Tuesday 9 November 2021

Enslaved - Caravans to the Outer Worlds (2021)

Country: Norway
Style: Progressive Black/Viking Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Oct 2021
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Enslaved have been busy of late. It's only been a year since their fifteenth studio album, Utgard, a strong album that made my highly recommended list for 2020, but they've knocked out four, count 'em, four live albums since then, albeit in limited editions (300 copies each and 1,000 more in a box set), and now there's a new EP to boot. And, while 'm still listing it as a progressive black/Viking metal release, as I did Utgard, that's really not the case, because they've moved a long way from those roots. Really, they play progressive metal nowadays.

It's a short EP, running just over eighteen minutes, and two of the four tracks on offer are shorn of vocals, a pair of Intermezzos to break up the vocal tracks, but without a closing vocal number to be the final bookend. Each track is interesting, but the opening title track is the highlight without an argument from anyone listening, I don't think. There's a lot going on in this song, which is an epic even at only six and a half minutes long. It feels like a ten minute plus piece, not because it drags but because so much happens in it and all of it is comfortable and patient and unrushed.

It begins and ends with swirling mist, out of which emerges the prowling bass of Grutle Kjellson, a harbinger of doom countered by the keyboards that grow around it. The guitars are a frantic and penetrating force, almost experimental, but the groove the song finds is more akin to Hawkwind than anyone else, incessant and driving. The vocals are initially harsh, raspy and determined, but a second clean voice takes over for the chorus and we have a conversation. This journey evolves; I imagined that these Vikings started out on a ship in rushing water, but ended up traversing space on their journey to the Outer Worlds. Whatever it's telling us, it's magnetic.

The other song proper is Ruun II: The Epitaph, presumably a sequel to the title track of their ninth album, the award-winning Ruun, from 2006. It's a little shorter but just as patient and deceptive in how much it achieves. It's a quieter piece too, one that starts out progressive but ventures firmly into gothic territory as it grows. It's hypnotic in its repetitive opening, but there are hints behind the droning keyboards and ritual hand drums that only grow when the vocals show up. Again, the Hawkwind influence shows up, with pulsing determination, but there's Bauhaus here too.

The instrumental tracks are less interesting but they're still worthy. They both find agreeably odd vibes, but neither feels like a complete entity, but I'm not yet sure whether they ought to be part of a much bigger, more ambitious piece or whether they should be split up further into a bundle of short interludes, especially the first of them, Intermezzo I: Lonnlig. Gudlig., which could easily be broken up into two pieces or expanded into something more substantial. I'm not convinced that it accompanies either the title track before it or Ruun II after it, so it becomes a question that won't ever find its answer.

And so this is very much an assortment of Enslaved music to dip into rather than the coherent four track EP it may be trying to be. Everything's worthy and some of it is excellent but everything also works best in isolation from everything else. Maybe it's a teaser for a forthcoming album, when it might make more sense. In the meantime, it's more enjoyable stuff from an endlessly fascinating band still growing and evolving thirty years into their existence.

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