Originally forming in Norway in the 90s during black metal’s second wave heyday, Enslaved initially were one amongst many, with a similar frostbitten aesthetic but went against their peers in being some of the first to champion exploration of newer sounds. Fast forward to today though, and while they haven’t gone full Ulver or Ihsahn, they’ve nevertheless carved themselves out their own niche. Progressing their sound while still retaining its blackened elements into folkier and progressive territories, Enslaved have well and truly shucked the tropes and shackles of the scene that spawned them.On Utgard, their fifteenth offering, the band continue to push progressive black metal their own way. Taking the name from the realm of the giants better known as Jotunheim, the band describe Utgard as representing “something that is hard to master completely, perhaps impossible. This is something dangerous, chaotic, uncontrollable Yet there is something enchanting about a place like this. It is where madness, creativity, humor and chaos dwell”. It’s in this spirit that Utgard came to be, an exploration of this sphere where the psychological and mythical interact.
Opener ‘Fires In The Dark’ starts with an unaccompanied, almost liturgical chant before acoustic guitar briefly makes an appearance and then the icy guitars and drums pounding a warlike rhythm make themselves known. This drum pattern repeats again as Grutle Kjellson rasps atop the swirling blizzard of guitar and war drums before morphing to folkier clean singing.’Jettegyrta’ features a mid-paced black metal stomp, galloping along before blastbeats unfurl to truly bring the icy maelstrom to bear. But it’s certainly not traditional fare; around the three minute mark there’s a sudden break into an off-kilter time signature fuelled by keys and an almost jazz-like movement to disorient before the blizzard descends once more. ‘Utgardr’ features spoken Nordic poetry before flowing into the synth-heavy ‘Urjotun’ that’s destined to fill dancefloors at gigs and rock nights alike, with a throwback rock’n’roll stomp to it that’s both a huge departure in parts but also a natural progression from its preceding spoken word passage. Similarly, ‘Storms of Utgard’ is a rollicking, galloping black’n’roll riff buffet, careening often into proggier territories but all the while keeping a gallop Iron Maiden would be proud of while still making time for joyous meanderings into proggier soundscapes. Closer ‘Distant Seasons’ is initially serene, led by soft guitars and crooning vocals before opening into swirling shoegaze pastures. It’s the calm after the storm, the sound of settling down after a long, tumultuous journey into the unknown, ending with acoustic guitar and the sound of a welcoming breeze.
In parts, the band put the black metal firmly on the back burner and delve more into proggy pastures and even elements of shoegaze such as the dreamy ‘Sequence’ and ‘Homebound’. The latter, appearing at the midway point of the album, is an album highlight, featuring soaring a soaring chorus courtesy of Håkon Vinje (keyboards, sung vocals) but also ensures the blackened elements are well-placed to ensure that when that melodic release does come it’s all the more rewarding and cathartic.
Having been a band for nearly three decades it would’ve been far too easy to rest on their already considerable achievements, but this has never been the Enslaved way; contrary to their name they’ve consistently refused to be pigeonholed. Pushing the boundaries of black metal since their inception, Utgard is yet more proof that Enslaved simply don’t do bad albums. What they do is progressive black metal that’s equal parts barbaric and beautiful, a furious blackened core underpinning progressive indulgence; Utgard is a proud continuation of that and a worthy addition to Enslaved’s already legendary catalogue.
Utgard is out October 2nd via Nuclear Blast.
You can preorder the album here.