Released: 2008, Nuclear Blast Records
Reviewer: Aaron Yurkiewicz
There was a time when I was convinced that there had to be something in the cold waters of Scandinavia that caused the region to produce so many talented, ground breaking extreme metal acts. Now I am convinced that there is something in those same cold Scandinavian waters that cause those same ground breaking extreme metal acts to detour the bus off of the Heavy Metal Highway and exit onto the Pink Floyd Expressway. Think about it – Tiamat, Amorphis, Emperor, hell even Mayhem tried to show how smart they could sound for a hot second there. Not that those releases were bad by any stretch, it’s just curious to see so many similar minded groups from the same geographical region of the world evolve in such a similar fashion.
Which brings us to Norway’s Enslaved and their latest release VERTEBRAE. Do you remember the HORDANES LAND split that they did with Emperor back in the day? Of course you do, and VERTEBRAE sounds nothing like that. Enslaved have long dispensed with the strictly Norse lyrics and Viking imagery, but VERTEBRAE shows the band shedding most of what was left of their past and fully wrapping their arms around the aforementioned progressive vibe that’s been present on their last few releases. Longtime frontman Grutle Kjellson shares the microphone with keyboardist Herbrand Larsen, splitting the dirty/clean vocals respectively, with Larsen’s vocal contributions dominating much of the disc. Larsen’s work on the keyboards should also be credited with creating much of the atmosphere on the disc.
Opening track “Clouds” begins with a prog-keyboard intro that sounds the alarm that this is not the Enslaved of yesteryear. Switching back and forth from full swing hard rock cadence, to (almost) familiar black metal trappings, to some ambient mood music, “Clouds” is a prime starting point for VERTEBRAE, because most of the tracks on the disc follow this same formula. “To the Coast” follows with the overused “I’m just plugging in my guitar even though we’re already recording” bit, proceeding into a mid-paced mood setter that shifts gears throughout the tune. “New Dawn” is the standout cut on VERTEBRAE, best capturing where the band has been and where they are going. A definite nod to the old days, it kicks off like an old school barn (church?) burner before giving way to their more modern tendencies. “Reflection” sounds almost new wave in spots and has a tough time figuring out where it wants to go. “Center” is another old school throwback, this time with a slower doomed out vibe. VERTBERAE closes with “The Watcher”, also the first single from the release. Another mid-tempo ambient rocker, it’s a fine tune in its own respect but it doesn’t stray far from where they’ve already been on the previous 7 cuts.
And that’s the biggest problem with VERTEBRAE. With a couple of exceptions, there’s not much to differentiate track 1 from track 3 or track 8, etc. Independently the songs are interesting enough compositions, but collectively it’s very formulaic. Fuzzy guitars, layers of keyboards, clean vocal harmonies mixed with dirty garbled growls, adjust tempo 2 or 3 times throughout song – lather, rinse, repeat…Enslaved sound like a band at a crossroads with VERTEBRAE. While not an exceptional record, VERTEBRAE is still pretty good and worth a listen. It’s an eclectic addition to the band’s catalog and offers some foreshadowing of what may lie ahead for the band.