One is not scared of being alone in the dark, but rather not being alone in the dark
Extreme metal legends Enslaved have long confused fans and critics alike with their refined, technical prowess as well as unrelenting drive to experiment and innovate metal music. Since their 1991 inception as a ‘trve kvlt’ Norwegian black and death metal band made up of Ivar Bjørnson and Grutle Kjellson, who were 13 and 17 years old, respectively, Enslaved managed to release an influential split with black metal lords Emperor in 1993. Continuing on an interesting chapter of their career that was explored deeply on E (2017), Enslaved have stayed true to their experimental nature with their newest, 15th studio release, Utgard (2020).
The fairly nihilistic and bleak album cover provides some context to the content within, with the music being far colder and distant than their earlier brand of engaging, energetic, extreme progressive metal. The opening track, “Fires In The Dark,” is exactly what a fan of Enslaved should expect: a mixed bag of many genres and styles incorporated together. Jumping between tempo changes and sections with lightning-fast accuracy, the technical prowess and playing doesn’t take away from the handful of styles that Enslaved flirt with, highlighted by tribal drumming, atmospheric guitars and clean vocal melodies.
“Jettegryta,” a more straightforward cut from the LP, easily becomes the prog-metal nerd’s favorite with its dizzyingly fast rhythmic syncopations and epic keyboard etudes that blends in pure ’70s prog, such as Rush and Uriah Heep, with metal equivalents Dream Theater and Opeth. These distant echoes are actually brought up on the following track, “Sequence,” which references almost everything covered thus far in the album, yet adds its own distinct blend to it. With a very catchy intro groove, Enslaved go full-fledged anthem metal until a mysterious ambient section interweaves in between parts, bookended by clean vocal hooks, guttural vocals and shredding guitar leads.
“Homebound,” one of the less interesting tracks on the record, sticks with the exact formula alluded to on the previous three tracks for the first four minutes or so before being interjected and concluded by a compelling build-up section with, yet again, clean vocals that are more familiar to late 2000s MySpace post-hardcore than extreme metal. The middle tracks “Utgardr” and “Urjotun” are definitely the more interesting endeavors on the work. After a brief interlude track, an electronic synth sequence is rhythmically and harmonically supported by the band, who each join in à la Neu! and Faust, as the song sort of propels itself forwards and upwards, growing louder and more intense before its conclusion.
The six-and-a-half-minute “Flight Of Thought And Memory” remains the longest-running track, though it consists of only a few sections: a fairly uninteresting verse, with a curiously held-back and reserved chorus, a guitar solo or two and an ending ambient jam. However, it quickly becomes apparent how uninventive some of the material presented is, as the exact formula follows suit on “Storms of Utgard,” this time replacing the guitar leads and serene choruses with a technical riff section and gang vocals.
Nonetheless, despite carbon copying some tried and true formulas over the album, Enslaved decide to bookend their 15th official studio album with the beautiful “Distant Seasons.” It’s a dynamically conscious song that borders on elements of jazz fusion as well as full-fledged atmospheric black metal through a malleable buildup, defined by crystal clear vocals and production and noteworthy electric and acoustic guitar work.
Considering the frequent lineup changes, stylistic alterations and the massive delay in release due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Enslaved have returned with an album that has abandoned the raw darkness that defined their earlier work, but not entirely. In addition to flirting with some interesting genre explorations (again, it’s worth mentioning the clean vocals and production quality), Enslaved have actually managed to stay relevant and consistent in quality during a time like the present, when heavy metal bands are fighting against all odds. Perhaps Odin was in their favor, after all.