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Road Reports

Who: Enslaved, Alcest, and Junius
Bottom Lounge, Chicago, USA

If my calculations are right—and what better hook for a metal concert review than mathematics—the last time Enslaved toured the States as a headlining band was...could you guess? As far back as 2007. Fleshed out by Arsis, The Faceless, and The Agonist, the tour was a puzzling combination of bearded Norse mysticism and new school, Tom's Shoes and tight jeans-sporting American technicality. The Chicago stop was The Pearl Room in Mokena, a sprawling, short-lived venue in the south suburbs that sucked tours out of the city like a black hole with biker tats. Naturally, Enslaved were a joy to watch (as were Arsis in their heyday) but for some reason that set ranks behind some others I've seen the band perform: co-headlining with Dark Funeral earlier that same year, opening for Dimmu Borgir last autumn, and most notably as special guests with Opeth in 2009. Part of it was the space—the Pearl Room lacked for atmosphere and camaraderie—but I think part of it was also the band themselves. For all their individual talents and the quality of their discography, Enslaved in '07 felt faintly distant, both from the audience and at times from each other. They were also touring in support of 'Ruun', a phenomenal record in its own right, but also one of murky isolation and heavy introspection. Even the album's booklet showed the band members each dredged up from the depths of a black pool, water-fed and dead. The two records they've released since have marked a new era for the band—organic, expansive, and radiant. It is as if Enslaved have finally become the band they were meant to be, 20 years on. But of course, I think that every time Enslaved drops a new album, since each is markedly different from the last and takes a half-dozen spins until it unlocks its treasures. Whatever course they take, after a decade of lineup changes and additions, this post-millennial configuration of Enslaved seems set for good. And we should be so lucky, for the dynamic at work here is magnificent. Each member's contributions are vital and distinct, making Enslaved one of the most complete bands in metal today. While other extreme prog titans (e.g. Opeth, Ihsahn) continue to dazzle, everyone recognizes them as individual visions. But Enslaved? Like the chorus on an old Mellotron, their combined voices blend in a harmony that is uniquely, vibrantly satisfying. And this is why the Enslaved touring the US in 2011 is the best Enslaved I have ever seen.

The road to this revelation was not swift, though, nor free of detours. Much as we may have liked it, this show did not begin with Enslaved, and in fact did not even begin with the lineup as it was originally billed, months ago. Originally the support was to come from French art-everything Alcest and the Satanic reincarnation of Boston—Sweden's mysterious Ghost. I have alternately heard the latter described as Sahg playing at half-volume in their mother's basement or, more succinctly, as a flaccid Mercyful Fate, All three descriptions have their merits, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Ghost's eerily playful black masses would have been an absolute lark to see live and almost certainly left the audience stupefied and ripe for Enslaved's plucking. Alas, it was not to be; the band (whoever they are) could not secure their visas by the time the tour began, and were replaced by Junius, an occasionally metallic post-rock quartet from Boston.

Like most of the audience, I was not too familiar with Junius's discography, although I did enjoy their debut EP 'Blood is Bright' when it emerged in '06. Since those days, they have evolved into an emotive, vocally adventurous hybrid of Isis, Interpol, The Smiths, and that panoply of pensive instrumentalists emerging from New England in recent years (see: Irepress). Plus some really heavy chords.

