As the world seems to be on fire and crumbling all around us, it is reassuring to have new music. Utgard is an album I’ve been looking forward to for quite a while now, having been a longtime Enslaved fan since the beginning. In fact, I’ve still got my Hordanes Land tape in my truck. Finally, after three long years since the ambitious E, Utgard will be released Friday, October 2. Enslaved prove irrefutably why they have earned such a prestigious reputation as they embrace that exploratory Viking spirit to forge a new path forward.
A procession of Viking chanting bids the proceedings begin with “Fires in the Dark”. After the addition of some acoustic guitar, the full band gradually come in and thereby fill up the sonic space. What happens at the 1:20 mark is simply anomalous as everything fades out save for one reverb-drowned lead guitar with volume swells so epic they would make David Gilmour envious. The full band gradually enters the fray and it is really at the 2:25 mark when the song properly kicks off with a simple, catchy riff, one that proves easy to build upon with the arsenal available at this outfit’s disposal. The back and forth between Grutle’s gruff timbre and the clean vocals as arranged here almost sounds like a battle between the past and the future yet as the album develops, the band continue to prove how they are forging their own path with the sacred fire of Odin spread across the Earth. It is nothing short of the most unique song to ever kick off an Enslaved record and as it vacillates between the expansive, Wish You Were Here-era Floyd vibe and the quirky main riff, “Fire in the Dark” proves to be quite a lot to soak in.
“Jettegryta,” the second track, is the reassurance longtime fans need after the seeming ambiguity of the first track. This is Enslaved – a band that knows no limits to their vanguard mission. The sound is huge with thunderous drums, an expansive array of guitar tones, a split modern/vintage vibe from the keyboards, and what is one of the most distinct, aggressive signature bass tones out there. It is as if Grutle took equal parts Lemmy, Geddy Lee, and Chris Squire in creating such an epic sound giving ample nods to their past achievements while standing on the shoulder of giants moving forward. The track effectively kicked the intensity up and threw in some heavier tropes as nods to the past.
This is a band that is ever gazing forward to the horizon. One could even go as far as saying that the pioneering spirit of the band’s music is both parallel to and inspired by their storied heritage as conquerors of the North Sea and Atlantic. Enslaved have reached a level in their career where they have outgrown any type of scene, yet they have not disavowed their Black Metal roots entirely. Even when the band was playing raw, brutal Black Metal on albums like Frost and Eld, it was clear that there was something extra they had like some proprietary secret formula. A track like “Loki” is a perfect example of the haunting magic they conjured early on. In the years since, though, the core of Ivar and Grutle have exponentially expanded their musical chops. As the band began adding more Prog elements over the years, their music prowess deepened. Monumension is the album where things really shifted for the band and though it was shocking back in 2001, it was a stylistic evolution that made sense and really played to the band’s strengths. In the two decades since, Enslaved have consistently redefined themselves exhibiting a true exploratory nature that the listener can tap into as well.
Utgard proves it is the next logical step for the band. As it progresses, it is hard not to be impressed by the ambition that spawned such creations. As a musician, it is incredibly inspiring to hear the fruits of this band’s labor. It is an experience, the mark of a great album. The immersion level is deep as it is not difficult to find one’s self lost in multi-layered realms of thought. These are the kind of songs that create myriad dimensions of reality within the expanse of the mind’s eye.
Another highlight is the fourth track, “Homebound,” which begins with a syncopated, almost quirky stutter. As it plays through, though, more classic Enslaved elements are added as well as some seriously heavy grooves. What sets this apart from the masses of Prog bands out there is the way the melodies invoke such overwhelming feelings from wonder to loneliness to curiosity, discovery, and enlightenment. “Urjotun,” the sixth track, should be mentioned as well. The bass lick that forms the basis of this song is seriously over the top. With an almost Punk vibe, the band prove yet again on this album that they cannot be pigeon-holed. No, Enslaved operate on a different level entirely and have managed to impress even more in 2020.
Over the course of the nine tracks, Enslaved deliver their elite brand of Prog/Extreme Metal that they have so meticulously hammered out over the past three decades. One word of caution, though, is to be sure to give this album a fair chance. It can be easy to write something off if it doesn’t immediately grab you, but this is an album that will reward the patient listener. Indeed, Utgard is like a thousand-page novel comprised of multiple layers of intricacy and theme. It goes without saying that this will make my top ten for 2020!