Black metal has expanded in a thousand different ways since the early 90s, but no band quite encapsulates this transition like Enslaved. From their roots in the legendary early Norwegian scene alongside Mayhem, they've constantly been adding new sounds and elements to stay ahead of the curve. Heimdal is the furthest they've ever strayed from their comfort zone. It's also one of the best things they've ever released.
Don't be fooled by the title. Heimdal is not a traditional Viking metal record satisfied with using the same old tropes. Musically, it has more in common with avant-garde outfits like Sigh and Intronaut than anything with corpsepaint. Enslaved are no strangers to classic prog worship, but their previous efforts seem like mere flirtations now. Grandiose keyboard solos, jazzy flourishes and extended psychedelic sections in almost every song launch Heimdal into a class all of its own.
Take the album opener "Behind the Mirror." Two minutes in and there's layered Mellotron effects straight out of Porcupine Tree's best material. The best comparison for the whole album is probably Opeth, but even they don't reach the level of tight cohesion Enslaved show here. Despite their previous reputation for long epics, nothing on Heimdal cracks the ten-minute mark, and even those that come close know how to use their time effectively. It's not easy cramming five decades of musical history into seven songs, but these guys make it sound easy. Take "Caravans To The Outer World," which combines thrashy riffs, doomy dirges, 70s acid rock and a Tool-like jam towards the end.
The best example of Enslaved's new sound is the single "Forest Dweller." It's an almost unbearably sincere love letter to the great progressive rock bands by way of early 2000s Norwegian black metal, complete with a floor-rattling keyboard solo worthy of Emerson, Lake & Palmer over Immortal style riffage. It's rounded off with a dreamy bit of psychedelia with just a hint of occult rock.
Keyboardist Håkon Vinje deserves every compliment he can receive and more. The level of energy he attacks his instrument with brings everything else on the album up a notch as well. These are true keyboards, not synth, triggers or soundscapes. Håkon is bringing the same level of finesse that Jon Lord brought to Deep Purple or Jordan Rudess to Dream Theater. It's impossible to imagine what Heimdal would sound like without him.
For listeners who just want a blast from the past, there's still enough black metal to go around. Enslaved haven't forsaken their roots completely and they aren't above throwing in a shrieking tremolo riff or two. Second track "Congelia" is the most traditional black metal thing on offer, especially in its intro section. The title track "Heimdal" too, is likely to get the die-hards crossing their arms and scowling. In fact, most of the songs on Heimdal have at least one part that could generously be called black metal. It's just that it's usually mixed in with something as random as jazz saxophone or shoegaze.
Thank Satan that bands like Enslaved still exist. They are totally unafraid to mix genres and styles with abandon and refuse to be tied to one scene. Enslaved might never escape the black metal label entirely, but they sure won't be accused of selling out either. On the contrary, Heimdal is so weird it's virtually unmarketable. But then again, wasn't that always the point of extreme metal? Enslaved are outsiders among outsiders, and they seem even happier for it. If more groups follow their creative example, all of metal will benefit.