And that was the key, here, at least for this crowd. Typically, plugging away at tortuous pedalboards, hunching over instruments, and singing with one's eyes closed aren't especially good methods of engaging with the audience. Especially when the vocals are buried in the mix. But the band can be forgiven some rough patches in their stage show, considering the short notice they were given before hopping on the road for several weeks. Delays in setups cut into their performance, which was further diminished by several overlong pauses between songs, constant retuning, and the (admittedly very speedy) replacement of a broken guitar string. They do earn some points back for their DIY light show—powered by a Laney footswitch—of boards topped with an array of ultra-bright bulbs like a dressing room vanity. These, powered on and off at climactic junctures, helped emphasize the band's thoughtful ebb and flow. Junius also made extensive use of effects—pedals and cables jumbled before the guitarists' feet like spilled bowls of electric pasta and meatballs—that did a reasonable job of emulating the lushness of their recordings. It was during the choruses that they really shone, when the effects were dialed back, or rather overwhelmed, by the brawny, drop-tuned pulses and persistent percussion, driving towards an almost hypnotic peak by the end of their set. Some in the crowd still would have rather seen Ghost, but Junius made a strong showing in a tough spot and were a commendable replacement.

Replacements nonetheless, though, meaning that the next band to the stage was the first that any of us had really come to see—Alcest, and its founder Neige. After years spent in the French black metal underground with Mortifera, Celestia, and others, Neige broke into the relative mainstream with this controversial hybrid of black metal and shoegaze. Critics derided its delicate sensibilities, but it was that same union of raw pathos and almost quaint indie phrasing that won over a generation of new fans, and certainly was the key to their Stateside success. Urban record shops weren't likely to put on Mortifera's 'Ciel Brouille' after, say, a Sun Airway 8", but they could burble endlessly about Alcest's 'Souvenirs D'un Autre Monde'. And so they did, though posh outlets like Pitchfork preferred to term the band as 'metallurgists' to spare themselves the associations with regular ol' metal bands like Slayer, et al.

In any event, Alcest is Neige's vehicle of choice these days for his ethereal fantasies, and even if I didn't enjoy their music, curiosity would have kept me in the front row to witness their performance. The stage was flooded with blue light, which cast a ghostly pallor over the band members and instantly invoked the art of their album covers. When Neige appeared, he approached the microphone demurely, somehow managing to look unassuming even with a feather adornment dangling about his open collar. This modesty was shared by all the members, although it did prove more difficult for second guitarist Zero. As broad-shouldered and tall as he is wiry thin, he wore his tight jeans tucked into combat boots and boasted the most rakish sideburns I have seen this side of the 19th century. Nonetheless, he and Neige paired together well, crooning into their microphones, delicately tapping heels, shoulders diffidently askew, and hardly acknowledging the rapt audience before them. The remaining two on stage, Winterhalter on drums (actually the only other “official" member), and Indria on bass, were similarly reserved, but their performances helped draw out the underlying layers of Alcest's music that give momentum to Neige's melodic musings. Still, I would have liked the vocals to be louder, since the guitars had a habit of washing over their delicate harmonies.

On that note, I never expected to see a Rat distortion pedal used to create Alcest's eldritch melancholy. Zero, too, was unexpectedly using a large Line 6 multi-effects pedal for his rig. It did appear, though, that they were largely sharing gear with Junius, and for Neige and company atmosphere has always taken precedence over tonal nitpicking. And what an atmosphere. With hardly a stage show to speak of and relying upon the hypnotic force of their melodies alone, Alcest projected a presence both soothing and somber. Seeing them live will lay to rest all debate over whether Alcest is downtrodden and morose, as some have argued, or otherworldly and uplifting, as Neige ultimately intended. Only towards the end of the set, when Neige briefly deployed his inimitable shrieks, did the melancholy spirit override the ruminative. I still can hardly fathom how he creates such a sound, but after seeing it done I have a better understanding of what it takes. When he screams, Neige's entire body seems wracked by the emission—his eyes redden and bulge, his expression changes from pacific to tortured—and when he is through, he is spent. Not defeated, but clearly affected by the effort.

When Alcest toured the US as headliners last year, I regrettably missed it, and some of those who saw them on that tour deemed this performance as a little less magical. This is understandable, given their supporting role here and the matchless atmosphere of an inaugural transatlantic tour. I was moved nonetheless, and will not miss them again.

