I had a hard time with RIITIIR initially. Not because it’s particularly tough to listen to, or even that it’s a vast departure from what Enslaved usually do – more that it’s LESS of an evolution of their sound than I might have expected. Across the band’s 21-year history, and certainly since Eld in 1997, they’ve pushed their early black metal template in directions unexplored by many of their contemporaries to the point where the blackened sound is practically vestigial, more of an atmospheric effect than anything more tangible.
RIITIIR maintains the course set upon all those years ago, revelling in a more progressive sound again than their previous album (the peerless Axioma Ethica Odini, easily one of my favourite albums of the last decade) and setting a fairly hefty challenge even for long-time fans. Some of this shift is easy to isolate, in that the vocal duties have changed priority – where even on Axioma Ethica Odini the ‘lead’ role was very much played by the pairing of bassist Grutle Kjellson’s parched snarl and Ice Dale’s cavernous roar, RIITIIR gives most of the centre-stage to keyboardist Herbrand Larsen whose smooth, classic rock tenor lends a less threatening air to the record as a whole. It’s a classy move – Larsen has always been a very decent singer, but he’s gained in confidence, range and power to move to the ranks of the elite, and he’s responsible for driving these songs to hitherto-unknown heights of emotional complexity and creating some genuinely memorable hooks either alone (“Roots Of The Mountain’) or in conjunction with the other vocalists as on ‘Veilburner’.
The sheer length of the arrangements on this record is a matter of some concern, at least until you actually listen to the thing – Enslaved have proven many times that they’re more than capable of creating vast, sweeping epics (lest we forget, Eld BEGINS with a 16-minute track!), and they’ve not lost the knack of keeping your interest. See, as a prime example, where Herbrand takes over the vocal in ‘Materal’ at about the six-minute mark to provide a vital melodic and atmospheric break in the song’s thudding oppressiveness.
So, that hard time I had at first? As I said, it’s as much to do with a bit of disappointment that Enslaved hadn’t gone even further down the progressive path, but more listens saw that melt away to be replaced with a real sense that they’ve actually done precisely what they needed to follow Axioma – the final track ‘Forsaken’ is as bleak and lonely as the title suggests, and it’s only when the last notes of this fade away that you realise the journey you’ve been taken on. Bear with it and be rewarded with a trip through some of the finest progressive metal of 2012.