2017’s E saw beloved progressive/black metal troupe Enslaved delve further than ever into atmospheric passages and captivating clean vocal hooks. Sure, there were still plenty of tricky brutalities and devilish singing, but the compositions were almost unanimously accessible and wonderfully malleable, too. As a result, it pleased longtime fans and stayed true to their DNA while also making it easy for newcomers to see why they’re among the best Norwegian metal bands around. In many ways, Utgard continues that trajectory as methodically and successfully as you’d expect. Perhaps a bit colder and more legendary than its predecessor, this 15th studio LP is an inarguable triumph and one of the best metal albums of the year.
These days, it seems almost obligatory for a new Enslaved album to come with a line-up change. With E, it was the departure of vocalist/keyboardist Herbrand Larsen and the addition of Håkon Vinje (known for his work with Seven Impale and Skuggsjá, the latter of which also includes Enslaved guitarist Ivar Bjørnson and Gorgoroth drummer Einar Selvik). Then, in 2018, drummer Cato Bekkevold retired and was replaced by Iver Sandøy (who co-produced a few Enslaved records). Naturally, he’s a perfect fit, with enough characteristic panache to stand out amidst maintaining the quintet’s expected percussive flair and precision.
Although opener “Fires in the Dark” doesn’t pack quite the same hypnotic clout that E’s “Storm Son” did, it makes up for it with more nuance and breadth. Mythical chants guide piercing guitar riffs, acoustic guitar strums, and battle-ready drumming in the prelude, gearing you up for something epic and profound. Then, a chilling soundscape and bellowing guitar notes give way to hectic instrumentation and guttural declarations. Halfway in, clean melodies and enthralling syncopation changeups take over, demonstrating Enslaved’s sustained refinement of their tried-and-true formula. Both tranquil and terrifying, it’s the best of both worlds.
Luckily, that excellence dominates most of the subsequent pieces. Specifically, “Jettegryta” takes it up a notch regarding unpredictable rhythmic shifts and trippy keyboard bellows. Next, “Sequence” concentrates more on lighter elements and a straightforward yet dense course, while “Urjotun” wisely places peculiar electronic loops beneath its thunderous trajectory. Perhaps the best mixture of them all comes with “Flight of Thought and Memory,” though; its chorus is downright serene, its coda is sparsely moving and inventive, and everything in-between is delightfully hellish. As for closer “Distant Seasons,” it instills the LP with a sense of closure and invigorating call to action that makes you feel elated and eager to take it all in again ASAP.
It’s also worth discussing the one-two punch of “Utgardr” and the penultimate “Storms of Utgard.” The former is a two-minute interlude built upon foreboding male narration and an eerie collage of digital tones that progress subtly. It’s as much a respite from the previous chaos as it is a sign of a greater cumulative purpose. Ingeniously, it foreshadows the aforementioned foundation of “Urjotun,” as well as the bleak, naturalistic essence of that second-to-last configuration. Those links undoubtedly help the record feel even more unified, leading to a journey greater than the sum of its individually stellar parts.
Utgard is not only a superb successor to E, but also a great modernization of Enslaved's ever-evolving aesthetic in general. Rather than suffer a loss of identity, artistry, or purpose because of fluctuating memberships and/or creative exhaustion, the band is more focused, aligned, and capable than ever. In other words, Utgard sees them at the top of their game in every way, with an unyielding shared vision and polished skills producing a true gem of the genre.