Enslaved – Utgard (Nuclear Blast)

Utgard is known in Norse mythology as a place where giants dwell, where the Gods of Asgard have no control.

And it’s a fitting title for an opus which sees Enslaved stride forth like titans and ascend, unconstrained, into metal’s outer realms.

It’s 20 years since the Norwegians – with their fourth album, Mardraum – Beyond The Within – really started to show their progressive leanings.

And as the years have passed, the fierce, black metal of debut opus Frost and its follow-up, Eld, has made way for an expansive, cinematic approach. 2015’s In Times and 2017’s E owed as much to Pink Floyd and King Crimson as they did to Bathory or Mayhem….

It’s no surprise, therefore, that Utgard is another evolutionary step forward for the quintet.

Keyboardist and ‘clean’ singer, Håkon Vinje, sparkled on E, his first album with Enslaved. Yet here, the Jon Lord devotee sounds like he’s embedded even deeper into the band’s bone marrow.

New drummer Iver Sandøy (who co-produced In Times and E), has also made his mark, bringing new textures to the band’s work.

Layer the duo’s contribution on top of Ivar Bjørnson and Grutle Kjellson’s ingenious songcraft, and you have a record of seemingly limitless possibilities.

Examples? Urjotun is driven by a hypnotic krautrock pulse and a bassline worthy of Killing Joke’s Youth, while Sequence takes you on a wild, disorientating ride which embraces dark jazz and psychedelia, and twists its way across nearly seven mind-bending minutes. In the hands of lesser mortals, that song could have been a mess. But thankfully, Enslaved have long since thrown off their human shackles.

Yet despite its sense of adventure, Utgard is no random patchwork of ideas.

Far from it.

This is Enslaved to the core.

And like everything the Bergen outfit have put their name to, it has focus and clarity. 

A rich seam of darkness, for instance, runs straight through Enslaved’s 14th full-length, reflecting the record’s themes of danger, madness and chaos.

And the primordial flame of Nordic black metal still burns in the band’s hearts too, igniting on songs like Flight Of Thought and Memory. 

Indeed, the threads that bind a near-30 year career together are there for all to see.

Opener Fires In The Dark harks back to the choral Viking-prog of Convoys to Nothingness, from 2001’s Monumension, and the startling Homebound is definitive Enslaved, a meld of arcing melodies and volcanic ferocity, where Kjellson roars and Vinje soars.

It’s all pretty breathtaking – and is testimony to this act’s unique talent.

So yes, these may be uncertain times. But at least you rely on Enslaved to conjure up albums like Utgard… and make the most inventive rock music you’re likely to hear all year.