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Enslaved - Utgard Award winner

Enslaved
Utgard
by Eric Poulin at 26 October 2020, 9:08 AM

ENSLAVED is a Progressive/Black/Viking metal band based out of Vestland, Norway (in their later years) and this is their 15th full-length release entitled “Utgard” that was out on October 2nd, 2020 through Nuclear Blast Records. It is an absolute pleasure to review one my favorite bands over the last decade, after being blown away by “Monumension” back in 2001 and then really getting into their musical style when “RIITIIR” came out, I decided to purchase and explore their discography from the earlier material to their beginnings. The band has always crafted their sound where not only does it evolve but it keeps the essential flavor of what has made their music so unique.

Now on this new magnum opus, the album starts off rather quietly with “Fires in the Dark”, a song that combines the choir-based portions (something we are used in the viking metal genre), similar to the final song on “Monumension”, with some acoustic guitars that are matched by the heavy distortion guitars. But just as you have gotten used to those passages, the song dives into a progressive vibe of keyboards and electronic effects. The trademark vocal style of Grutle Kjellson really make to sure that harsh edge and ironically the heavier parts of the song have clean vocals accompanying the music. The song goes in so many directions that it is difficult to describe, from mood changes, to tempo variations to even KING CRIMSON guitar solos.

Jettegrytta” is much more straight-forward and aggressive and has a bit of the album “Isa” and “In Times” in its approach. It has the blast-beats and a more chaotic maelstrom of guitar dissonance that just engulfs everything. Fans who found that the last album did not have enough energy on most of the songs should be very happy to find the intensity on this one. The clean vocals really more of a viking styling on this one as well (not the typical clean vocal style that was found on “E” ). Amidst the whole black-metal background, the song still has a very progressive portion that really reminded of the “Isa” days except with a ton more of Hammond organs. The song has the perfect blend of both worlds that have been key components to their material.

Sequence” is a completely different beast in a more traditional metal main riff, matched with some very powerful vocals (they do have some echo effects this time around). It has a very easy to follow pattern and is your typical headbanger (in some ways it does have a bit of “RUUN” and its more stripped-down pace). The song showcases again some great guitar solo work, which happens to be matched with some absolutely crazy effects. When you think you know exactly where the song is going, it finds a place in the PINK FLOYD atmosphere (something fans will remember from the BELOW THE LIGHTS album). The track just goes into a completely different universe (with some space-like effects), only to finish with the harder riff from the beginning of the song.

Homebound” was the original single that came out for this album during the summer and has the intensity of the early days of the band, with your slower and repetitive guitar patterns. The biggest surprise from this song was its energy, as the album “E” had been criticized for being a bit more atmospheric and slower at times. This track does possess some cleaner parts with a very strong chorus and pure emotion, but overall is anything but ambient-oriented.  To a certain extent, the band flirts with the post-rock groundwork from the early 2000s.

Utgard” is a progressive-psych interlude that is a bit under 2 minutes and has Norwegian spoken word narration. It blends into “Urjotun” which is probably one of the most intriguing songs the band has ever created. It is mixture of 1980s electronic music with some Robert Fripp tendencies in the effects. The song is very psychedelic and has the band really explore something outside of their usual repertoire. “Flight of Thought and Memory” is a more a slow builder and has the band touch upon the post-metal side of their creativity. The song has that apocalyptic tone to it in the early moments and just as you would expect, the song changes completely into acoustic beauty and melody-based tones. I may be biased but I do not recall another band that can have both melody and the absolute chaos of black metal like these guys. If you love unprecedented energy, you will be hooked to this song in no time.

Storms of Utgard” is a powerful number while more doom-based than any of the previous songs in the introduction, also has some very strong melodic portions. The mood is quite difficult to capture, but it seems the intent is to convey that feeling of the incoming storm and the wrath it invokes. I am repeating myself but every song, no matter its tempo, has some incredibly ambitious technical guitar parts. They channel the heavier days of OPETH, except while the latter has gone more the prog route, these guys know to keep things intense and continue to rely on their roots.

Lastly, we have “Distant Seasons” that has an introduction somewhat similar to “Storm Son” (after the horn part), but relies more on PORCUPINE TREE clean guitar sounds, and you could make the case that is does have some parallels with the infamous British progressive outfit. I think the band made the right choice to finish off the album with a smoother song, as pretty much all of the other tracks (except the interlude and experimental one) all have a fair share of aggression.

What an adventure this album was, the band just finds amazing ways to bring you into their unique universe that blends the aspects of 1970s psychedelic / progressive rock with the sheer power of black metal. The band remains true to their sound and still explores new realms and ventures. This album will be in all the top 10s once the year has completed, a year that has been unique in all the wrong ways. If you wish to escape the negativity and craziness of 2020, put this record on and let yourself drift away.

Songwriting: 10
Originality: 10
Memorability: 10
Production: 10

5 Star Rating

Tracklist:
1. Fires in the Dark
2. Jettegryta
3. Sequence
4. Homebound
5. Útgarðr
6. Urjotun
7. Flight of Thought and Memory
8. Storms of Utgard
9. Distant Seasons 
Lineup:
Ivar Bjørnson - Guitars, Keyboards, Piano, Electronics, Effects, Percussion, Vocals (backing)
Grutle Kjellson - Vocals, Bass, Mouth harp, Electronics, Effects
Arve Isdal - Guitars (Lead)
Håkon Vinje - Keyboards, Vocals (Clean)
Iver Sandøy - Drums, Vocals (Clean)
Record Label: Nuclear Blast Records
     


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Edited 03 December 2020
 

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