RETRO TUESDAYS: Enslaved – Where is the Meaning (1994)

Formed as a supremely grotesque doomed death metal outfit in 1988, Cottbus, Germany project Necrophenistic Nightmare would undergo rapid transformation from Xysma and Carcass influenced death metal (see: early Afflicted) towards their second formation as technical death/thrash band Enslaved in 1990. You can still plunge elbow deep into the death/doom rot of their early sound if you track down the ‘Dark Tales of Insanity’ (1991) demo but beyond that point they’d found meaning in the sort of technical and unpredictable style of death/thrash that was popular in Deutsche relevant scenes for the first half of the 90’s. For the intrepid death metal rarities collector the whole of Enslaved‘s discography offers a shrine of difficult grabs but the first truly bizarre gem comes with the band’s first EP ‘Twisted Nature’ (1993). This 7″ found the band toying with a hint of melodic death metal ideas their compatriots in Apophis were formulating but as the record plays it becomes clear they were more interested in maniacal thrash-bangers a la Mass Psychosis, R.A.V.A.G.E., Hellwitch, and Jumpin’ Jesus. Though it is a transitional recording, and much of the line-up would change that same year, ‘Twisted Nature’ provides incredible document of a band that were perhaps always too obsessed with progression to every put out an entirely standard release.

The ambition of German musicians during the early 90’s death metal movement is surely admirable no matter how big their release was the glorious reality of that time was how humble and non-performative many of the best underground musicians were. Consider the unassuming rippers like Assorted Heap or Obnoxious who probably never realized how badass they were and you’ll find the same unassuming brand of inspiring technicality and raw musical ability coming from Enslaved. If you thought ‘Twisted Nature’ sounded even more like Amorphis than ‘Dark Tales of Insanity’ prepare for a bit of a paradigm shift in discovering the band’s elastic-riffed and hammer-heavy debut full-length ‘Where is the Meaning’. Guitarist Markus Lehnigk and drummer Lars Weber were still at the helm for songwriting but the rest of the band was already restaffed by the release of ‘Twisted Nature’ and Enslaved had become a quintet. It is a glorious sort of balance between the snaggle-toothed reverb of early Mercyless, the progressive metal influenced thrash riffing of Deathrow, and the bounding knife-flashing unpredictability of pre-‘Unquestionable Presence’ Atheist.

There is an inescapable feeling of anger and frustrating driving ‘Where is the Meaning’ and it is more than youthful defiance, technical ambition, or poignant aggression; With new vocalist Frank Zerna‘s brother murdered by skinheads after a show in early 1993 there is a raw and heady darkness felt within the otherwise tightly wound and raucous Protector styled death/thrash metal employed. Beyond the moodiness of the record ‘s tone comes lyrics that offer social outrage and near-nihilism focused upon injustice and general human putridity.  That is record is dedicated to the memory of a tragic, pointless murder offers a small but compelling window into the earnest rage driving its dramatic death/thrash to-and-fro. The scope of the lyrics should interest folks who dig deeper into late 80’s thrash socio-political outrage but in Enslaved‘s case the analysis reads existentially dejected and personal.

As a collector of obscure death/thrash metal and lover of technical thrash metal Enslaved‘s debut (and follow-up for that matter) represent items that come dangerously close to confirming that the hunt is better than the kill if left unexamined. ‘Where is the Meaning’ is not a polished or ultra-professional recording and without a taste for (or understanding of) the crazed energetic style they were aiming for it may come across more free-spirited than ‘heavy’ upon first glance. In fact you are getting true underground death/thrash metal that perfectly represents a balance between the two thanks to the outrageously gifted drumming of Lars Weber, who can turn on a dime from pocket-to-pocket so well it begins to feel like all are struggling to anticipate his wild changes. There are deathgrind slapped blasts, thrash rides, and Slayer-ized cymbal slaughter all employed at an otherwise casual range of pacing to remain cohesive, at least tighter than similar compositions from bands like Ripped or mid-career Massacra.

‘Where is the Reason’ should be judged as any other death/thrash metal record is: The riffs. In this sense it is less of a barn burner than you might expect beyond the Atheist and Protector meets German prog-thrash implications of Enslaved‘s sound. It is not an exhaustive performance and this only means you’re getting more of a living, breathing Coroner-esque bite of riffs rather than ‘Control and Resistance’ part two. The guitars are simply the leader on a journey through strange pathways and only partially a source of spectacle, which the drumming largely provides. A great example of this is “It’s War” with a progression dictated somewhere between early At the Gates and Running Wild, amateurish until its disconnected points sink in a bit; Contrast that with the follow-up of “Welcome to the Cinema”, which could have fit in on your average Bay Area influenced German thrash metal record from several years previous, or “Dead on the Wounded Knee” as they touch upon Cryptic Slaughter beats alongside Sodom-esque ripping.

There are deeper layers of interest here if needed but at face value it will all seem just slightly too ambitious to have as distinct of a personality as many comparable 1994 death metal releases. This is exactly where I find releases like ‘Where is the Meaning’ most interesting as they go against the grain while firing on off-kilter cylinders while still managing to leave a compelling impression. It would seem the project would waffle for years after or at least continue at an irregular pace with the line-up changing around 1996 and a new album in 1997 (‘Kleine Seele’) that is even more of a forgotten legend. The band would dissolve by 1998 and reappear as a more orthodox death metal band (Killing Spree) in 2001. The joy of records like ‘Where is the Meaning’ isn’t just the compelling musical peak they represent for a group of musicians but their value lies just as much in the progression towards and the fallout after, so I hesitate to suggest that it is a forgotten ‘classic’ but rather a brilliant underground gem that exemplifies the ‘busted’ beauty of German progressive metal ingenuity circa the early 90’s.

Artist Enslaved
Type Album
Released 1994
YouTube Playlist! Enslaved on Metal-Archives
Genre Technical Thrash Metal,
Death Metal

Shrouded in poison. 4.0/5.0

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