My apologies in advance, as this will sound like it’s being read by Sean Bean, but there is no other way to say it: one does not simply review the new Enslaved album.
First, there’s the initial impression. Then, the revisiting of the band’s extensive (and exciting) back catalogue, dating all the way back to 1993’s Hordanes Land split EP with Emperor. This is followed by a lot of assimilation, comparison and general gnashing of teeth at just how damn clever this ahead-of-the-curve Norwegian institution is.
Let’s not forget how they made use of clean vocals in black metal long before it became acceptable behaviour; nor how effectively they leveraged the process Bathory began on 1991’s Twilight of the Gods in blending Viking tradition with black metal fury. And that’s not even touching on their eager embracing of alternative approaches, styles and sounds into the sonic palette that earned them the title of the first truly progressive black metal band.
“Homebound” is easily the most ‘expected’ track on Utgard, and the most typically Enslaved.
So, before even beginning to engage with Utgard, the band’s latest album (and their fifteenth full-length release), there is a lot of history to contend with. On the plus side, it’s a delightful history lesson to sit through and a great warm-up for this new, fresh main event. Which segues quite neatly into impressions of the new album, so here goes…
First off, Utgard is a very easy record to listen to. While I may have prefaced this entire piece with the overwhelming responsibility I feel towards Enslaved and their music when doing a deep dive into the record, the beauty of Utgard is its accessibility: it carries none of the confrontational malevolence usually associated with black metal – relying instead on strong songwriting and a full emotional spectrum than on kvlt elitism. It also engages with far more than just extreme metal tropes, adding hard rock, folk and even electronic flourishes that not only increase dynamism but allow for far wider target audience engagement.
The eerie atmospheres and non-linear structure of “Urjotun” illustrate Enslaved’s willingness to experiment with alternative musical influences, like quasi-industrial soundscapes.
The second powerful impression builds on the previous: one of comfort. Not so much listener comfort, though, but actual band comfort: Enslaved is a mature, accomplished group of artists and they deliver this album with a perceived level of ease that belies the difficulties of the actual recording process. We, as the consumer, don’t see (and often don’t appreciate) the struggles that form the foundation of recording any album – let alone a far-reaching, varied conceptual affair like Utgard. The gentle tones of “Sequence” or Pink Floyd-esque dreaminess of “Distant Seasons” really showcase this.
And that brings us to the third major impression: the concept itself. In Nordic mythology, Utgard is a non-space, a place between places where chaos and creativity reign in equal measure, the realm in which giants and horrors dwell. Building a cohesive album within this space presents its own set of challenges that rely very heavily on user impressions – making Utgard something of a musical Schrödinger’s Cat that changes its very character based on the listener. So Enslaved is not just ahead of the pack in terms of sound and composition, they’re also the first quantum black metal act, existing in so many contrasting spheres concurrently yet maintaining a convincing authenticity in each… for the most part. “Flight of Thought and Memory,” unfortunately, breaks down into something of a disjointed maelstrom of conflicting sounds and styles – itself, a perfectly acceptable rendering of quantum mechanics, but a less successful foray as a musical composition.
“Jettegryta” is one of the more cerebral offerings on the album – musically and visually.
In summation, Utgard is many things to many listeners: for a long-time fan, it is a distillation of a long history; for a first-time listener it’s an exciting foray into Viking/black/progressive crossover metal. But no matter how you approach the album, it is undeniably dynamic, an ever-fluctuating array of sonic streams, much like the subconscious/conscious realms of awareness that make up the mythological realm of Utgard itself.
Utgard Track Listing:
1. Fires in the Dark
7. Flight of Thought and Memory
8. Storms of Utgard
9. Distant Seasons
Run Time: 44:43
Release Date: October 2, 2020
Record Label: Nuclear Blast