I’m going to disclose at the start here that progressive music isn’t really my thing, but I make exceptions for a band like Enslaved. These Norwegians started out as a more traditional sounding Black Metal band with Viking and Folk themes, but they also have an experimental tendency which really began taking hold on 2000’s “Mardraum (Beyond the Within).” This experimentation has continued to snowball over the years and brings us now to their newest release entitled “Utgard,” a bold continuation of this progressive sound.
It didn’t take long to realize this voyage would be a bit of a mindbender. The opener “Fires in the Dark,” starts off with Viking-esque clean vocals and acoustic guitars, but soon a black metal riff enters in. It then transitions into a spacey guitar section, and finally a more proggy guitar riff kicks off along with some other atmospheric elements. Initially it feels like the song is trying to do too much but eventually it all comes together. “Jettegryta” utilizes a frosty Black Metal sound to parallel the Icelandic landscape shown in the corresponding music video, but the channel still changes momentarily on the bridge with more spacey prog riffs. “Homebound” stands out as one of the more epic tracks and has a chorus section that is almost anthemic. “Utgardr” may just be an interlude but for me it’s like walking through an ancient cave while on the psychedelic substance of your choice. This leads into “Urjotun” which uses more spacey guitars, synths, and those clean vocals to create something I could describe as Viking Techno while interchanging seamlessly with psychedelic-infused Black Metal. “Flight of Thought and Memory” started off with riffs that reminded me of Burzum’s “Belus” album and then brought in some noticeably thrashy riffs and a complementary guitar lead. You can sense a final destination is close at hand during the last two songs, and the album closes out well on “Distant Seasons” with a little bit of everything including sounds of the ocean, clean guitars, acoustic guitars, black metal riffs, leads, trumpets, and trippy synths. At this point in the album all these different elements together now make sense instead of feeling disjointed, and we have reached the highest peaks and the deepest inner realms of Utgard.
The lyrics convey philosophical ideas from a Viking/Norse Mythological perspective. The cyclical nature of existence is one recurrent theme and is especially highlighted on “utgardr.” The All Serpent, being a symbol of eternity, is mentioned on “Sequence,” and “moving in circular infinity” comes from the song “Homebound.” In a recent interview with Grutle, he explains that Utgard in Norse Mythology is the place of the giants up north. With Jungian and Freudian Psychology in mind, this shadowy realm becomes analogous with the subconscious on this album. Each song is like exploring a different region of this dreamlike world in order to discover its furthest reaches and tap into the primeval chaotic energies found there. The opening song “Fires in the Dark” states “we will reach the havens, the lesser known deeper path” and also speaks of “a journey towards the cores, from general to singular.” This brings to mind the altered, meditative, or single-pointed states of consciousness such as Gnosis or Samadhi that can be attained and used to tap into the subconscious. Some believe the subconscious is where you can find inspiration, hidden wisdom, and is where ideas can take shape and move towards physical manifestation. Everything starts as an idea. If you have a good idea and put in the necessary effort to make it a reality, the momentum of the universe from the creative chaotic energies residing in the subconscious can also help bring it to fruition. Some of the lyrics on “Urjotun” along with “the sequence unfolds, utilized for will and power” from the song “Sequence” help to illustrate these concepts.
Enslaved really pushed the experimentation close to the edge with this one, but thankfully not to the point of falling over. It is a more challenging record at first, and it will pass by quickly with little impact if you just spin it casually. For this reason, I was initially left with the impression that it was more watered down compared to their previous efforts, and had to give it my full attention in order to catch all the wild transitions and how they connect together. I only have one minor gripe with this album and that is the harsh/clean vocal ratio. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy the clean vocals, but obviously I also really enjoy the harsh Black Metal vocals. With three of the band members contributing vocals on this it would have been interesting to hear more diversity on the harsher side as well, and not just with the cleans which seem to take precedence. I also felt some of the cleans on “Sequence” sounded a little too upbeat and didn’t quite fit in with the overall dark tone of the album. Ultimately this doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of “Utgard,” and I revere bands like Enslaved who create intelligent works of art like this instead of the usual garbage that’s trending high on the mainstream charts these days.