The shockwaves elicited by the 2020 album, “Utgard,” by the Norwegian posse of extreme prog, ENSLAVED, seem to extend far beyond my wildest imagination; not only did we get the “Caravans to the Outer Worlds” EP last year, a soundbite resonating with the same high-octane aura of progressive extremism, but these prog Vikings just now released a new full-length, entitled “Heimdal,” on March 3rd, 2023, via Nuclear Blast and the new outing immediately comes off as a natural extension to that particular effort. We certainly saw the band reach unprecedented heights in terms of progressive creativity on that 2022 album and yet, their latest offering takes a good few steps further and deeper into the prog realm.
These guys are in a class of their own when it comes to mixing dreamy psychedelia, vintage prog aesthetic, and jazzy flourishes into the musical bowl of extreme metal. While the band has not been easy to file under the black metal label for a long time, there are enough snarled vocals and shrieking tremolo guitars to still scare off the hen-hearted. In a genre that is markedly inhabited by outsiders, ENSLAVED is an outlier of the highest degree, but as an added bonus, they sure know how to make this strange concoction of seemingly disparate musical influences sound coherent and devilishly good in its own weird way. This is becoming perhaps a little bit boring thing to say every time the band is releasing something but, once again, it’s true – their latest endeavor is undoubtedly their best album to date, no question about it. As an incurable prog-nerd, I find it especially heartwarming that those old prog dinosaurs seem to be enjoying a new wave of popularity within the metal community, a sort of renaissance on a cult level at least, as these established players, from TOOL to OPETH and to ENSLAVED, are releasing such unashamed love letters to the old-school prog sound.
Once again, the album title is a reference to Norse mythology, although this time, we’re not embarking on a journey into some otherworldly realms, but rather meeting some sort of a watchman or guardian of the gods, named Heimdal. Maybe it stems from this mythological dimension, but when the opening track, “Behind the Mirror,” rolls out a royal flush of barbed riffs with more than a good ounce of flamboyant prog panache, with the streak continuing throughout the album, I cannot help but think of some works by Neil Gaiman and those genuinely haunting hours that I have spent playing the PS4 video game, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. I guess the common denominator with all these three has something to do with the notion of the spirit world merging with the physical realm in such a way that it invokes a feeling of mystery beyond the power of words. With this magical mystery tour in the astral realm of progressive black metal, ENSLAVED makes quite a unique stand, one that will further cement their reputation and authority as true sages of prog – and I mean sages in both the video game and the more traditional literary meaning of the term; you know, gloomy and prominent figures in dark robes, speaking in riddles and, like ringmasters, offering spiritual guidance for prog rookies.
For a prog album, let alone a metal endeavor, “Heimdal” is layered with a surprisingly large amount of psychedelia. At their heaviest, the trippy riffathons are almost reminiscent of ORANZZI PAZUZU‘s ritual kraut-metal sermons, most notably on “Kingdom.” Keeping in mind that we’re talking about ENSLAVED here, the flower-power vibes don’t really mellow out into the GRATEFUL DEAD department completely, but at their softest, these metal alchemists do traverse rather unexpected terrains, adding a level of sonic versatility to the music far beyond what the term “progressive metal” suggests. The closest musical cousin to these crazy Norwegians, in this respect, is perhaps OPETH, especially those older OPETH albums where the contrast between the dark and the light is far greater than on those more recent and more vintage-sounding efforts.
My favorite track on the album changes by the minute – I think each song has already enjoyed that status for a brief moment. Right now I’m hyped up by “Forest Dweller” the most. The song is a nuclear meltdown of EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER and black metal, a cross between the gargantuan 1971 prog classic, “Tarkus,” and “Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire and Demise” by EMPEROR. I guess it cannot be merely a coincidence that so many pioneering Norwegian black-metal outfits that started out in the 1990s have evolved into something completely different and the further they have digressed from their early style, the more haunting their albums have become. On “Heimdal,” ENSLAVED has perhaps gone the furthest they have ever been from their comfort zone, and yet, indulging in these sonic explorations has certainly paid off.
In 2020, it seemed as though “Utgard” was going to be the ultimate magnum opus from the ENSLAVED camp; it was hard to imagine that they could ever top that pinnacle of extreme prog. Boy, I was wrong – but aren’t I pretty damn glad now that I was! “Heimdal” picks up from where “Utgard” left off and ups the ante with a fine selection of music that defies prediction. Whether prog, black metal, or psychedelia is in any measure your favorite pastime, here’s a little something, some wicked rhythmic rumblings to lull you into an altered state of consciousness for seven magnificent tracks’ worth of playtime.
Written by Jani Lehtinen
- Behind the Mirror
- Forest Dweller
- The Eternal Sea
- Caravans to the Outer Worlds
Grutle Kjellson – lead vocals, bass, synths
Ivar Bjørnson – rhythm guitars, synths, backing vocals
Arve ”Ice Dale” Isdal – lead guitars
Håkon Vinje – keyboards, clean vocals
Iver Sandøy – drums, keyboards, clean vocals