Written by: RUB on 07/10/2020 12:22:32

When presented with the opportunity to get my hands on the new release by Norwegian extreme metal legends Enslaved before it was to be released I didn’t hesitate, for one very good reason: these guys deliver – every, single, time. Even though the band is quickly approaching their 30th Anniversary, I can say with the utmost certainty that they’ve never released a bad album. Every record since their inception back in 1991 has rightly been a critically acclaimed masterpiece in its own right, with grades always tending toward the upper end of the spectrum. But as I started getting into “Utgard”, their 15th full-length outing, I was immediately struck by how different it sounded compared to the group’s previous work. And so as to distill my initial thoughts about the effort into words, here goes my attempt…

The record brings nothing new to the table when it comes to song titles: these are still firmly cemented within the band’s Norwegian heritage and Viking folklore, which is also betrayed by the title of the album itself. The first track, “Fires in the Dark”, has that familiar bleak and slow-paced feel to it, slowly building up for the arrival of the deep and profound voice of Håkon Vinje just shy of the 02:30 mark. It is, at least to me, the blend of progressive metal and cold melancholy mixed with the dark and ominous nature of black metal in this piece that makes Enslaved so revered, yet also so fresh, and it enables them to continue existing at the pinnacle of the genre. And on “Jettegryta” (where jette refers to giant and gryta stands for cauldron), we’re right back at the heart of Enslaved, its dreary melody slowly ascending around fast-paced drums and deep growls by Grutle Kjellson to reveal a more straightforward, albeit not as aggressive track as some of the band’s previous material. It is nonetheless a memorable one and perfectly embodies the progressive rock-oriented structures and tones that are fused with more extreme sections throughout “Utgard”.

The same goes for “Sequence”; the entire soundscape on this track feels more mellow and minimalistic than we’re used to, as the track starts with a simple drum pattern and quiet guitars. Somehow, it still manages to turn quite majestic as it progresses and the cleans chime in after roughly 30 seconds, but it still sounds vastly different to the sound Enslaved were working with just five years ago. And maybe this is a good thing, as it is always nice to see a band evolve without losing the edge they first set out with. But even so, I’ll be honest: on this track I already find myself torn between the extreme metal heritage of Enslaved and the more progressive direction “Utgard” has taken. Don’t get me wrong, I love both genres, but maybe this new style just takes some getting used to in my case, especially when the change is as apparent as it is on this release. Still, “Utgard” is a great album — make no mistake. As the standout “Homebound” showcases with its upbeat intro, Enslaved are still masters of balancing the aforementioned two primary genres to such an extent that I have little doubt in my mind this will be a recurring song on every setlist henceforth… as soon as they are able to tour properly again, of course. It is a grandiose, nigh epic piece that balances the elements of extremity and progressive rock to near perfection, and I really feel how insanely well the interplay between both clean and snarled vocals works. And the same goes for the other highlight, “Flight of Thought and Memory”.

When all is done and dusted, I sadly don’t get quite the same vibe from “Utgard”, as I have from the group’s other recent releases. I am of course referring to extreme metal bangers such as “Thurisaz Dreaming”, “Thoughts Like Hammers” or “The River’s Mouth”, all of which boast that magnificent blend of progressive metal and the menacing feel of black and pagan metal stemming from years of experience, and simply just being a part of the whole Norwegian scene. I am an extreme metal fan first and foremost, and it’s not like Enslaved have gone all Opeth-y here; they are still very much incorporating their Norwegian extreme metal heritage into their music. But apart from the easily recognizable snarls of Kjellson, it somehow feels like the extreme metal element has taken a step into the background to make way for more progressive-style dynamics. And while this element has been an integral part of their repertoire for a long, long time, I can’t help but find myself missing more of that downright pure extremity when traversing through “Utgard” over and over again.

“Utgard” thus turned out to be harder for me to get into than I first thought. Incredible as it may sound, the writing present is, in many ways, a step above their previous releases, and it both shows how Enslaved, even almost 30 years down the line, still manage to evolve as a unit, and underlines how they simply don’t want things to remain the same, which one should only applaud with the utmost respect. What became apparent on their previous release “E” in 2017 is how they’ve turned more towards progressive metal and even progressive rock in recent years, to be honest. And as previously stated, it’s still audible where they originate from as a band, with their music still firmly revolving around extreme metal, thus making “Utgard” a wonderful juxtaposition of genres. One might even say that they’ve stuck with the core elements of extreme metal and just added an excessive amount of prog into the mix — and when they manage to do this in such a way that it sounds outright beautiful, as on the pure prog rock album closer “Distant Seasons”, can one really deny the fact that Enslaved are still at top of their game?

So does all this mean these new songs don’t sound like Enslaved? Not at all! Does this mean “Utgard” is a bad record? Absolutely not! It’s an impressive feat and a must have for every fan of the band, but it is different — not by a huge margin, but definitely enough to notice. Where some have labelled it their best work yet, I am still inclined to feel that the black and Viking parts of extreme metal have been set aside too much in the interest of further evolving the group’s sound. This is of course not a bad thing by any means, but as I already mentioned: I am first and foremost a fan of extreme metal. And although this is extreme in a wholly different way, I still find more joy in some of Enslaved’s older material. I’ll be looking forward to their next outing as well, as this new direction still remains a very interesting avenue of exploration, and with Bjørnson and Kjellson still at the wheel, I can only imagine what they will come up with next!


Download: Homebound, Flight of Thought and Memory, Jettegryta, Distant Seasons
For the fans of: Bathory, Borknagar, Ihsahn, Katatonia, King Crimson, Primordial
Listen: Facebook

Release date 02.10.2020
Nuclear Blast

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