The Return of Enslaved!
Label: Nuclear Blast
Style: Black Metal/Prog
Release Date: 10/02/2020
For almost three decades, the mighty Enslaved have been blessing this horrible world with some amazing music. They started out as pretty much straightforward Viking Black Metal, but over time they warped and changed, adding Classic Rock elements and plenty of Prog to stir things up. Some older fans didn’t like it and bailed, but most anyone who is a fan of heavy music has stuck with them, the changes coming seemingly fast and furious, but in reality, the growth and maturity of the band has been a gradual, wonderful thing to behold. I was first introduced to them with the Mardraum album, where they blew my mind with their Black Metal/Pink Floyd musings. From that point on I was a big fan, following them no matter where they went. The peaks for me were Below the Lights and Isa. After this, the band got even smoother, even more progressive, and while they never lost me, and I’ve always liked whatever they’ve done, their newer music never really stuck with me. And now, 29 years in, they have created Utgard.
Nine tracks, a bit under an hour long, this is one epic journey. All the elements that have been twisting through their music still remain, although here it feels like they’ve attained a level of comfort that maybe they haven’t before. They throw in some Kraut Rock sounds (“Urjotun”) which would have jarred me as a listener ten years ago, but feels very natural now. It really compliments the darker aspects of the song, i.e. the metal, and it’s interesting hearing Grutle’s gruff vocals paired with the electronica. But don’t fear, this isn’t a dance record; these are just accents on a sound they’ve already mastered. “Fires in the Dark” is the epic opener, the acapella vocals at the beginning providing a grim and regal taste of what is to come. The acoustics give it an even loftier sound, before those sweet, heavy guitars come in on a martial beat, buoyed by the unmistakable, melodic, and winsome sounds of the lead guitar. This is a real return to their Viking days, if in feel only. “Jettegryta” is maybe the heaviest song on the record. It simply stomps out with swagger and grim power. Much like any Enslaved song, the band finds a few different pocket grooves to settle into, each of them compelling in their own way and tumbling together to create and awesome whole. This is maybe my favorite song on the new record. Songs like “Sequence” represent the smoother sounds on offer here. This one rocks out, but kind of politely, the clean vocals reminding me a bit of Amorphis (in a good way). “Homebound” is the most Enslaved-sounding of the tracks here. This one fall back to their early 00s output, the cosmic chugging re-engaged. “Utgardr” is a short, less than two-minute fever dream of darkness, a rare piece of surreal beauty that isn’t very musical but is very effective as a lead-in to “Urjotun.” “Flight of Thought and Memory” follows, and much like “Sequence,” showcase more of those gorgeous clean vocals and soaring melodies. But they never spare the heavy. “Storms of Utgard” feels like you’re on a ship at sea during a storm, tossed about, queasy, uneasy. The skies are dark with only the occasional flash of lightning to show the way. This one gallops and there’s some Thrash going on here with some of the riffing. Truly an unsettling and yet still somehow majestic track. Closing song “Distant Seasons” starts out pretty poppy, to be honest, everything bright and happy, a huge 70s tinge to the proceedings. This isn’t a criticism at all. It feels like that troubled ship has finally reached safe shores, those sailors reunited with their families. Something about this reminds me of Trouble circa Manic Frustration. Maybe it’s the hints of psychedelia, I don’t know. In any case, this one could get played on rock radio pretty easily.
What Enslaved have done with their new record is to sum up much of what has come before and yet they’ve included a few new elements to keep things fresh. The whole of it is more chaotic and less safe than more recent albums, which is refreshing. Utgard is an album about confusion and chaos, drifting in a dreamscape that is as tumultuous as it is beautiful. In other words, it’s a great reflection of our current times, but also feeling somewhat timeless. Probably this is their best album in ten years, and if you know Enslaved at all, you’ll know that’s saying something.
The Wizard Has Spoken!