Enslaved - Utgard
Nuclear Blast
Progressive Metal
9 songs (44:43)
Release year: 2020
Enslaved, Nuclear Blast
Reviewed by Goat

Following on from the slightly disappointing E, Norwegian progsters Enslaved are back with album number fifteen. Again we have a line-up change, long-term drummer Cato Bekkevold departing and being replaced by Iver Sandøy and again this doesn't have as much impact as one might fear, Iver having a prior connection with the band having co-produced several previous albums (and this one) and provided various additional effects, as well as being a more than capable sticksman and joining his voice with keyboardist Håkon Vinje to add to the clean vocal power. And Enslaved seem a little more inspired in the songwriting department this time around, leaving behind the lengthy dull soundscapes of E in favour of shorter, punchier, even more playful songs that explore the band's unique fusion of black, Viking, and progressive metal well. The danger always is that bands allow their mixtures of styles to become predictable or formulaic, and it's to the Norwegians' credit that they have managed to keep their sound refreshed from album to album, never seeming to repeat themselves or get overly bogged-down in variations on a theme.

Utgard is no different; although songs have a certain stylistic similarity the band more than make them distinct and varied. The space rocky, krautrock-infused Urtojun has a very different impact to the almost invocatory added percussion of Jettegryta, for example, although the other elements shared such as the three vocalists' interplay is present and correct. Said Jettegryta opens with a nicely aggressive groove, switching to a galloping post-black rumble and doing a better job of introducing the album than the actual first track here. The ensuing proggy instrumental freak-out is fun and different without diluting the atmosphere the band have created - balancing both extremely well. And Urtojun brings in darkly pulsating post-black metal in its swirling vortex of sounds, still providing a balance but in a very different way.

It's consistent across the album; Sequence is another example of this balance at work, surprisingly catchy melodic riffing and clean vocals between bursts of jagged riffing and Grutle's typically grating snarl, about as close as Enslaved have got so far to modern Borknagar-esque melo-prog. The even more mellow acoustic-backed instrumental section is just as proggy and fits the song well, and the emphasis on the rather beautiful clean singing is enough to push the band towards near shoegaze territory - ending with a switch back to Grutle for an outro that smoothly transitions to the following Homebound. Here, the band intensify, pushing into black metal speed between the usual groovy riffing, and the clean vocals accordingly seem perfectly natural in their limited, mini-chorus setting between Arve Isdal's typically great guitar soloing. It's clearly all meticulously planned and executed, and a joy to listen to.

As good as Utgard is, that it is not quite good enough to be counted amongst the band's greatest releases is no insult to them. There are few real flaws here; opener Fires in the Dark is confused and a bit all over the place, starting and abandoning several builds with a mix of Viking chants, acoustic guitars and melodic guitars before moving on to highlight the excellent clean singing. Fine, but done better elsewhere on the album. Spoken word and ambient interlude Útgarðr is likewise far from terrible, but is quite skippable in its mid-album place before the much more interesting Urjotun. Yet these aside, Utgard is very strong, keeping its quality levels up right up until closer Distant Seasons, a wonderfully compact song that stays with you after the album's end, entirely clean sung (with two guest female vocalists) providing a tantalising hint of an Enslaved without any black metal elements at all. It's doubtful that they'll actually do an Opeth and leave their parent genre behind altogether, given what an important element it still is in their sound and the fact that Ivar and Grutle have been playing it since they were in their teens, but this glimpse shows that it could well work for them. In any case, Utgard packs a lot of quality into its relatively unbloated running time (the band's second shortest album after 1998's Blodhemn!) and is yet more proof that the Enslaved discography must be one of the strongest in the scene. Fifteen albums, nearly thirty years of existence, and yet the founding members are still only in their early and mid forties! We surely have many more gems to come as they age.

Killing Songs :
Jettegryta, Sequence, Homebound, Urtojun, Distant Seasons
Goat quoted 82 / 100
Other albums by Enslaved that we have reviewed:
Enslaved - Heimdal reviewed by Goat and quoted 80 / 100
Enslaved - Caravans to the Outer Worlds (EP) reviewed by Goat and quoted no quote
Enslaved - E reviewed by Goat and quoted 75 / 100
Enslaved - In Times reviewed by Goat and quoted 93 / 100
Enslaved - RIITIIR reviewed by Thomas and quoted 92 / 100
To see all 15 reviews click here
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