds", even a near-decade after first hearing it. The slower tracks like "To the Coast" and "Center" embrace psychedaelia without the influence feeling contrived a la Monumension.

I might call Vertebrae Enslaved's weirdest-sounding album. By the time they followed it up with Axioma Ethica Odini, their progressive mindset had been made into a much sleeker beast. For better and worse, Vertebrae gets lost in its excesses. "The Watcher" is probably the only song of the lot that sounds like it was penned with economy in mind. The songs tend to feel much longer than they actually are. This isn't because they're slow per se, but rather that Enslaved see fit to pack most of them with different ideas and identifiable movements. There's a certain irony in the fact that these weirder compositions are being played with the same sterile restraint Enslaved had gone on since the Isa days. With the exception of their graceful soloing, the guitars are played as by-the-numbers as possible, and Herbrand Larsen sings like there's a gun to his head that will fire if he wavers off pitch. This heavy restraint is the thing that keeps me from loving Enslaved's mid-era work. While their sound would fortunately take a more energetic turn from Axioma Ethica Odini on, Vertebrae's weird songwriting allows the controlled approach to succeed.

There's a part of me that finds it difficult to critique Vertebrae. Unlike the other Enslaved albums, I listened to this one to the point of virtual memorization. It almost begrudges me to admit it, but this album probably changed the way I thought of extreme metal when it was released. There are reasons it became one of my favourite albums for a time. It still sounds great years later, but I think there's enough distance now for me to recognize its flaws. For one, the album flows awkwardly at best. The songwriting is less consistent than is usual for Enslaved, and for all its formal inventiveness, it comes off as dry at times. I can see why fans are split down the middle when it comes to this one. Contrary to what I originally thought, it's not the best album they ever did-- I'd say the honour goes to Below the Lights. Even so, I'm glad I got into Enslaved on their oddest note. It's a wholly unique experience that happened to bring their progressive influences full circle.

Conor Fynes | 4/5 |

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