Tuesday 29 December 2020

Enslaved - Utgard (2020)

Country: Norway
Style: Progressive Black/Viking Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 2 Oct 2020
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I'd think that it's fair to say that Enslaved have become one of the most interesting black metal bands nowadays, but they've moved so far away from the genre that they're gradually losing a lot of the old school fanbase they've been building since 1991. This is their fifteenth album and there's not a heck of a lot of black metal left in their sound, though it's still there if you pay attention.

Jettegrytta starts out in black metal style, with fast guitars, faster drums and the recognisable harsh vocal of Grutle Kjellson. Homebound does the same, as does Flight of Thought and Memory, but each of these songs drops away from black metal at some point into some flavour of prog rock. Maybe the key point to make here is that, even in black metal assault mode, this feels a little subdued. It's not a traditional wall of sound to bludgeon us, it's a filter of the black metal style that's compatible with a proggier and often jazzier section to come. The opening of Jettegryta may be about as traditional as this gets, but I kept turning up the volume and it still refused to punch me in the throat.

Whether you're going to dig this album or not may depend on your reaction to that last paragraph. I like raw and bleak black metal on occasion, because it seems to me the most extreme metal out there. However, I'm nowhere near die hard enough to restrict my listening to that end of a subgenre. I really like bands like Enslaved who take extreme metal and mix it with non-extreme genres to make it learn new tricks. There's a heck of a lot going on in this album and that's one of the reasons that I like it so much. Storms of Utgard is Celtic Frost, Mekong Delta and maybe Radiohead.

Fires in the Dark opens the album with Viking chants and atmospheric guitar. Somehow a riff arrives and Kjellson's harsh vocals duet clean equivalents from Håkon Vinje and Iver Sandøy. A later riff feels almost Middle Eastern. Jettegryta, after the hard black metal, drops into avant jazz. Sequence starts out commercially with a bouncy riff in the vein of Satyricon's K.I.N.G., but finds its way into complex jazz, before dropping into an oasis of calm generated by an acoustic guitar and supporting keyboards. It ends up reminding more of Voivod, or maybe Voivod doing Pink Floyd. The most Floydian song has the honour of wrapping up the album and that's Distant Seasons.

It's the longer songs like Sequence and Flights of Thought and Memory that best highlight what this band is doing nowadays though. The latter starts out black metal again, but drops into prog and then ratchets up to a serious pace. Kjellson's vocals here are black, but the music behind them almost feels like speed metal for a moment. The melodious sounds in the later jazzy section could almost be called lounge, except there are busy drums and a dramatic voice overlaying them. These are deep songs and their various components are woven together tightly. They're all part of a natural whole, not there to jar us with wild contrasts like a band like Mr. Bungle.

What I should point out here is that these are the natural next steps in a journey they've been taking for some time. They shouldn't seem surprising in any way. This is what Enslaved have been becoming for a decade and a half and they're getting better and better at it each time out. What's surprising to me is the double shot of Utgarðr and Urjotun. The former is really an interlude right at the heart of the album, all swirling keyboards and spoken word. The latter could easily be called post punk with a firm embrace of electronica. It's like Joy Division at their fastest and perkiest. That I wasn't expecting but it's good stuff.

Where that leaves us is that you may hate this for the same reasons I love it. If you're looking for an old school black metal album from one of the pioneers of the genre, this sure ain't it. If you're open to an evolving sound almost thirty years in the making, however, then this may be right up your alley.

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