Experiencing a band grow and evolve is one of the most rewarding parts of being invested in music and for Enslaved, their fanbase has been given plenty of opportunities to be in awe of just how progressive and inventive the Norwegian's have been since their inception almost thirty years ago. The core of the band - Grutle Kjellson and Ivar Bjørnson - were barely out of their teens at the time but their dedication was clear from the beginning and their debut full-length Vikingligr Veldi in 1994 was the start of something extraordinary. Having formed during the second wave of black metal in the early 90s in Norway, it’s interesting to see just how Enslaved have progressed their sound from those initial steps. They have grown stronger by moving far enough away from their beginnings to be almost like a completely different band yet the way the Enslaved of today marries harsh blackened metal with gorgeous, soaring clean vocals that pack a hell of a punch still compels older fans and entrances newer ones alike.
Utgard takes in the base elements that you’d expect from Enslaved and adds a few surprising moments into the mix, too. The dark, spoken word style of “Útgarðr” is deeply atmospheric and is reminiscent of the pitch black chants that can be found in the game Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice while on a journey to find clarity in a world that is overwhelming. The album is a voyage of discovery and seeks out the old rulers of the world, the Giants, and Enslaved take you on with them on their expedition to older lands and traditions all while adding slick, modern elements in ways that boost the songs, rather than work to their detriment.
Opener “Fires in the Dark” brings most of those elements together immediately; beautiful clean vocal lines (this time provided by two fairly new additions to the band – keyboardist Håkon Vinje and drummer Iver Sandøy) that are draped in melancholic melody, gruff bellows from Grutle Kjellson that move in stark contrast to the cleans and give them much more power, expansive electronic passages that create texture and a mood of intense passion for the stories of their homeland. These features are constantly in the foreground of Utgard and the album moves with heartfelt steps towards its bittersweet endpoint of “Distant Seasons.”
“Jettegryta” commands with Kjellson’s vocals punching through the opening moments before harmonies replace the harshness and a bizarre synthesised passage pushes its way to the front. It’s a strange mix, indeed, but one that Enslaved are all too clever at implementing without one element overwhelming another. It’s cohesive, in their own way, and a tactic that is employed often during the record. “Sequence” introduces a catchiness in the guitars almost straightaway while the throaty voice of Kjellson plays off the higher registers of (I’m assuming) Vinje in order to show the light and dark that the influential stories have at their core.
The opening of “Urjotun” is curious by Enslaved’s standards as, while they do incorporate a lot of keyboards and progressive structures, the track is boosted by the almost two-minute-long continuous pulsing of electronic beats. It feels as though you’re on a trail, running towards the mountains and the knowledge that must lie in the distance. The beats mark footsteps and they become quicker with time while the music swells around it creating walls on each side, enveloping you in darkness as it progresses. It’s unexpectedness it what makes it so intriguing and the segue into “Flight Of Thought And Memory” becomes all the more jarring for it. Grutle Kjellson’s voice is deep and rocky, echoing the unformed lands of old and the Giants creation of the world as the song mirrors the legends of the past.
Utgard may be Enslaved's fifteenth full-length but their creativity and devotion shows now sign of abating. "Storms of Utgard" is rousing in its explosive pace, again echoing movement, albeit somewhat faster and with more urgency in its strides. This penultimate track is darker than its predecessor in its narration of a long journey through amorphous lands and it builds to a natural crescendo before giving way to "Distant Seasons" and its simpler structures that permeate the first serene moments. The album is perhaps not as immediate in terms of impact than previous Enslaved works but the payoff is worth the time spent digging deep into the lore that the band are so fond of. Utgard is a pathway to understanding and a gateway to learn more.
8.5 / 10
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