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Enslaved - Utgard CD (album) cover




Tech/Extreme Prog Metal

3.96 | 55 ratings

From, the ultimate progressive rock music website

4 stars I have had an on-off relation with Enslaved since their 2010's Axioma Ethica Odini. Of that album, I appreciated the ambition to combine progressive elements with a pure and uncompromised form of Viking black metal. But I have always felt that the end-result of that album is a bit too rough for my liking and so I only followed their subsequent releases tangentially and without paying too much attention. Until Utgard, that is. Fast forward to 2020 and Enslaved might have just released my favorite extreme progressive metal album of the year.

To these ears, the 9 songs of Utgard are very exciting, a refreshing and inspiring combination of black metal ferociousness, atmospheric metal accessibility, and sublime progressive extravagance. I may not be as acquainted with Enslaved's past discography as other people here, but to me Utgard sounds like nothing else I have heard from this band or from other extreme prog metal bands in the scene. Sure, nowadays there are many bands that combine black/death metal with clean vocals and acoustic instrumentation and write multi-part and layered compositions that take inspiration from the progressive rock/metal of the past. But it is hard to find releases that combine the various influences in such a well-balanced way and excel to such a high degree in all the components that are brought into the mix. When Enslaved prog, they prog like a pro 70s band. When they push their melodic side to the fore, they can compete with the best atmospheric rock bands out there, like Sólstafir or Porcupine Tree. And when they unleash their ferocious blast beats and growls, well ? that just shows you why Enslaved have been sitting at the top of the black metal scene for over 25 years.

The album brims with ideas. The guitar work is fantastic, shifting between tight riffs, atmospheric leads, blazing solos and mesmerizing jams. The use of synths and sound effects is another great aspect of the album. Keyboard wizard Håkon Vinje joined Enslaved only in 2017 from eclectic prog-rockers Seven Impale, and I cannot help but think that his prog-rock background has played a key role in the development of Enslaved's sound on Utgard. At times the album sounds like progressive rock with black metal influences rather than black-metal-gone-prog, like for example on "Sequence", a superb piece of music that start as a groovy post-rock anthem (Sólstafir come to mind here), before delving into a crazy instrumental prog jam complete with tubular bells, to finally drift into an extended, lysergic Porcupine Tree-esque finale. One of the best tracks on the album, no doubt. The vocals are another high point of the album. Grutle Kjellson's growls are a wonder to listen to, raspy ad grim but so well enunciated that add a whole new dimension to the standard black/death metal growl routine. The clean vocals (provided by dummer Iver Sandøy and Håkon Vinje) are also amazing, of much higher quality than what one usually finds on black metal albums. They play a big role in selling the melodic/atmospheric side of the music so well. Listen for example to the chorus on "Homebound" or to "Distant Seasons". I also thought that the sound production (Jens Bogren / Tony Lindgren) is excellent, retaining the rawness of black metal but allowing enough sonic clarity to let you fully appreciate all the subtleties of the music.

Among the 9 tracks, the three "epics" ("Fires in the Dark", "Sequence" and "Flight of Thought of Memory") certainly stand out as beautifully dynamic, multi-part, multi-layered compositions that stretch out through several twists and turns, and allow the band to showcase the full breadth of their influences. "Homebound" is another great moment of the album. It is a more concise piece, but no less powerful, with a great balance between raw and melodic parts. "Urjotun" is the most daring track on the album, a Hawkwind-inspired cross between post-punk and krautrock that will surprise many fans of the band. "Distant Seasons" is a great closer with dreamy clean vocals and an almost alt/post rock atmosphere. I am not so fond of the other three tracks ("Jettegryta", "Storms of Utgard" and "Utgard", the latter being a short spoken-word ambient piece) that I find more standard and perhaps a tad less inspired.

If I had to find a small flaw with the album is that it somewhat lacks a development arc: its 9 tracks are excellent, but I do not get the sense of an arc that ties them together (musically, not necessarily conceptually) and gives the listener the feeling of having embarked on a "journey". In this sense, Utgard feels more like a collection of great tracks that lacks however the "full-length album experience" where the listener feels that the songs were intentionally composed to be heard together as a whole. But this does not detract too much from the joy and excitement I experience every time I listen to this album. Utgard is one of the best albums I stumbled upon in this 2020, and probably my favorite extreme prog metal album of the year.

(Originally written for The Metal Archives)

lukretio | 4/5 |


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