The greatest artists tap into something beyond themselves and speak elemental truths from everyday syllables. Certainly in the case of music, the presence of a sympathetic or at least engaged listener helps to close the circuit, but one of the magical things about music is its duality: It exists in hermetic independence even with no one to hear it, and it cannot exist without a listener to make meaning from the pure physics of sound waves. Call it Schrödinger’s Riff, if you like.
Therefore, when you hear Grutle Kjellson snarl, “Echoes of a past not yet written,” on the chorus of “Fires in the Dark,” the opening track on Utgard, Enslaved’s fifteenth album, it’s hard not to feel swept up in the collective mythmaking of one of heavy metal’s greatest bands. Cultures throughout world history have used mythology not only to make sense of the natural world and teach themselves how to live in society, but also as metaphor for mapping the conflicts of the inner self to some allegorical framework. “In the eye of the storm, we were born / We see the fires in the dark,” the song continues. You don’t need to translate the words to characters from Norse myth to hear – to feel – the truth of lived experience, of grappling with the forces of order and chaos.
For the better part of three decades, Enslaved has specialized in grand gestures. Not dramatic overreach or progression for the sake of novelty, but the ferocity of their black metal roots gave way to such a thoroughgoing sense of exploration that one can’t help but marvel right along with the band in the process of discovering moment after transcendent moment. And even though in broad strokes, it’s easy to sum up modern Enslaved as “mellowed black metal with heaps of prog and hard rock,” that hardly does justice. Instead, I prefer to think about how in their fully progressive era (feel free to quibble, but this particular knucklehead drops the starting marker for that around Below the Lights), Enslaved has managed to incorporate nearly equal amounts of majesty and mystery.
An interesting question to pose is what to make of the fact that Utgard is the most concise Enslaved album since Blodhemn. There’s much to be said for a band in 2020 that can get in, speak their piece in 44 minutes, and get out, but the paradox with Enslaved is that they sometimes seem to cover more stylistic ground in a shorter song or album than they do in lengthier ones. Compared to its immediate predecessor, 2017’s E, the overall sound of Utgard is similar, but where E’s six compositions stretched out to revel in long grooves and slow builds, most of Utgard’s eight main pieces snake and curl their way along unexpected trajectories. None of this is to suggest that Enslaved is typically placid or one-note and has just now turned hyperactive and impatient, but as an album, Utgard doesn’t sit still for long.
The choral opening of the first track hearkens back to several points in the band’s catalog (Frost’s “Yggdrasil,” Below the Lights’s “Havenless,” Monumension’s “Sigmundskavet,” etc.), but just as easily as it summons a martial pulse alongside those strident voices, the rest of the song barrels into a nervous pummel and then again sideways into a beautifully keening chorus. “Jettegryta” storms out of the gates with a powerful, grimacing strut. On the verses, Grutle’s harsh vocals scrape increasingly guttural levels of his lower register in a nearly death metal style. Even so, the transition into a bridge that plumbs fully prog depths with some guitar and Hammond-like synth interplay feels so natural as to be seamless.
“Storms of Utgard” is a perfect example of Enslaved at their most majestic, particularly towards the close where a freewheeling guitar solo is undergirded by some subtle, harpsichord-sounding synths. The main verse figure ends with a choppy ascending lick that sounds like the band scrambling to climb a hill. Elsewhere, “Sequence” is one of the knottiest, most mysterious pieces on the album, and as such both encourages and rewards attentive listening and headphone exploration. Most of the song’s closing minutes, for example, float by easily enough if you’re just tracking the rhythmic bed of the guitar and drums, but there is very nearly an entire universe rising, falling, shifting, and roiling in the keys. There’s a syncopated pattern in some keys that sound like a brass chorus, but it emerges only gradually, and plays against a separate pattern played on something like upright chimes. A brief coda that calls back to the song’s shimmering open riff hits a polite reset, but even as the album pirouettes effortlessly into “Homebound,” there’s a nucleus of palpable strangeness still lodged in the ear.
For as much as Utgard excels as a full arc, indelible moments still spring out to command the listener’s attention. “Urjotun” opens with a delightful, sprightly synth lead which is then joined by an unexpectedly chunky bass line. The song has more than a bit of a post-punk feel to it, with a lot of bounce and some real sass. It’s a sneaky bit of songwriting that sees Enslaved calling to mind not only Killing Joke but also the Ur Norwegian avant-garde metal of Ved Buens Ende. Late-album highlight “Flight of Thought and Memory” is one of the snappiest, most forward-driving songs on Utgard, with a soaring, languid chorus that yields to a shuffling almost-blast, some taut, almost thrashy rhythm guitar, and a sumptuously understated little paired/trade-off solo between the guitar and keys.
Bringing the arc home, though, is a damn-near perfect closer in “Distant Storms.” It opens with simple, contemplative singing and a plaintive clean guitar lead, and although the instrumental weight builds throughout, the mood stays pensive. There are additional voices on the last repetition of the chorus that sound almost out of frame, as if they’re singing from beyond a mist at the edge of the world. One effect of the seamless songwriting of Enslaved’s more compact compositions here is that it’s easy to imagine that they continue beyond the end of the recording. “Distant Storms,” in particular, feels like the band has tapped into a beautifully tragic moment in time and captured a small slice of it, further cementing the band’s link to both myth and music as allegory. This thing you feel in the music is not the same thing that the band feels, but it just might give you access to some third thing that is more than simply a mathematical outcome. Call it the Inexplicable Remainder, if you like.
A listener familiar with the progression of Enslaved’s career, and in particular with the preceding two albums, is not likely to hear any single thing in Utgard that is wholly new. (To these ears, it feels like a merging of E, Vertebrae, and Monumension, but to yours, it will surely feel otherwise.) But to lament this reality rather misses the point. Though they are one of the most successfully shape-shifting bands to emerge from the crucible of black metal’s second wave, even the most drastic changes in their sound have felt like looking at different angles of the same core identity. In that respect, this fresh batch of songs offers yet another demonstration of the band’s recombinant genius. It’s a little like striking off into a wilderness area you’ve explored dozens of times, only to find that the trails are overgrown and strange. You know the trees and rocks but your eye can’t complete your inner map without a trusted guide. Utgard is a marvelous album that trusts in the listener’s instinct and intelligence, and it can only further cement Enslaved’s status as unparalleled champions of progressive and emotive heavy metal.
Reviewing a new album by a band as relentless and accomplished as Enslaved means that pronouncing anything like a static, eternal judgment is folly. As ever with great art, the act of engaging in close analysis and deep, headlong enjoyment completes the circuit of artist<->audience, but it can only do so at a singular moment in time. What you hear in this today will not be what you hear in this tomorrow, both because Utgard is a rich, reverberating well of ideas and inspiration, and because you may need to hear something different in this tomorrow. You may need this to meet you in a new place. The malleability and yet fiercely unswerving essence of Enslaved means you can always meet these songs anew. The fact that you can move from your pain and turn to the task of finding where these songs take you means that you are always your indelible self, and you are always changing into what you can be.