Hi! My name is David and I’m here to tell you all about the letter E. What words that begin with E do you know? Elephant? Elated? What about ‘ehwaz’? Well, I guess technically ‘ehwaz’ isn’t a word, but it is imperative to the album we’ll be delving into today. I’ll explain later, I promise. Norwegian black/prog metal band Enslaved have been sonically progressing for years and years, proving that they still have ideas and, more importantly, they are capable of executing those ideas in a manner that is loyal to their roots and also fresh. This is how we got In Times, an album that was in my personal top ten in 2015. I’m happy to say that E continues the trend of Enslaved traveling further down the prog rabbit hole, producing what is probably their best album in the process.
Okay, so let’s go over the premise of this album a bit. Guitarist Ivar Bjørnson explains what’s up with ‘ehwaz’ (ᛖ) and the significance of E as a title:
‘Ehwaz (pronounced and used as what’s known as E, but drawn as an “M”) looks like and means ‘horse’. Which is closely linked to its esoteric meaning; which is ‘trust’ and ‘co-operation’… It is about the symbioses that surrounds us; which are vital to our existence, to our development – on all scales: man and vessel (for instance horse, yes), a person and its significant other… There are many levels and variations of this concept on the album; the duality of man and nature, present and past personalities within one self, the conscious fear and the subconscious drive. And other symbiosis.’
These concepts exist loosely within the music, but still influence and inspire much of what we have here with E. Now, let’s get into how this album actually sounds and makes good use of the premise.
“Storm Son” is a marvel to behold, and easily is one of the best singles I’ve heard all year, featuring a ten-minute epic with a pretty guitar intro, catchy riffs and amazing choir vocals during the chorus. Suspense stacks as the song builds to its climax of driving guitars and Cato Bekkevold’s stampede-like drums. The clean vocals provided by new keyboardist Håkon Vinje (who has pipes similar to Mikael Akerfeldt) are pleasant and a great contrast with bassist Grutle Kjellson’s harsh, raspy vocals. I get chills listening to this song, as if standing on a misty, emerald green hill at the shoreline of Norway welcoming the wind of an ensuing storm. This track is near perfect.
“The River’s Mouth” starts up a lot quicker than its predecessor, getting straight to it with heavy riffs and harsh vocals. Vinje and Kjellson harmonize a bit before Vinje breaks off on his own to sing a soaring chorus. Nature pervades the end of the track, which has what sounds like howling wind as a backdrop for the guitar and drums to march in front of with a nice melody. “Sacred Horse” doesn’t waste any time getting going either. Guitars and keyboard harmonize to great effect, ripping open the short-lived meditative calm at the very beginning of the track. There’s also a pretty unexpected, but wonderfully playful, keyboard solo in the middle of the track that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Emerson, Lake & Palmer album.
“Axis of the Worlds” is probably the weakest track, but still very much enjoyable. It hits many of the same beats with Kjellson leading vocals for verses and Vinje handling the hooks, all while the guitars create very fluid melodies with some keyboard and synth accents especially toward the end of the track. “Feathers of Eolh”, ‘eolh’ (ᛉ) meaning elk, is a toned down song and probably the biggest sonic departure. Clean vocals are present throughout, which is a welcomed change, and off-kilter guitars make the song’s rhythm stand out. Flutes provided by Daniel Mage give a more calm, earthy and natural vibe to the track that was largely absent from the previous couple of songs.
The last track, “Hiindsiight” (sic), incorporates saxophone (!!!) by Kjetil Møster into the instrumentation. If you know me, you know I’ll take sax with anything, but it’s very tastefully used here mostly for texture; one solo and some sustained notes placed in the back of the mix between verses. Even though “Storm Son” is by far my favorite track on E, “Hiindsiight” has the epic mood made to close out an album like this. It’s a very radiant track.
I see people accuse Enslaved of remaining too stagnant with their writing, saying that they have effectively written the same songs for years now without much change. Also, some song passages threaten to stay around longer than necessary. It’s no surprise that I love the proggier side of their work and that’s because I have only been a fan for that period. I’ve heard their older, blacker material and like it as well, but prefer the recent years. Regardless of all of that though, I think the band has made great strides just between In Times and E. They have a new keyboardist and clean vocalist which have undoubtedly influenced, or perhaps even invigorated, their sound despite Vinje not having an apparent hand in the writing.
For what it’s worth, this album is a strong, dynamic entry that isn’t missing much of what I would want from an Enslaved album, with some added extras that push the album past the threshold of being good to being great; excellent even. They set out to impress upon listeners the synergistic relationships that occupy our lives with special attention spent on the relationship between humans and nature. On that front alone, E is an absolute success. This music captures the primal, unrelenting aspects of nature, but also the unreserved beauty that it holds. It has an attunement with nature and its elements I rarely see in heavy music. Even if you feel atrophied from the band’s recent offerings, give this a try. If you love their recent work like me, you’ll find a lot more to love here. Absolutely stunning.
Notable Tracks: “Storm Son”; “Sacred Horse”; “Hiindsiight”
FFO: Ihsahn, Amorphis, Turisas, Opeth