With some bands there are simply not enough superlatives to throw down as to the scale of their creativity or looking to push past the musical veil in search of more. The uninitiated may roll their eyes at the thought but the extreme end of the metal spectrum is a hotbed of creativity that is simply bewitching. Before Opeth pulled on their big boys prog pants, they never hid their love for a musical style that may have felt at odds with their extreme side fusing the two and opening many a closed mind in the process. Ihsahn, the former Emperor frontman made a similar impact in the black metal sphere, a multi instrumentalist who absolutely refuses to be bound by anything that could be considered a limitation. And much the same can be said for Norway’s Enslaved, throughout the career, they have been the seekers, delving deeper and not content with anything less than exploration.
The beauty of an Enslaved album is that we never know what we are going to get, it is not possible to judge a new record on the last. While previous album, 2018’s E is easily one of their best, it can be taken for granted that the quintet will not be repeating themselves or just tweaking here and there to make it different from the last outing; exploration is what drives an Enslaved and once again, their 15th album delivers in spades.
Built around the concept of a journey through a mythical realm called Utgard, not necessarily a place but an ideal or a metaphor, a landscape where giants dwell but where questions are raised as to consciousness and the subconscious; practically everything is questioned down to life’s very essence. Utgard is on the one hand dangerous and on the other – enchanting. It is mind bending stuff and there is some serious weight as to the thought process with Enslaved arriving from a Carl Jung influence when it comes to mythology. It is easy to get lost when it comes to concepts such as this, marrying the visage with the music can be tricky to pull off; the sonic journey meeting with the mind’s eye and the interpretation that its creators intended. Utgard does work in that respect – it certainly earns its prog stripes for sure – but works in the beginning if lighter approach is taken to the concept while letting the music doing most of the heavy lifting.
One thing that Utgard never goes short on is production value which is staggeringly good and the clarity and environment in which the musicianship exists is simply jaw dropping, this is not an album delivered through some shaky black metal kaleidoscope. There has been two personnel changes in the sense that keyboardist Håkon Vinje who joined on E and provides clean vocals is now joined by new drummer Iver Sandøy who also provides clean vocals that work incredibly well against bassist Grutle Kjellson’s rasp. The veterans in Kjellson and guitarist Ivar Bjørnson – the line up being completed by Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal is so in sync that from a sonic viewpoint, Utgard is just remarkable in delivering its contrasts and there is no denying that this is a unit that works so well together breathing life into Enslaved’s creative DNA. The vocal stylings (which includes some chanting on Fires In The Dark) are mixed with a wide array of instrumentation, electric and acoustic guitars along with electronica and adding plenty of layers through a wide variety of song constructs which sits with the concept’s journey. There is a jarring quality in the trade off between cold harshness and sublime melancholy where the songs float and sometimes these transitions are like being catapulted into a cliff face while others are as smooth as silk. At some points there are almost pop hooks which feels baffling in an Enslaved album and surprises present themselves like rounding a blind bend and on the first few listens but committing to the journey is something of a key point. At first, this can fell like a lack of cohesion but over time, the sonic twists and turns do make for a record that knows what it wants to deliver although interestingly and as much as this is wrong in a conceptual piece, some songs in isolation actually stand out more than they do with their album brethren.
Whether it be the almost folky livewire that Fires In The Dark, the enveloping spoken word of Utgardr that runs into Urjotun and the fury drumming and Kjellson’s vocal savagery on Flight Of The Memory which offers one of the album’s more brutal moments. These are not just songs but contained within are components, gorgeous and ethereal clean vocal lines or on Sequence where there is a musical interlude to get lost in to that absolute beautiful closing tune Distant Seasons. There is nothing forced in Enslaved’s song writing which aims to deliver the opposition extremes in an organic fashion, it is impossible not to be impressed. With the different tempos and some incredible guitar work, Utgard is a mesmerising piece of work that is both fascinating and in one respect, intimidating. Despite its running time, Utagrd feels huge which may take some listens for the newcomers to take in and decide whether the world Utgard is going to be one where they keep returning to.
Enslaved remain one of those bands that is a force of nature, fearless in their pursuit of engrossing sonic journeys and a long career has not slowed them down in look for new ground to break. As wonderful as Utgard is, with Enslaved’s unpredictability assured, one thought remains – the best may be yet to come.