On their fifth album “Mardraum”, Norwegian Black Metal act ENSLAVED hinted that they were finally breaking out of the mundane Viking Metal sound that they had dabbled with on their third and fourth records. This was a move that I very much supported, although as far as “Mardraum” went, it felt more like a halfstep in the right direction, rather than a proper destination. “Mardraum” is now considered by some to be the band's greatest album, but I would argue that the sixth record “Monumension” took what they tried to do on “Mardraum”, and took it to a new degree. Refining parts of their sound that were underwhelming or a little too raw, ENSLAVED maintains a Thrashy Black Metal edge here, but contrasts it with psychedelic prog rock. The result is a spacey and exciting journey that still lacks the touch of the later albums, but nurtures the same adventurous heart and spirit involved.
“Monumension” is ENSLAVED's most underrated album, and for good reason; it's locked between some of the band's most acclaimed achievements; “Mardraum”, “Between The Lights”, and finally “Isa”, where ENSLAVED's sound would get a much more professional do-over. While I cannot consider “Monumension” to be the greatest thing that ENSLAVED have done - that honour will likely always rest with “Vertebrae”- this would be the first time in ENSLAVED's career where they were finally making good use of their progressive inclinations. Before, I found ENSLAVED's moderate experimentation in psychedelia and 'epic' composition to be somewhat mixed in result. Finally, the psychedelic sounds are taking a more deserving presence in the sound, sometimes here with entire tracks being devoted to the pursuit of mellow space-outs. The clean vocals would never sound so good for ENSLAVED as they do here, but unlike “Isa”, there is still enough of an organic feel to the production and performance to make the album feel alive.
The heavier elements of ENSLAVED are much more familiar for the band, being more or less on par with the work they were doing on “Mardraum”. This is certainly not the Norwegian Black Metal of the early 90's playing; while the vocal rasps are certainly rooted in that style, the riffs here are much more technical than anything that was coming out of Norway a decade earlier; it is nice to see how the genre had progressed over that time. One thing that still plagues ENSLAVED's sound at this point however is the sense of album cohesion; whether it was simply a lacking in studio flair or otherwise, “Monumension” still gives me that somewhat underwhelming sense of continuity that most of ENSLAVED's music has; the songs in themselves are quite good, but the space in between them only serves to derail what is otherwise an excellent experience. It's still a little rough around the edges, but “Monumension” is an album that shouldn't be missed by anyone looking to explore what this band is all about; while “Mardraum” hinted at what the progressive ENSLAVED would sound like, “Monumension” would go to realize the vision.
(Online January 10, 2012)