In Norse mythology, there is an esoteric place called Utgard, the land of the giants, where not even the gods of Asgard have control. It could be seen as the collective unconsciousness, something chaotic yet enchanting – the divine madness in us. Never a sucker for stagnation or traversing the easy path, Norwegian metal-oddballs Enslaved set sails towards this mythological territory on their new album “Utgard,” released on October 2nd, 2020, via Nuclear Blast. The band has perennially and meticulously reinvented, refined, and progressed their highly innovative brand of extreme metal to a wholly unique level ever since their embryonic years in the young Norwegian black-metal scene in the early 1990s. The previous outing, “E,” released in 2017, was their boldest and the most intense recording so far, combining blistering black-metal with the warmth of vintage prog and psychedelic folk. Only now, it becomes apparent that it was merely the beginning of yet another sonic adventure. Enter “Utgard” and the plot thickens with enticing new layers of progressive brilliance and deep shades of primordial darkness. The new album is an enthralling musical exhibit that ENSLAVED has no problem whatsoever to sound like the sophisticated lovechild of KING CRIMSON and BATHORY. Like a true Titan, they have stolen the gift of fire from the gods, only to bestow the divinely conferred power upon us, to stoke the eternal flame blazing in our hearts.
By now, with the release of the band’s fifteenth studio album, long-time fans should probably know to expect that ENSLAVED‘s signature fusion of the extremely harsh and the ethereally beautiful could only reach new spectacular heights. The frantic guitar riffs and the rapid-firing drum rolls are guaranteed to get all sorts of brindled metal mongrels running amok in the circle pits, although the unsuspecting fist-pumping metal-maniac might be caught totally off-guard by a surprise prog-break, like the groovy Hammond organ stabs on ”Jettegryta.” Still, after all these years, the band keeps pushing boundaries like never before. The album feels like a travelogue, depicting the southernmost tip of the Empire of lucid dreams with strange sonic fragrances floating all around. The clean vocals resonate with the air of LONELY ROBOT and Steven Wilson, while the harsh black-metal passages traverse the same rough terrain as another fine Norwegian extreme-metal icon Ihsahn.
The holy matrimony of polar opposites begins at once in the first chanting notes of the album opener, ”Fires in the Dark.” Within 6 minutes, the song journeys from Viking-metal moods to raw and edgy progressive realms. As a true man of honor, the guitarist drops a few enchanting Robert Fripp-toned lines along the way. It makes me wonder, what a haunting and extraordinary treat it could be to lay my ears upon ENSLAVED‘s rendition of, say, KING CRIMSON‘s epic ”Starless” one day. These Norwegians have a way of charging a cover song with new life. On their previous album, they covered RÖYKSOPP‘s heart-wrenching 2005 hit ”What Else is There?” with a rendition that offset the song’s spine-chilling nature through the roof.
From the languid and modal acoustic plateaus of ”Sequence” to ”Homebound,” thundering like the prog-symphonies of Devin Townsend, ENSLAVED bulldozes forward with a force that leaves no stone unturned. From ”Jettegryta’s” harsh extremities to the pulsating, mellow krautrock synths in ”Urjotun,” the album invokes a string of ecstatic epiphanies that bite like vermin, showing no mercy or forgiveness. There must be something fishy in the Norwegian tap water. What other explanation could there be for this peculiar phenomenon that a good number of seasoned, 1990s black-metal pioneers such as ENSLAVED, ULVER, and Ihsahn keep popping up one awesome album after another – still, after coming of age. Now, here’s a genuine piece of work for a metal band, yet another crazy bunch born to the metal aristocracy that shares a taste for the eclectic and beautifully strange.
“Utgard” is something a bit more convoluted than a series of power-chords adjusted around the pentatonic scale with the occasional side-step on the ”Diabolus in Musica,” although every bit as dangerous as that notorious devil’s interval. It’s an awe-inspiring selection of new songs that are densely packed with sonic enchantments of all kinds: oddball time-signatures for the proggy-minded, fast tremolo-picking and harsh black-metal shrieks for the connoisseurs of the dark, and haunting melodies, most of all. Towards the end of the album, ”Flight of Thought and Memory” balances the black-metal bursts with somewhat KATATONIA-like shades of dark, bringing the song to a close with a breath-taking 7/8-outro. ”Storms of Utgard” is a kind of Devin Townsend reprise with an arctic twist and the closing track, ”Distant Seasons,” is an ascension to serenity. Unexpectedly, against the age-old tradition of prog albums, the title track is not exactly a song, but rather a short interlude with a soliloquy, spoken gravely in Norwegian, layered with various dissonant synth textures.
In a way, the album reads like a treatise on the physical existence of this mystical realm Utgard, as if suggesting it is neither folklore nor delusion. Have we not all visited this strange place in our dreams – that dark dungeon hidden in the farthest reaches of our minds as the realm where nothing makes sense? It is that particular place where we are at once lost and at home. By playing just the right notes, time and time again, ENSLAVED is beginning to look like a parish of mystics with the enhanced perception of divine intuition. They must have taken up a residency in that strange, dream-like reality – “Utgard” is simply magnificent.
Written by Jani Lehtinen
- Fires in the Dark
- Flight of Thought and Memory
- Storms of Utgard
- Distant Seasons
Grutle Kjellson – bass, vocals
Ivar Bjørnson – guitars, keyboards
Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal – guitars
Håkon Vinje – keyboards
Iver Sandøy – drums
Nuclear Blast Records