The old adage “aged like fine wine” typically isn’t one used in the context of musicians, let alone artists working within the confines of rock and metal, but Enslaved make for the rare exception. Active since 1991, the Nordic quintet forged a path of blackened earth with withering records like the uncompromising “Frost” and 2001’s crushing “Monumension.” But standing still was never part of the plan; the band began experimenting with sounds of decades past, venturing further from their blackened core and closer to the progressive slant of 1970s rock. But that core – the blistering, inhospitable black metal – is exactly what the five Norsemen intended to recapture with “In Times.” Fusing that vile sound to the expansive scale of their most recent recordings should, in theory, have made for a definitive statement. It didn’t. Instead, Enslaved has finally shown its fans that even the tallest of giants eventually tumble down to earth. For the first time, Enslaved sound less like shrouded acolytes conjuring the raw element of their Nordic roots and more like tired imitators grasping at past glories.
Flickering sparks of the band’s ingenuity are scattered throughout the record’s six tracks, but these individual moments rarely cohere into compelling wholes. “Daylight,” for instance, features one of Enslaved’s finest guitar solos to date, but that stunning display can’t rescue the aimless drift of the tune it supports. Carried to that exhilarating conclusion on the weariest of riffs, it’s a chore to sift through the song’s nine minutes. Moreover, it’s a painfully vivid reminder of just how vital this band sounded a mere three years ago. Enslaved hasn’t just penned better riffs than this; they’ve penned better songs as well. Sure, album opener “Thurisaz Dreaming” may be the band’s most upfront assault in ages, but it also happens to be their weakest. As the track roars on, it becomes increasingly clear that Enslaved is stuck in a rut and spinning its wheels. Gruttle’s vocals may deliver the band’s promise of renewed brutality, but his ferocity is often deflated by the lifeless wash of noise beneath. It’s beyond disappointing given just how talented this crew has proven themselves over the years.
Even when the record shines, it can’t manage to sustain the luster. “Nauthir Bleeding” serves as the perfect example. The brooding ambient sprawl of the track’s intro churns through extended permutations of Floydian drama before exploding in a surge of primal fury. Beyond this clever bait-and-switch tactic, however, is yet another over-extended progressive jam that winds through far too many ideas, hitting unbelievable highs just as often as it hits head-scratching lows. “One Thousand Years of Rain” sports some of the band’s catchiest melodies to date but is ruthlessly sabotaged by the ridiculous medieval chanting that halts the song’s momentum. Inadvertently, Enslaved has created a mad game of back and forth between sheer brilliance and puzzling incompetence. It’s the type of song — and really the type of album — that a listener can only take so much of before throwing their hands up in the air, white flag waving.
Unfortunately, “In Times” is the type of record that’s going to leave fans wrestling with nostalgia for the better times. Never before has the band seemed so content to ride its own success, as if they’ve methodically pried the scraps from records past and furnished such a perfectly recycled replica that even they can’t even gleam the deficiencies. As Enslaved moves forward, change is going to be necessary; it always has been, but the need for new inspiration has become more apparent than ever. Enslaved, for better or worse, made good on its word to meld the past and the present, but it just might be time to leave both behind and gaze towards the future.