Review : ENSLAVED – "The Wooden Box"

EnslavedThe Wooden Box
Release Date: 2009Oct09 (EU)
Label: Viva Hate
Rating: 5/5

The eagerly-awaited album Axioma Ethica Odini by the Norwegian metal band Enslaved will be released on 27th September 2010. This record will be the follow-up to the band’s record from 2008, Vertebrae. I suspect the expectations are running high after the split reception Vertebrae got in the press and from the fans. Some people felt the band’s journey into progressive metal had strayed too far from the band’s black metal roots, while others felt the album was a natural successor to the albums Isa and Ruun. Well, I suppose it’s in the eye of the beholder.

To make the waiting period a little shorter, I’ll review the fantastic boxed set the band released last year, Wooden Box. The box set is the perfect gift to any Enslaved fanboy—pricey, but worth every penny. To cut a long story short – it’s the band’s output from their first demo cassette up to the album Below The Lights. The boxed set includes the demo cassette, seven vinyl releases on 180gr vinyl and two pieces of merchandise (a camo green cap and a belt buckle). And oh yes, did I mention there are only 700 copies worldwide?

The box itself is a stunning piece of art—a dark brown wood box with the band’s logo etched on the cover; it oozes vinyl fetish and is the perfect container for the band’s music. So what’s the music like?  First thing first:  I have not been able to listen to the demo tape, as I have been without a cassette player since the beginning of the nineties. But my record player is still running, so let’s move forward to 1992 and the previously unreleased instrumental, Hal Valr—a one-sided vinyl gem. The sound is rough, close to ugly. But this genre is well-known for its often crap production—it seems right in a wrong way. The song is a straightforward metal jam, but reveals that Enslaved‘s ability to groove was present early in the band’s career.

As I put the oldest record of the set, Frost, on the turntable, I’m transported back in time to when black metal was a infamous sub-genre, with Varg Vikernes burning churches and later imprisoned for killing his former friend Øystein Aarseth (to whom Enslaved‘s first full-length album, Vikingligr Veldi, is dedicated). In this environment the album must have sounded great, but I feel Frost sounds a little dated in 2010. However, such tracks as the thundering “Fenris”, the surprisingly mellow “Yggdrasil” and the furious “Svarte Vidder” makes this album worth checking out.

The albums that followed—Eld and Blodhemn—were released in the second half of the nineties. Rock was turning into a “safe” and boring entity, music journalists pronounced that “rock is dead”, and electronic music was hailed as the future for rock. Enslaved didn’t seem to listen, because songs like “793” (Slaget om Lindisfarne) is a massive 16-minute monument to the band’s visionary viking metal.  The rest of the songs on these albums, especially on Blodhemn, feel like classic black metal. Growling vocals, blast beats and sky-high walls of guitars.

The next record in this set, Mardraum, was originally released in 2000. The feeling of rebirth with a new millennium seems to have inspired Enslaved. This record is often left out when fans discuss the band’s best releases, but holds its own with a renewed focus on progressive riffs and arrangements borrowed from the classic rock of the ’70s. It’s still black metal, but clearly the band had started out on a journey where the focus would be on evolution rather than the status quo.

The world suddenly felt much smaller, and more dangerous, after the bombings of the World Trade Center in New York.  Enslaved released Monumension only a few months later—a first in many ways for the band.  Not only were all the lyrics now in English, but the record moved past the media stereotype of black metal; the band was compared beyond Immortal and Emperor, to Neurosis and Pink Floyd. They still clearly played black metal, but the band’s sound had mutated into what one could call post-black metal. It’s on this record that we hear the birth of today’s Enslaved, with great tunes such as “Vision: Sphere of the Elements – A Monument Part II”.

The last record in this boxed set is Below The Lights from 2003.  It feels like the band’s final transformation from purveyors of classic black metal to progressive experimentalists; in the future they’d cooperate with noise duo Fe-Mail in the collaboration Trinacria, and share the stage with the Norwegian free jazz/metal pioneers Shining. This album however, showed the way to the band’s major successes in the second half of the decade:  Isa, Ruun and Vertebrae.

Is the box set flawless? Well, no. The cap is too small (must be meant for children), Hal Valr could have been better, and the records should have been packaged in proper cardboard covers. But The Wooden Box is as close to perfect as most bands get in their lifetime. Strongly recommended!

FCC: OK

Tracklist:

Disc 1 – Hal Valr
1. Hal Valr

Disc 2 – Frost
1. Frost
2. Loke
3. Fenris
4. Svarte Vidder
5. Yggdrasil
6. Jotunblod
7. Gylfaginning
8. Wotan
9. Isödors Dronning

Disc 3 – Eld
1. 793 (Slaget Om Lindisfarne)
2. Hordalendingen
3. Alfablot
4. Kvasirs Blod
5. For Lenge Siden
6. Glemt
7. Eld

Disc 4 – Blodhemn
1. Intro: Audlumla, Birth Of The Worlds
2. I Lenker Til Ragnarok
3. Urtical Gods
4. Ansuz Astral
5. Nidingaslakt
6. Eit Auga Til Mimir
7. Blodhemn
8. Brisinghamen
9. Suttungs Mjød

Disc 5 – Mardraum
1. Større Enn Tid
2. Daudningekvida
3. Entrance – Escape
4. Ormgard
5. Æges Draum
6. Mardraum
7. Det Endelege Riket
8. Ormgard II – Kvalt I Kysk Høgsong
9. Krigaren Eg Ikkje Kjende
10. Stjerneheimen
11. Frøyas Smykke

Disc 6 – Monumension
1. Vonvoys To Nothingness
2. The Voices
3. Vision: Sphere Of The Elements – A Monument Part II
4. Hollow Inside
5. The Cromlech Gate
6. Enemy I
7. Smirr
8. The Sleep: Floating Diversity – A Monument Part III
9. Outro: Self Zero
10. Sigmundskvadet

Disc 7 – Below The Lights
1. As Fire Swept Clean The Earth
2. The Dead Stare
3. The Crossing
4. Queen Of Night
5. Havenless
6. Ridicule Swarm
7. A Darker Place

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