Although, in my humblest of opinions, ENSLAVED has never played a 'typical' sound for Black Metal, it is an irrefutable fact that the band has made steps towards a more progressive and left-of-center sound with each new release. Before releasing what are now considered to be their greatest 'Prog' albums, ENSLAVED experimented with the new Prog Rock elements with such albums as “Monumension” and this, 2003's “Below The Lights”. Personally, I have found that the band started off quite strong, but took some time to properly incorporate the Prog fixtures into their sound. It is surprising then, that “Below The Lights” has worked out to become one of my favourite ENSLAVED records to date. Despite still sounding like a Progressive Metal that was still trying to get on their feet, ENSLAVED shows some of their greatest promised here, delivering the same ferocity they had starting out, with the new additions to create a record that is flawed, but all too pleasantly so. An excellent album from these Norwegian Black Metallers.
Although I am sure it will put off the orthodox Black Metal fans like a bad case of the bubonic plague, “Below The Lights” starts off with a melancholic mellotron passage; a surprisingly effective way to lead the listener into the intense riffing to come. The closest comparison I could draw to this combination of styles would be OPETH, due to the fact that both bands combine Black Metal and Prog Rock, but don't necessarily blend the two as one. In other words, there are aspects of the mix that are uniquely 'Prog' and others that stay true to ENSLAVED's roots. Regardless of this though, the sounds generally work together quite well, and when they don't, it seems to be more a fault of the album's rather inconsistent production, which is certainly cleaner than on ENSLAVED's earlier material, but its sometimes muddy and flawed sounding recording makes it sound like the engineer was more of a weekend warrior than a full-time professional. Be this as it may, ENSLAVED's performance is none the lesser for it.
While I am quite a fan of the music that ENSLAVED makes, and has made over the past 20 years, their presentation of the music sometimes lacks the sort of bite that I would generally come to expect in Black Metal, and things are no different with “Below The Lights”. Although nowhere near as big an offender as “Isa” when it comes to sounding cold, the way the guitar riffs are played sometimes feel a little too by-the-numbers and lack some organic feeling that would have otherwise made the music come more alive. In the scheme of most of ENSLAVED's progressive albums though, this one is certainly performed with a greater level of intensity, and the music is made all the more enjoyable for it.
In terms of album flow, cohesion was certainly not the biggest priority on the band's agenda at this point, but the first six tracks flow with some nice precision. The first and sixth tracks (“As Fire Swept Clean The Earth” and “Ridicule Swarm”, respectively) both open up with similar mellotron passages, and it feels as if it gives this series of songs a nice 'beginning and finish' feeling to them. The seventh track is, of course, the true closer to the album, but in terms of listening to the album, it does feel as if it is left out from the way that the record was put together.
ENSLAVED's “Below The Lights” is certainly flawed, and the flaws are pronounced enough to clearly identify them in my eyes. However, it is the added sense of organism that this album has that endears me to it above many other albums by the band. An excellent album from ENSLAVED, and a great marker of the band's progress up to this point in their career.
(Online January 12, 2012)