From their origins in the second wave of black metal, Norwegian polymorphs Enslaved have become a Heavy Metal institution, surpassing the fetters of any one scene or trend to cement their place as one of the greats of all time. They could quit tomorrow and never lose this status. But they are far from finished, and on October 2, 2020, the evidence of life comes in the form of their fifteenth studio album.
Entitled Utgard, the opus will be available through long-time label Nuclear Blast Records. It comes during this their 29th year of existence, seeking to continue the absolute creative tear the band has been on since releasing In Times in 2015 (Many would argue even longer than that).
For this particular scribe, Enslaved should be celebrated for their fearless forays into progressive and psychedelic sounds. Their ability to meld such elements into well-honed, robust Norse mythology-inspired Norwegian Black Metal is nothing short of brilliant, and it has allowed them to shed the limitations of their origins while taking all but the most close-minded of their fans along for the ride. However, Enslaved at times has sacrificed a bit of the aggression and purpose of their compositions in the name of experimentation. This came to a screeching halt on the aforesaid In Times magnum opus, following up with 2017’s E, which is one of the finest iterations of extreme music to ever pass these ears. How will Utgard stack up to these highlights of the Enslaved canon?
Never ones to saturate an album with too many songs, Utgard lays down its intent with opening salvo “Fires In The Dark.” If you are the sort of fan who runs for the nearest sword and shield when “Havenless” (2003 Below The Lights) comes on the speakers, you will find similar excitement here. Perhaps from performing live the scathing Black Metal assault that was second album Frost, or simply through the cyclical paths of creative inspiration, but Enslaved has reaffirmed their bond with the folkish heart of their sound. Every element of themselves is poured into this instant classic, including wondrous clean vocal passages. Though young keyboardist Håkan Vinje remains in the fold, the addition of Drummer Iver Sandøy seems like he handles a great deal of the cleans on the album. Though erstwhile Keyboardist Herbrand Larsen is missed for his own rich vocals, the band seems set on including fantastic counterpoints to the hellish croak of Grutle Kjellson (Bass, lead vocals).
Monstrous Ivar Bjornson and Ice Dale riffing announces the seamless transition into “Jettegryta,” a tension-building blast of prime Enslaved black metal. The listener is immersed in the song. It cannot be passively enjoyed in the background, or if so, one does this at one’s peril. Massive drumming underpins the shifts from growling to clean vocals and back again, woven into the bones of the song as sunlight informs the seasons. Never far from their love of bands like Rush, the song even digresses into a cool keyboard solo, before bringing back the majesty of those opening riffs. Reminiscent of “Entroper” from the 2006 Ruun album, this is a band who’s creative core functions like a perfectly engineered clock.
The more sedate, yet elegant and Pink Floydian “Sequence” includes some of the finest melodic choruses one will hear. Worked into the soaring harmonies are some heavier passages. Like any fine craftsmen, this is done so naturally and without any of the typical transitions or breakdowns many bands employ. One can pick up strains of Pink Floyd, Devin Townsend, Rush, and also, indeed – furious Black Metal. “Homebound,” a song that has been released for a little while, stands as a monument to who Enslaved are now. Rich, dynamic, and powered by melodious clean vocals, the underpinning riffs are unmistakably their own sound. “Homebound” also has one of the nicest guitar solos going on. Brief as a passing shaft of sunlight, it stays just long enough to create longing for more. By that time the band is ripping through an instrumental passage. Catch up to that, and stunning heartfelt clean vocals are mourning that chorus into your heart. The climax this song soon culminates in makes one feel bad for a lot of other bands out there trying to be this – let’s not overuse the word – epic.
Enslaved have been around the block, and the second half of the album demonstrates how at this point they truly are making music that they love, without worry about any other consideration. Psychedelia prevails on the synth-laden “Utgardr,” which gives way to the nearly industrial “Urjotun,” a sophisticated, nearly New Wave beast which features some of Kjellson’s best bass licks you’ll ever hear from the man.
“Flight of Thought And Memory” and “Storms of Utgard” return us to the monolithic joy that is a long and proggy Enslaved song. Both literally overflow with raging power, melodic heart, and some of the band’s most challenging yet smoothly flowing guitar work. To close things out, “Distant Seasons” explores the gorgeous and ephemeral side to their compositions, softer yet no less interesting of a ride for the listener to take. The clean vocals sound like Peter Gabriel in parts, because Enslaved are coming from all sides with their music, yet it all works and does so to something dangerously close to perfection. It will be a shock if this isn’t the metal album of the year on most peoples’ lists. For these reasons, Cryptic Rock gives Utgard 5 out of 5 stars.