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.
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