Enslaved have always had a taste for the progressive. Even “Vikigir Veldi”, one of the high points of the second wave of black metal, contains a sprinkling of psychedelic synths and distinctly progressive song structures. Since the addition of drummer Cato Bekkvold and singer/keyboardist Herbrand Larson in 2004, Enslaved have significantly increased the amount of progressive and psychedelic elements, with varying degrees of success. With 2008’s “Vertebrae,” the progressive, viking and black metal elements melded into a near perfect album. Much of the success of “Vertebrae” was due to the simplification of the format. The songs centered on excellent melodies, steady mid-tempo rhythms and strong yet even contrasts between growled and clean passages. This “no frills” approach lead to Enslaved’s best release since 1994’s “Frost”.
“Axiom Ethica Odini” veers away from some of the elements that made its predecessor such a great work, opting for a more varied and dramatic sound. Many passages are good, some even great. However, most the songs also contain passages or transitions that are simply lacking in one respect or another. A number of songs on “Axiom…” are hurt when Larson overreaches on the clean vocals. When Larson stays in a low pitch he sounds like the second coming of David Gilmore. However, his voice is not as strong on the high end of the scale. On songs like “Singular” and “Raidho” Larson just isn’t able to belt out the powerful vocals needed to match the big, epic melodies. Another problem on “Axiom…” is that some passages are too dissimilar; consequently the transitions sound forced.
In spite of these weaknesses, “Axiom…” still has its virtues. There are a wide variety of great riffs and melodies throughout the album. In addition to plenty of black and progressive metal passages, “Axiom…” also contains some slow, heavy, head-banging passages (i.e. the lead riff of “Waruun”) that were absent from the past few releases. There are also some soft prog rock passages (i.e. the intro and verse of “Nightside”), which add a more relaxed dimension to the album.
Furthermore, the first and last songs of the album are just out of this world. The opener, “Ethica Ondini” contrasts an epic, fast paced verse, with a big, anthem-like chorus, building toward a glorious, soulful ending. The outro, “Lightning”, blends some catchy hooks with a dark, ominous chorus. Both songs contain a number of well-crafted twists.
Since 2004, Enslaved have explored a range of progressive styles. Albums like “Isa” and “Ruun” took influence from the more dynamic prog legends, such as Yes. “Vertebrae” slowed down the tempo, taking inspiration from the mellow sounds of mid-era Pink Floyd. “Axiom…” can be seen as a synthesis of the two styles, deploying the dynamic structures of “Isa” and “Ruun”, but infusing them with the lush, entrapping melodies found on “Vertebrae”. Overall the synthesis is interesting, but not nearly as much as the smooth, steady sound of “Vertbrae”. Ultimately “Axiom…” a solid addition to the Enslaved cannon—certainly not top tier, but still an enjoyable and engaging listen.