Once the blue shadows lifted from the stage, the hour had come for Enslaved, one band that I have never missed since discovering 'Below the Lights' almost 10 years ago. In many superficial regards, this show was quite like each of those I've seen them perform in the past. The backline is evenly split between the impassive Cato on stage right, holding down a meticulous beat from behind his impressive kit, and the angular but elegant Herbrand leaning into his keyboard and swirling up through the mix at every right moment. Ice Dale, the eternally shirtless “living action figure" (as Grutle called him), commands front stage left with his black Les Paul, which he wields like a champion carrying a banner. Grutle holds court at center stage, his rune-inscribed bracers the band's most visually direct nod to their Viking roots, gesticulating grandly and transfixing the audience with his intense stare. On stage right, the bearish Ivar, perpetually wearing a black t-shirt depicting a heavily knotted cross (honestly, I think he's worn it at every show of theirs I've seen over the past five years), keeping mostly to his corner and churning out headbanging riff after riff. This precisely describes the lineup, stage setup, and outfits the band has employed each of the last four times I've seen them. But in digging a little deeper one sees how their chemistry, their confidence as US-headliners, and their maturity as musicians have all developed.

A microcosm of this growth is the dynamic between Ice Dale and Ivar, the former representing the band's new blood and the latter its oldest roots. The potential of this union was always apparent, but on 'Axioma Ethica Odini' it has surpassed all expectations. Rather than viewing Enslaved as Ivar, Grutle, and a handful of other guys, audiences now must reckon with five brilliant performers, each as worthy of the spotlight as the next. Meanwhile, Ivar and Ice Dale have blossomed into one of metal's most unsung guitar tandems: the former is a truly gifted lead player whose tasteful virtuosity raise numbers like 'Fusion of Sense and Earth' to the level of arena rock worship. The latter is a tireless mill of invigorating, precisely enunciated rhythms that are simple enough to allow Herbrand and Grutle great vocal freedom, yet still metrically unconventional and rarely obvious. Ivar is no slouch on the solos, either, and his cerebral style is the link between Ice Dale's semi-shredding and Enslaved's archaic foundation.

Naturally, one other thing that has changed of necessity over the years is the setlist. Never ones to dwell in the past, Enslaved have consistently favored their latest releases over their “classic" era, and rarely play more than a song or two from the 90s. This set list actually intended to dig up 'The Voices' and 'Jotunblod', but both were skipped. I would have loved to have heard more old numbers, which are invariably improved upon by this more experienced lineup, but I can't fault them for sticking to the present. Enslaved are always forward looking, never regressing, and it would be disingenuous of them to dwell too much on former glories, especially when their contemporary output is so worthy of celebration. Besides, the surprise waiting at the end of the 90-minute setlist was a worthy replacement: 'Ethica Odini', 'Raidho', 'Fusion of Sense and Earth', 'Heimvegen', 'Ground', Giants', Ruun', 'As Fire Swept Clean the Earth', 'Allfadr Odinn', and encores of 'Immigrant Song' and 'Isa'. That's right, the 'Immigrant Song'. It was marked on their setlist simply as 'I.S', perhaps in an attempt to keep the surprise from prying eyes in the front row. And it was a monster.

Though I do not number 'Immigrant Song' among my favorites from Zeppelin, nor am I even too great a Zeppelin fan, 'Immigrant Song' is the perfect number for Enslaved to cover. After blasting out of the gate with that rollicking riff, Ivar and Ice Dale traded interpretations of the iconic, strident lead (which Led Zeppelin stole from Lucifer's Friend, anyway) while Herbrand and Grutle traded lines, intertwined, and otherwise rocked out enormously. The song's midsection was given over to rowdy soloing that stretched the originally 2:24 number to more than six minutes, and the audience would gladly have taken as many more. It was altogether a bracing end ('Isa', which actually closed the night, was almost an anticlimax) to a masterful performance, and I struggle to see how Enslaved can raise the bar for their next effort. But they will, I know.

They always do.

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