Greetings and god Fredag. This is a journey into sound. And sounds. And time, and shifting perceptions, and journeys (journeys of journeys), and our relationship to all of these things, but mostly to sounds. And mostly to the sounds of Heimdal, the 16th full length album by the legendary Enslaved. Let’s begin by setting the stage with some blanketing statements, both of which can be true:
- Heimdal is handily the best album Enslaved has released in over a decade, since at least 2012’s Riitiir.
- It still probably won’t replace your favorites.
We’ll get into the first statement in greater detail below, but first let’s tackle the latter. First of all, it’s okay for a new album to not eclipse the peaks. Have you heard Isa? It’s incredible! Have you heard Below the Lights? It’s splendiferous! The number of metal bands that have recorded albums of that quality can be counted with your combined hands and feet.
Perhaps more important is your personal relationship with this band. Enslaved’s career has long been marked by eras, even if the exact time when each begins or ends is often blurred by their evolution and progression. As music fans, we go through our own eras, with any number of our innumerable experiences shaping how we perceive and appreciate things. This can be extra true for a band with as dramatic an arc as that of Enslaved’s first 15 years, where we might not appreciate a particular album, phase, or sound until our personal circumstances are just right, and even then the ones that made the biggest impression on us at that key moment in time may always be our favorites.
Basically, Enslaved has an extremely high Get Out What You Bring With You factor, and while that doesn’t mean it’s completely based on circumstance, those factors can and of course will influence how much a very good new record like Heimdal will leave you ensorcelled. Enslaved is also a big Patience Will Be Rewarded band, and even for them Heimdal is a fairly deep and diverse album. In other words, your weapons (snap judgments), you will not need them.
But what if you’re the type that really misses that constant Enslaved evolution? How much did you believe the statements from the band that Ivar Bjørnson was more inspired as a songwriter this time around? Here are a couple more points about Heimdal that can both be true:
- It does indeed sound more inspired than recent efforts, and is undeniably darker, more intense, and relatively weirder than the last few albums.
- Inspired is one thing, and evolution is another, and the album’s shifts are minute compared to the rapid changes the band used to exhibit from album to album.
Opener “Behind the Mirror,” almost crucially, does not unload all the album’s intensity from the get-go, but instead begins things with a slower, slightly doomy prog riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on many a King Crimson album (that almost cheeky menace at which Fripp so excels is present). The clean vocal passages are rather communal and understated, which provides a great contrast to Grutle Kjellson’s somehow never better growl. It’s a very good, not quite amazing track, but what makes it work so well as an opener is it introduces the kind of on-the-move, traveling, journeying vibe that permeates the record, which is amplified much more on later tracks.
It also sets the stage by being a bit of a stylistic deke before the band goes nuts on “Congelia,” a tune that is almost shockingly heavy and urgent, especially considering the type of material you’d expect of them these days. It spends several minutes hammering the listener with a choppy-chunky riff, Iver Sandøy’s relentless drum pattern, Grutle’s growl, and some positively killer organ warble and spaced out key parts from Håkon Vinje (who really stars throughout). All the intensity is eventually rewarded with a wicked, triumphant swell of group clean vocals in one of the album’s biggest moments, of course punctuated by a smooth and deeply narrative Ice Dale solo (the man is a marvel). It ought to be an instant Enslaved classic.
The journey continues with “Forest Dweller,” which again shifts the mood into something more classically prog, with serene-but-eerie vocal melodies, simulated flute sounds, and plenty of sections that feel like blackened Deep Purple and/or later Opeth peppered with harsh rasps. It’s another track that doesn’t so much shift a paradigm as it refines the model in glorious fashion. It’s also a great diversion between the beastly track that precedes it and the wild, fun, and riffy “Kingdom,” which is fairly irresistible all the way through with its techy harmonies and spaced out keys, but really reaches another level when it pairs some serious bombast with a nice sassy hook.
The journeying vibe reaches its peak with “The Eternal Sea” and “Caravans to the Outer Worlds.” The former begins with sounds of being lost at sea, framing the dominant catchy drive and clean vocal melodies with sorrow, almost a lament. It’s beautiful, simultaneously distant and immediate, and perhaps the biggest grower track of the bunch. The latter flips that feeling of trekking across great distances into something resembling a battle, with its punchy keys, twitchy riffs, and a fittingly less smooth Ice Dale solo. The track, despite being introduced through its titular EP in 2021, feels even more at home here, fitting in perfectly with the overall arc of Heimdal.
Since the days of “Miðgarðs Eldar,” Enslaved has spliced their speed with slowness, and that touch of doom really helps Heimdal’s closing title track set the scene for the end. The main riff pattern of its initial passages is like a meaner and slower inversion of the riff that opens the album, and ‒ because of a somewhat unbalanced prog setting ‒ feels the tiniest bit drunk (oddball keys and Grutle’s vocals help the unsettling vibe). And then, almost out of nowhere, it suddenly becomes a completely different song, infectiously pushing forward as if driving away from destruction without a worry in mind, as if the only goal is to keep chasing the sunset.
It admittedly comes off as a strange choice the first few times you hear it, but everything comes together when you remember a great truth about this band: Enslaved is best when they’re at least a little weird. Heimdal is probably only a little weird (at least to seasoned ears), but it’s certainly weirder than In Times, E, and Utgard. It isn’t just weirdness for the sake of weirdness, however, it’s the sound of a creative band feeling looser and more at home both within their songs and with each other. Heimdal is the first time that this “newer” Enslaved lineup sounds fully gelled, with all five guys turning in excellent performances that add just the right touches (and then some) to these tunes.
It’s admittedly a comforting feeling to be excited about an Enslaved album again. It’s a somewhat tempered excitement, sure, but that might be less about the record (which is great and has the potential to keep growing in stature) than me, us, I, we. We ‒ meaning fans and band both ‒ are older, a little less excitable, and generally stiffer in our joints when the barometric pressure acts up. And to reiterate a big point, this band has released 16 (SIXTEEN!!!) albums! That’s a lot of records!!! And the worst you can say about their output is that a few albums feel a mite superfluous, because none are nearly bad. That they can emerge from the type of rut that is really only a rut for a band of their caliber and climb at least halfway back up their own colossal mountain of standards ought to bring a smile to many a fan’s face.
Enslaved is even celebrating the record with a release event called Heimhug, which yes, translates to “homesickness” (at least according to Google), but these world travelers surely knew that putting “hug” into the name would make it seem rather affectionate to non-Norwegian-speakers. Regardless, it’s a fun thing for these joyous old vets to do with their fans, and just the latest in a great recent stretch of events and live streams and other little things that make them so relatable. They clearly want their fans to be part of their journey, and Heimdal not only feels like a big part of their story, but one of their destination albums. Give them and this great record a good squeeze, you will.