Friday 21 April 2023

Enslaved - Heimdal (2023)

Country: Norway
Style: Progressive Black Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 3 Mar 2023
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When the Caravans to the Outer Worlds EP arrived only a year after Utgard, Enslaved's fifteenth album, with a set of songs that sounded good but mostly in isolation, I wondered how much of its material would end up on the next full length. The answer to that is not a lot: just its title track, a song also released separately as a single. Enslaved also issued three further tracks from Heimdal as singles ahead of its release, plus a live version of Bounded by Allegiance. That means that die hard listeners heard four out of seven Heimdal tracks before it ever saw release in entirety.

And, given which songs they were, I expect that the die hards were licking their lips in anticipation. I don't dislike Behind the Mirror, for instance, which opens up the album, but Congelia after it is a glorious effort, a song from an entirely different league, and that's the one of that pair that saw single release. It's a weaver of textures that becomes almost hypnotic. It's a quintessential track to transform the black metal for which Enslaved used to be known into a prog rock soundscape, as they've generally moved towards over the decades. It grows too, those textures gaining emphasis and eventually joined by clean vocals and a guitar solo. It's a peach of a song.

Forest Dweller is another of those singles and it's another strong track. It starts out as softer folk prog but erupts a couple of minutes in to a more traditional black metal assault. Even there, it's a progressive piece because it incorporates a jazzy keyboard solo out of nowhere that works rather well to my ears. This is exactly the sort of thing that they've become so good at, almost throwing the early fans a bone with an old school section that reminds us of way back when, only to add this gorgeous and unexpected touch.

The other single is Kingdom, which shows up next. From a thoughtful prog metal intro and a clearly acoustic vibe, it adds layers of electronics and eventually builds to something furious. And, when it does, there's a thrash/death mindset to much of this one that shows up at a few points on this album, such as on The Eternal Sea. At these points, they just barrel along like a juggernaut. I haven't gone back to Utgard in the past couple of year, but I don't remember this. When that was furious, it was clearly black metal. Here, the black combines with other genres, especially thrash, for something very tasty indeed.

That goes double when you factor in another wild keyboard solo from Håkon Vinje. He has a habit on this one of chipping in ideas completely out of left field that can't possibly ever work but always do. The band as a whole is clearly happier with a progressive angle to their sound that their early albums didn't have any room for, but much of that comes from a different form of contrast, taking a song in a particular mood or style and then shifting it into another, with every musician working in unison to make it feel seamless. Only Vinje chooses to layer on something completely different, apparently seeing an opportunity that nobody else in the band did. And every time he's right.

That's not to say that the rest of the band are playing it safe. There are all sorts of textures here worth calling out for special mention. I'd throw out the vocals late in Kingdom. They're kinda sorta clean, so I don't know if they're Vinje or drummer Iver Sandøy. I have a feeling they're just cleaner vocals from lead singer Grutle Kjellson. They're subdued but still menacing and they have a strong effect on the end of the track.

The other is the bass/drum interplay that closes out Caravans to the Outer Worlds. I talked about this one in my review of the EP that bears its name, so I won't get in depth here, beyond pointing out that it fits on this album much better than it did with the other tracks on that EP. Everyone is on top form for this one, including some searing guitarwork from Ivar Bjørnson and/or Arve Isdal, but it's the bass of Grutle Kjellson combined with the glorious rhythms of Iver Sandøy that make it special for me.

And so, this is a slightly inconsistent but generally strong album. I gave Utgard an 8/10 and I think I need to follow suit here. The bookends, Behind the Mirror and Heimdal, don't play as well to me as the rest in between. They're still good, but they're not as good. However, those four singles are all clear highlights, with Congelia chief among them, worth every second of its eight minutes. Think of it as a couple of 7/10s, at least four 9/10s and The Eternal Sea in between. So another 8/10 it is.

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