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Metal/Prog Metal Concert Reviews

Enslaved

Live in Allentown, PA, November 2007

Review by Julie Knispel

Norwegian black metal band Enslaved headlined a night of intense metal at Crocodile Rock Café in Allentown Pennsylvania on 6 November 2007. Formed in 1991, successive albums have seen the group moving away gradually from the traditional black metal scene, with keyboards, lengthy songs, and complex arrangements playing as much of a part in the band's sound as blast beats, distorted guitars, screamed vocals and raw aggression. Listening to them, it is easy to see where groups like Rush and Camel and other first or second generation progressive rock bands have informed the band's direction as much as Celtic Frost or Venom.

Live, the band is a totally different beast than on record. In the studio, they can carefully build up layers of sound, with multiple guitar parts and keyboards creating an often lush background for the group's pieces. Live, much of this must be stripped out, leaving the group leaner and meaner. This is not to say that they are incapable of recreating their material live; even stripped back, the songs retail their individual character and feel. It does mean that Enslaved does not rely on samples and triggers and so on...everything you hear is played by the five men on stage.

Grutle Kjellson is a great front man. He's not Robert Plant or Freddie Mercury, but by the same comparison, neither Plant nor Mercury is Kjellson. He holds the audience firmly in the palm of his hand, knowing when to apply pressure or release tension. He's a mad man, his facial expressions often betraying a darker purpose hidden within. And he thrashes on the bass as well, pounding his Gibson Thunderbird bass into submission. His voice is powerful, handling the screamed black metal vocals comfortably, with none of the gruffness or harshness carrying over into his spoken interludes to the audience. He is joined by sole remaining founder member Ivar Bjørnson, who was 13 years old when he started the group with Kjellson. Bjørnson handles most of the tricky rhythm parts, his hair obscuring his face as he bends over his six-string, coaxing out twisted chords and guitar lines like a sorcerer weaving spells.

Bjørnson and Kjellson are joined by three newer band members. Arve Isdal is the longest running "new" member of Enslaved, having joined the group in 2002. Isdal, known as Ice Dale within the group and among fans, handles most of the lead guitar parts, adding a touch of flash and technical prowess to the proceedings. From my standpoint, I found his playing to be a perfect complement to the band's sound; fluid and effortless, his soloing adds to the songs without taking them over.

   
Cato Bekkevold and Herbrand Larsen complete the group. Bekkevold (who joined in 2003) handles the drumming for Enslaved, and his playing is both thunderous and dexterous. He knows when to push the pedal to the floor, so to speak, and pound the audience into the floor with double bass blast beating, and then to lay back and add percussive accents to bring out the most in a song. Meanwhile, Larsen contributes live keyboards, with tones heavy on ornate church-like organ. The warm, dark, almost organic timbre of his keyboard patches very much matches the dark, earthy nature of the majority of Enslaved's material. Furthermore, he adds clean vocals to the songs where necessary, and the juxtaposition between Kjellson's black metal scream and Larsen's clear vocals adds a delicious tension when they are played off each other.

Despite the fact that Enslaved was playing for maybe 150 people tops, their performance was venue-shaking. Bass throbbed, drums pulsed and pounded, guitars crunched and screamed, as the band worked through an 80-minute set list drawing heavily from their two most recent albums, Isa and Ruun. Both are sung almost exclusively in English, which bears noting as previous efforts were sung in Icelandic, Old Norse or ancient Norwegian. Despite the change in sung language, the song's subject matter, most often drawn from Norse legend and myth, remains intact.

By the time the group returned to the stage for their encore, following a powerhouse trilogy of "Isa," "Return to Yggdrasill" and "Ruun," the audience was fairly well wrung out. That didn't stop the band from giving their all on a lengthy older piece, whose name I couldn't quite grab out of the aethyr, nor did it keep the crowd from banging along.

Something must be mentioned about the attendance. Crocodile Rock is not a huge venue by any stretch of the imagination, yet the main audience area was well less than half-filled. For a band such as Enslaved, who are covered in traditional Norse media and who have received accolades from their equivalent of the Grammy Awards, this must have seemed somewhat of a disappointment. One might be tempted to chalk the attendance up to the show’s scheduling on a weeknight; however, when compared to Finntroll’s performance a month and a half earlier, also on a Tuesday, and with more than three times as many in attendance, it casts a shadow over the long term future of live music, especially in a somewhat underground genre.

In the final reckoning, Enslaved pushed their audience to the limit, showcasing the power and finesse that are equal parts of the band’s musical curriculum vitae. Only 4 shows in on their North American tour, the band was firing on all cylinders, boding well for performances to follow.

   
This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2007 Volume 6 at lulu.com/strangesound.
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