I had a dream. Not quite what the good Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had in mind, I’m sure . . . but a dream nonetheless. This one, in particular, had me sitting in a wooden box positioned in the middle of a frozen lake. With nothing but a case of beer and my thoughts as my companions, I was alone in the middle of a frozen wasteland . . . alone. Then there was a knock at the door of my hut of solitude. Unnerving, to say the least, for who knew I was here . . . and how did anyone get out here? The door slowly opened and five long haired and imposing figures, draped in practically nothing, stood in the ice encrusted doorway and with one simple statement claimed, ‘It’s time.’
I awoke from my deep sleep and, rather than incur the wrath of these wraiths sent by Morpheus, I pushed play on my iPod (no sense incurring the wrath of the wife either . . . it was two o’clock in the morning) and, as if by the hands of fate, Enslaved’s Isa began its musical transcendence.
Released in 2004, Isa was the much anticipated follow up to one of my all-time favorite records, Below the Lights . . . an album that I once referred to as the musical equivalent of ice fishing, something not meant for everybody, but for those into such things, a short moment in time of sheer bliss. Blistering extreme metal that originated from a black metal core and wound up becoming one of the more intriguing progressive metallic sounds around, and Isa took that Below the Lights blueprint and propelled it through the stratosphere. To say that Isa was a grand leap in direction and sound for Enslaved would be a massive understatement. But, then again, there’s that unique back step that the band takes with their sound . . . incorporating a little of that 70’s prog-rock into their sound, as well. Isa is a fascinating amalgam of, then, current extreme metal mixed with the sounds of yesterday to create a sound all unto its own.
This album starts off in sheer creepy fashion with the absolutely chilling “Intro: Green Reflection”. Put this song on while walking through a forest and you’ll be shitting ice cubes. If that doesn’t work, wait a few seconds because when “Lunar Force” drops in, the pulse rate will increase. Horrifying demonic vocal screeching complemented by a wall of guitars and wrecking ball of rhythms fill every crevice of space of sound, but this is where I first recognized that this wasn’t the black metal that I thought it was going to be. The guitars don’t have that piercing or grating quality that traditional black metal has. These guitars are cold and icy, but enveloping like an early morning frozen fog. The ambience that the music creates has a sinister organic vibe to it . . . almost like turning over a rock and seeing the creepy crawlies writhing over one another. Then the band takes a massive left turn and gets mighty progressive on us . . . instead of a wall of sound, Enslaved serve up a staccato guitar riff over an off time and complex rhythm. Listen close and absorb the brilliance of the musicianship as all of the players are meshed around each other with their performances, shifting from standard 4/4 to some wild double and triple time rhythms . . . and then feel it as the song begins to build with more and more tension . . . creeping along the forest floor, rummaging for sustenance, and then getting supremely psychedelic before exploding into the main theme again. This song gets better and better with every listen!
Follow that up with “Isa” and the musical journey through the heart of darkness continues. Heavy ass guitars and rhythms again pummel the listener, and the vocals of longtime vocal/bass stalwart, Grutle, assail us with so much venom and piss and bile that you can’t help but feel your skin crawl. But here’s the new wrinkle . . . Enslaved incorporate clean-ish vocal harmonies that further add a discordant chill to the music as they work in contrast to the hellish belch of Grutle. Hehe . . . the Hellish Belt of Grutle . . . my new band name. Keep trudging over the decaying leaves of the haunted forest and hear how the band drops in a little keyboard flourish to add another sinister element to the overall sound. Great use of instrumentation and composition to create a world of fantastic dimension!
For you fans of intricate patterns within music, “Ascension”, especially the first two minutes or so, will call for your love. And again, Enslaved inject clean vocals that add heft and weight to the already burdensome sounds of the band . . . not the type of weight that we dread trudging along with, but the kind of weight that actually feels welcome, gives us substance and the air of accomplishment. Sprawling and magnificent, this song is that song that takes us from wandering around the forest floor and puts us on the back of a soaring eagle, diving though the clouds, hugging the mountainous terrain as we ride the air currents that Mother Nature blows our way.
Something else to consider on Isa is that this is the first time that I really recognize the use of keyboards in the band’s sound. There were some on Below the Lights, but it seems that Enslaved made better use of them on Isa . . . or this album was better produced to better capture the keyboard sounds. I can only think that this is one of the reasons I find this album as compelling as I do. The added depth with the keyboard sounds mixed with the already established traditional metal sound creates a world of intrigue that always makes the music interesting, even if I’ve heard it a million times before.
The entire work of Isa is a fantastic voyage. “Bounded By Allegiance”, “Return To Yggdrasill”, and the near 12-minute epic, “Neogenesis” are further examples of the musical growth that Enslaved has shown over the course of their lengthy career. Where Below the Lights was a dark album with a constant flitting and flickering ray of light to guide us, Isa is a harsh and cold landscape that is showing a little color of Spring breaking through the winter frost. The musicianship throughout this album is top notch and always surprises. Extreme metal, indeed, but I love how the band starts to work in simple little elements of vocal harmony and haunting melody to greater effect. Still a band that won’t appeal to the masses or be everybody’s cup of tea, thankfully . . . sometimes, I don’t like to share . . . a little 70’s rock influence, a heavy dose of nuvo-prog, and a mean streak of extreme metal . . . Enslaved, a band that pays homage to their influences, but refuses to get pigeon-holed into one genre and continuously pushes the envelope on creative expression.
I’m going back to sleep now . . . hopefully I won’t have any more spectral visitors and can get some much needed rest!