Ever since perfecting progressive black metal with 2010’s Axioma Ethica Odini, Enslaved have continued to push the limits of the genre, whether by pushing it to its breaking point with 2012’s RIITIIR or by blending in more traditional “progressive” textures on albums like In Times (2015) and E (2017). Their fifteenth album, Utgard is yet another ambitious entry in their catalogue. Yet, for the first time since the band took on a more progressive leaning with 2000’s Maraudum (Beyond the Within), it also feels like Enslaved have delivered something expected.
Initially, Utgard feels very by the numbers. There are plenty of progressive elements in play, by any other band’s standards. However, they are all also things Enslaved have done before, and better. “Fires in the Dark” feels like a lesser version of “Thoughts Like Hammers”. The harder-hitting “Jettegryta” just can’t compete with the progressive avalanche of “Ethica Odini” or “Storm Son” and, as uplifting and cathartic as the end of “Homebound” is – largely thanks to some outstanding, powerful clean vocals from new drummer Iver Sandøy – it also feels like an inferior rehash of the far more dynamic “Hiindsiight” or “Roots of the Mountain”. There’s nothing wrong with these tracks per se. It’s just all things Enslaved have done before, to a much higher standard. Thankfully, the band don’t sit in this well-trodden lane for the entire record.
Utgard’s second-half is where things get interesting. Following the Ominous, Rotting Christ-esque vocal interlude of “Utgardr”, the album’s sixth track, “Utjotun”, kicks in with an upbeat electronic pulse and kinetic drum pattern that sounds like something off the last Rammstein album. A rattly, high-mid bass line and some subtle, drawn out guitar effects then join the fray, reorienting the sound towards more of a new wave tapestry, reminiscent of Pearl Jam‘s recent Talking Heads/U2 tribute “Dance of the Clairvoyants”. The rest of the track brings back more of the expected, progressive black metal elements, but they, and the rest of the record remain underscored by the intriguing new electronic elements.
“Flight of Thought and Misery” is more of a traditional – and very high-quality – old-school Enslaved track, the back half of which launches into an epic dual guitar battle, before giving way to a pleasant mix of vocal samples and keyboard atmospherics. The Hammond-infused bounce and progressive guitar heroics of “Storms of Utgard” brings to mind Heritage-era Opeth, while maintaining a traditional black metal abbrasiveness, before “Distant Seasons” closes out the record in an almost flowery, minimalist fashion, that brings to mind something like Blind Faith or Beardfish. A lot of these novel elements can be attributed to the influence of new(ish) keyboardist Håkon Vinje and, if they’d allowed him more free-reign across the entire record, Utgard would have likely wound up a more interesting and individualistic record overall.
Another odd comparrison that can be made with Utgard is the new Lamb of God record, in that it works better with its first and second halves flipped around. Using “Utgardr” – which just sounds really out of place as an interlude – as an introduction before and with “Urjotun”, sets the stage for what’s to come while also foregrounding the album’s more interesting moments, leaving the more conventional early-tracks to close things out in a more satisfying fashion, with the triumphant “Homebound”. Changing around the track order interrupts its narrative concept, which sees the band’s traditional “metaphors of personal development” and an “inner world versus an outer word” converge into a concept of travelling into a Jungian “land of chaos and darkness”. Yet Utgard is an album more about the journey than the destination; where you begin is up to you.
Enslaved’s Utgard was released on October 2nd. You can grab it right here.