Utgard brings us to album #15 in Enslaved’s nearly 30 year career, a discography nearly unmatched in terms of consistency, both of purpose and execution. The duration of their career is an achievement unto itself, but the fact they’ve methodically expanded and matured their sound while never losing their core identity is remarkable. That consistency comes from the simple fact that the songwriting team of Ivar Bjørnson and Grutle Kjellson has remained intact through the years and so has their unwaveringly personal approach to extreme progressive music.
In looking through Enslaved’s career, I really feel that Below the Lights (2003) was the touchstone album that really began this progressive section of their journey. Now after seven albums building upon that foundation, Utgard feels like another touchstone, a herald to the next.
Utgard is presented as a thematic concept album inspired by the parallels of Norse Mythology and Jungian archetypes; a journey through the shadow realm or a journey to the inner self, depending on the viewpoint of the listener. The nine tracks on Utgard function as separate scenes within the larger whole; while the songs work individually I really feel like they reach their fullest potential listened to in sequence.
Ivar mentioned in an interview that the band really wanted Utgard to be an ‘album-length’ project, whereas their last several albums have largely consisted of tracks in the 8 to 9-minute range. This decision has led to an incredibly tight batch of songs that cover all the same twists and turns as we’ve come to expect from Enslaved, but in a tighter, more compact format. The arrangements are inspired, intricately detailed and bursting with creativity.
Probably the most noticeable difference on Utgard is in relation to the vocal arrangements, which came about due to a distinctly important personnel change. Long-time drummer Cato Bekkevold retired from the band in 2017 and was replaced internally by co-producer/engineer Iver Sandøy who has been working with Enslaved since Axioma Ethica Odini (2010). Not only is Iver an exceptional drummer (who brings a distinctly different feel to the proceedings) but he’s also a lead vocalist, allowing the band to employ three-part harmonies for the first time. Iver has taken over the lead melodic vocalist slot on the album with keyboardist Håkon Vinje providing harmony and backing vocals. Grutle is also using his clean baritone voice more prominently on this album and the blend created by the three of them together really takes things to another level. Check out album-closer Distant Seasons for a prime example of this new vocal approach and it also features a children’s choir in the arrangement.
On the experimental side of the equation, Utgard has some more surprises in store. The excellent Sequence starts as a stripped-back driving rocker, but then after a manic fusion-inspired guitar solo settles into a hypnotic space-rock groove that allows guest percussionist Martin Horntveth (Jaga Jazzist) the chance to build an amazing soundscape. Seemingly the most left-field entry on the album is Urjotun which is built off a simple Krautrock-inspired synth-loop and kind of sounds like a soundtrack collaboration between John Carpenter and early ’80s The Cure (seriously, Grutle’s bass-line sounds like something from Pornography). Yet as strange as that may sound on paper, it works beautifully in the context of the album and I’d love to hear an extended mix of it. Speaking of mixes, the amazing Jens Bogren is behind the desk again and he’s crafted one of the best-sounding albums I’ve heard in a long while, exemplary work.
But fear not, if all this talk of vocal harmonies and synth loops has your sphincter puckering, rest assured that Enslaved still delivers the fire-breathing goods throughout Utgard. The extreme metal roots are front and centre on the blistering epic Flight of Thought and Memory (my personal favourite track) which also contains a ripping guitar/organ solo duel and a haunting instrumental coda. Jettegryta is thrillingly ferocious (and proggy) and the infectious Homebound and frosty epic Storms of Utgard have the perfect balance of unrestrained aggression, instrumental fireworks and memorably melodic underpinning. There simply isn’t a weak moment on the entire record.
Utgard is a triumph and a career-defining album for Enslaved; a bold, exciting, focused work from a band whose best days are clearly ahead.
01. Fires in the Dark (6:00)
02. Jettegryta (4:56)
03. Sequence (6:39)
04. Homebound (5:30)
05. Utgardr (1:51)
06. Urjotun (4:21)
07. Flight of Thought and Memory (6:22)
08. Storms of Utgard (4:38)
09. Distant Seasons (4:31)
Total Time – 44:46
Ivar Bjørnson – Guitars
Grutle Kjellson – Bass, Vocals
Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal – Lead Guitar
Håkon Vinje – Keyboards, Vocals
Iver Sandøy – Drums, Vocals
Record Label: Nuclear Blast
Country of Origin: Norway
Date of Release: 2nd October 2020