When recollecting the histories of some of the greatest metal bands there’s often a sink or swim moment following lackluster albums or a musical dead end, where it was a necessity to reinvent themselves in some way (or quite simply release an incredible comeback album) — Metallica went more commercial with The Black Album after the excesses of …and Justice for All, Judas Priest made their glorious return with Painkiller, and Megadeth’s opus Rust in Peace simply blew the rest of their material out of the water. Even if it’s easily the most red-headed stepchild of metal genres in terms of general musical approach (and non-musical controversy), black metal has a number of artists that followed a similar trajectory. Bathory took things in a mythological and epic direction with Hammerheart and beyond, Darkthrone has been inspired by heavy metal and crust punk for nearly two decades now, and Ulver abandoned the genre once they had nothing more to offer it.
This leads us to Enslaved in 2003. After releasing classic albums of black metal’s second wave with Vikingligr veldi and Frost, they began incorporating more and more progressive elements beginning with Mardraum and Monumension; increasingly dynamic song structures and technical playing as well as largely abandoning the relentless blast beats and trem-picking that characterized the early material. However, some of the experimentation on Monumension fell flat in several ways, thus deeming it necessary for the band to take a big next step. After abandoning unnecessary baggage in their lineup Enslaved crafted Below the Lights, an atmospheric, technical, yet beautifully dark and heavy album that defined progressive black metal and paved the way for what might be the most consistent string of releases in extreme metal history. Today is the 20th anniversary of its release, so let’s revisit what makes this monumental album so special.
Doing a bit of background research before diving back into Below the Lights, I tried looking for any sort of consensus on when “progressive black metal” truly came about — there were certainly more forward-thinking black metal albums in Arcturus’ Aspera Hiems Symfonia and the final two Emperor albums (in addition to pioneering avant-garde debuts from Fleurety and Ved Buens Ende), but I think only Borknagar and Vintersorg may have gotten the jump on Enslaved by taking the first steps down this subgenre path. Yet when it comes to taking more overt inspiration from classic ’70s prog like Rush, King Crimson, and Genesis and combining that with black metal, Enslaved and Below the Lights stand out as one of the first (and best). I sometimes like to measure Enslaved albums in terms of what the ratio of black to prog metal is, and Below the Lights is pretty much 50/50.
One needs only listen to legendary opener “As Fire Swept Clean the Earth” to get a taste of how far the band had progressed in the short time since Monumension; the eerie atmosphere conjured by the mellotron, the nasty syncopated riff in the middle section of the song, and the soft high-register lead that accompanies the main riff through to its ferocious blast beat conclusion. It perfectly encapsulates how on Below the Lights Enslaved demonstrated much more precision not only in terms of playing, but songwriting; this album heralded the return of Ivar Bjørnson as sole composer (a post he has held on every album since). Songwriting duties began to be shared on Blodhemn, so it’s no surprise that Ivar taking command once again meant the quality of songs would dramatically increase.
It’s not uncommon for opening tracks to be the best an album has to offer, so how does the rest of the album fare? “The Dead Stare” is a great example of how a single riff can be built upon and transformed; the Fripp-esque riff that comprises the second half of the song is slowly bolstered by jamming synths, mysterious effects, and Grutle Kjellson’s clean vocals. “The Crossing” is a multi-segmented epic that takes the listener on a journey through an acoustic guitar intro and razor-sharp riffs alternating between 6/8 and 9/8, before concluding with a majestic blackened finale. “Queen of Night” goes full Jethro Tull with it’s folksy flute-driven intro (legend has it the session flautist asked for a copy of the album and the band never heard from her again) before transitioning to thrashy black fury accompanied by a ripping solo from Ice Dale.
Thanks in large part it seems to its inclusion in the documentary Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey (wonder if that’s withstood the test of time? I loved it as a burgeoning metalhead) “Havenless” remains one of Enslaved’s most popular songs, and there’s no questioning why. Catchy Norwegian chants backed by an equally catchy riff, and a fantastic rhythmic exercise that makes up the middle of the song. As if to “ridicule” any remaining trve kvlt listeners who might’ve checked out by this point in the album, “Ridicule Swarm” features a brief return to the icy riffage of the 1990s (in between more mellotron and bouncy atmospherics). Below the Lights concludes with “A Darker Place” which has a little bit of everything I’ve mentioned that makes this album great (and a soulful extended solo from guest guitarist Inge Rypdal).
Looking back with two decades of hindsight, it’s awesome to see how Enslaved themselves have acknowledged the importance of Below the Lights in the grand scheme of their career; it’s the only post-Eld album they’ve currently played in full live, and was even given a spotlight during their 2020 “Cinematic Tour” — go check that performance out right now if you have a few bucks, 50 minutes to spare, and missed out on it the first time (give it a re-watch if you’ve seen it before, for just another reminder of how damn good the current lineup is). An Enslaved setlist without at least one song from this album is a rare occurrence, and audiences were treated to both “The Dead Stare” and “Havenless” on their Heimdal North American tour last month.
Below the Lights would be a major standout in any other band’s discography, yet for Enslaved it merely heralded the beginning of a new era of unparalleled consistency. After the necessary growing pains stage of Blodhemn through to Monumension Ivar Bjørnson was free to compose Enslaved’s music as he saw fit, and the resulting fusion of black and prog metal would set the stage for twenty years (and beyond) of incredible music. Even for a superfan such as myself it’s hard to pinpoint the very best Enslaved albums, but without a doubt Below the Lights ranks near the top.
For more information on Enslaved, visit their official website.