REVIEW: ENSLAVED – “Utgard”
Utgard can express an infinite number of things, including being a metaphor or referring to a sphere of sleep or dreams. In Norse Mythology, it is a landscape where madness, creativeness, humor, and chaos live harmoniously. Space where the gods of Asgard have no control and where the giants dwell. And, yes, where Norwegian black metal giants dwell too. Which makes it the perfect name for Enslaved‘s new album. If you think that after fifteen albums over nearly thirty years that you have heard all the veteran musicians have to offer, think again, and journey with them through ‘Utgard’ into a fresh, captivating soundscape overflowing with brilliance.
Never an outfit to shy away from incorporating serene moments, up until now these brief, understated interludes were whispered phantoms lurking behind the walls of chaos. ‘Utgard’ calls these shadows into the light, allowing them space and time, balancing them beautifully with the record’s heavier arrangements. Songs such as “Flight of Thought and Memory,” “Homebound,” and opening track “Fires in the Dark” strike this balance perfectly, with guitarist/co-vocalist Ivar Bjornson and bassist/co-vocalist Grutle Kjellson masterfully capturing this dynamic with ease. Throughout, moments when compositions could be mistaken for duets with Katatonia see songs transition between wild disorder and the terminally moody, yet with an uplifting atmosphere that is simply enthralling.
If you’re geared more toward songs that convey a tension similar to having your teeth pulled by a blind dentist operating out of the back of a snooker hall, then this shift in experimentation may not be what you were hoping for from a new Enslaved album. But as a band who love the idea of a strange idea, this shift makes perfect sense. No song suffers as the bands push their own boundaries. Even “Sequence”, with its many moving parts – acoustic guitar, dance grooves, and organized vocal gravel – fights against the odds and wins. As does album interlude “Utgardr” and its direct successor, the synth-punk rhythms of “Urjotun,” which win you over with their careless defiance. Like the land of Utgard itself, this record calls for unification, where what lives above and what lies below find unity.
Utgard’ is a brave move by Enslaved, offering a larger space for more atmospheric moments, with hints of gothic undertones that may shock die-hard extremists. But getting upset at a band known for pushing their creative possibilities is like getting angry at your cat for bringing home a mouse. You might not like it, but you should have expected it. And when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. ‘Utgard’ is an arresting piece of experimentation that sees each track prove itself worth the risk. If extreme metal often plays safe within its borders, ‘Utgard’ honors the tradition of breaking free to expand Enslaved’s musical scope while retaining their roots.