Celebrating more than ten years as a band at that point, Enslaved unleashed this album upon the Scandinavian Viking/black metal scene in 2004. Isa marked the continuation of a “new sound era” of sorts for Enslaved; it invoked heavier shades of progressive music and melody while retaining the Viking and Norse themes of their early years (though it was a gradual process). To think this was the same band that created 1994’s Frost, now considered a black metal classic.
Traditional black metal screeches are augmented by the occasional clean vocal, and rough buzzsaw guitars are touched up with some more melodic arrangements. It’s a satisfying brew that shows more complexity than is apparent from the album cover, a black and white design that looks like part of a sword handle. Inside the wrist guard, a human figure lifts its hands in praise to a Norse god. Within the album booklet, a series of charcoal landscapes form a backdrop for the printed lyrics. The classic Norwegian fjords, lakes and mountains are present and do their job of transporting the listener to the frozen lands of the north. They are the landscapes of myth and legend, and Isa is the soundtrack by which you observe them.
1. Intro – Green Reflection
2. Lunar Force
5. Bounded By Allegiance
6. Violet Dawn
7. Return To Yggdrasill
8. Secrets of the Flesh (Instrumental)
10. Outro – Communion
Isa’s one small drawback to my ears is that it gets off to a bit of a slow start. Although “Lunar Force” is the most straightforward “black metal” track on the album and the title track makes good use of clean vocals, I found Enslaved to be at their strongest towards the latter half of the album. Beginning with “Bounded By Allegiance,” the band firms up its footing with some longer songs, including the epic 12-minute “Neogenesis,” which includes two magnificently constructed guitar solos (which I always like to see in extreme music). “Violet Dawn” has its distorted chords and light synth touches to describe the natural phenomenon in its title.
“Secrets of the Flesh” is a wondrous, chugging instrumental, and leading into that is “Return to Yggdrasill.” A terrific story that leans toward the epic/atmospheric side, it is perhaps Enslaved’s signature song. It’s just beautifully, sonically balanced between the serene acoustic guitars and floating singing, counteracting the harsh screams and double-bass drumming intensity.
Yggdrasill is a part of Norse mythology and refers to the “World Tree” around which the Norse gods gather from their nine worlds. The closing lyric “We will gather again to watch the harvest” probably refers to Ragnarok (the Norse version of the apocalypse), when the tree is believed to shudder and groan at the end times of the world. I have to give a shout-out to Sam Dunn for including that song in his black metal documentary (an add-on to his full movie Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey). That was where I first heard it, and it is one of the songs that helped shape my introduction to extreme music.
Among Enslaved fans, this album usually ranks fairly well (as in, “good, but not as good as Frost, Below The Lights, or even their recent albums like Vertebrae and Axioma Ethica Odini.”) Regardless of its overall place in the bands canon, I feel I’ll always have a soft spot for it, even as Enslaved continues to crank out amazing work (their latest, In Times, is pretty good too). This is the first Enslaved album I got, and I have the rest of their deep discography to slake my thirst with as well.
Nevertheless, Isa on its own is a well-executed metal album. In the liner notes’ “Thank Yous” section, lead guitarist Arve Isdal “wishes to thank the f*ckers in Enslaved,” and so do I for this record, and for all their others too.
Written by Matt P