There’s no doubt about it, Norway’s Enslaved have been edging ever closer to this moment for more than a few years. Certainly since 2010’s Axioma Ethica Odini, the prog metallers’ sound has been getting ever more experimental, more overtly prog and less obviously black metal. That path has reached a current apotheosis with Utgard. In honesty, one can only marvel at where Enslaved might go from here.
Yes, in places Utgard is still a strikingly heavy behemoth of a record – these five Norwegians know how to pack the kind of aural punch that would deck Mike Tyson with ease. And true, bass player Grutle Kjellson’s occasional vocal bark, while enunciated wonderfully, might still terrify the lily-livered purists. But this is 2020, and the time to wallow in such absurd snobbery is gone. The music’s moved on.
Utgard represents all that’s exciting and great about modern progressive music. From the Nordic chants that usher in opener Fires In The Dark, reflecting the mythical concept the album is shrouded in (see also: the doom-laden spoken-word intonation of Utgardr), to the final strains of the emphatic closer Distant Seasons, Enslaved leave no stone unturned.
Throughout the album, Enslaved are constantly pushing the envelope. Ever thought you’d hear the band dabbling in electronica and krautrock? Look no further than the driving beat of the quite wonderful Urjotan and prepare to be amazed. If it’s beautifully harmonic vocals you’re after (and, yes, this is Enslaved we’re talking about), then lend an ear to the rousing chorus of the slow-building Sequence and the excellent Flight Of Thought And Memory. Or if you simply want to rock out to some gargantuan prog metal, then the rampaging rhythm changes of Jettegryta or the juggernaut that is Homebound should suffice.
At every musical turn on Utgard Enslaved strike gold. At just under an hour, its nine tracks have been stripped of any unnecessary fat, and what we’re left with is a lean and elegant album that should have both prog fans and metalheads hailing the band’s achievements in equal measure. It certainly stands guitarist and vocalist Ivar Bjørnson’s songwriting skills up there with the very finest modern day progenitors of the genre. The signs were all there with In Times and E. On Utgard, he and the band are operating on another level entirely.
“Utgard represents something that is hard to master completely, perhaps impossible,” Kjellson has said of the concept behind the album. Musically, it’s presented Enslaved with no such problems. This is a masterful work from start