Enslaved’s 15th (FIFTEENTH) album, Utgard, is out today, and (spoilers) it’s bloody excellent. It’s one of their absolute best records in a 27-year recording career that’s almost without blemish, and it is achieved by changing direction.
This really is not news, however, as this has happened multiple times throughout their run, and is often what defines their best records – and throughout all that, at no point have they ever stopped feeling like Enslaved. And it is time they were acknowledged as the best band at shifting gears heavy metal has ever had.
Enslaved famously started out when then-13-year-old Ivar Bjørnson was spotted by then-17-year-old Grutle Kjellson (because he was wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt, apparently). They used to be called Phobia, but Immortal told them it was a shit name and to change it to Enslaved, and they followed their advice (because it was Immortal, obviously). They found a drummer, Trym, (who was with them until, to quote Grutle, “he decided he wanted to wear a cape, so joined Emperor”), and the rest is history.
Except it really isn’t. It is both far more complicated than that – but also even more simple.
History has, at various points, recorded that Enslaved have three eras: the black metal phase (early), the Viking metal phase (middle), and the prog phase (later).
On the surface, this seems plausible; the early releases like the (surprisingly will aged) Hordanes Land EP, the debut album Vikingligr veldi, and their first genuine great record, Frost, all sound chilly and necro as fuck; Eld through to Below The Lights clearly have much more to do with Hammerheart than Under The Sign Of The Black Mark; and from Isa through to Utgard they seem to have been listening to Pink Floyd just a tad, and have added in a load of wider influences into their musical milieu, even diverting into Neurosis-worship on occasion.
While the band themselves clearly have some time for this concept, using it as the basis for a trio of shows celebrating their 25th anniversary in London, from the fan’s perspective, it does not really fit.
There are not three, four, five, or any other number of eras of Enslaved. There is simply Enslaved.
Listening to Utgard back-to-back with Hordanes Land, it seems odd to suggest it, but you do not have to dig too far past the musical aesthetics to start to find easily comparable musical devices. For a very specific example of how recent Enslaved and old Enslaved are surprisingly similar, you only have to go back one album to E. Tone down the tremolo picking and modernise the production of the slow section (around two minutes in) of ‘Allfadr Odin‘, for instance, and you can easily spot a similarity to the idea anchoring the section at around 3:40 into ‘Axis Of The Worlds‘. Ivar’s riffage is so distinctive that releases 24 years apart can, digging beneath purely cosmetic musical delivery, clearly be identified as the work of the same auteur.
Looking past simple musical devices even further, and the connections between the “eras” become even clearer. Enslaved have, from their very beginning right through to Utgard, used three broad tonal features within their music:
- sections that build tension by reining in the pace but increasing the angularity of the chord sequences
- sections that unleash that tension by using their more aggressive musical palette
- calmer, more beautifully melodic sections that allow them to really bloody show off quite how pretty they can be when they want to
It’s a distinctive feel that’s all their own – an extreme metal Sturm, Drang und Stille, for lack of a less pretentious expression.
No aspect of this has ever been missing from any of their recordings, with only really one exception. 2012’s RIITIIR does not quite fit the template, as the Sturm is conspicuous by its absence. If is really the only misstep of their career – not because the riffs are shit (they aren’t, they’re excellent) but because the cathartic pay-off Enslaved promise never quite comes.
Aside from this, while some of their records emphasise one aspect of their sound more than others, that can often make them significantly more enjoyable with hindsight.
Take, for instance, Vertebrae and Axioma Ethica Odini. On release, while excellent, Vertebrae felt like a step into very new territory, as its post-metal-isms quieted the storm sections and gloomed up the calm ones. Then Axioma… came out, and it was like the sun coming out after the storm, Enslaved’s longship surging forwards rapidly into a calm sea of brightness and beauty. Listened to as a pair, those two remain high points of Enslaved’s stellar catalogue, and are both improved by the other. The decreased focus on one leg of their emotional tripod is balanced out by the other, and the contrast highlights the qualities of each.
Having such a secure foundation of what makes them Enslaved means they can, essentially, do whatever the fuck they like, without losing their identity – as long as they can still pull off those three moods. Utgard does just that, as did E before it. The departure of long-time clean vocalist and keyboard player Herbrand Larsen, for a decade such a key component of their sound, is barely noticed after only two records, as Iver Sandøy, Håkon Vinje and even Grutle himself are able to articulate similar emotional registers using completely distinct clean vocal styles.
More than that, Utgard sees Enslaved veer further from their black metal origins without losing them (‘Jettegryta‘ is full of black metal building blocks), and in the process, even manage to show their familiarity with the subgenre’s most modern, weird interpretations, as ‘Urjotun‘ uses electronic trickery/insanity in a way that would not have sounded out of place on Oranssi Pazuzu’s Värähtelijä (but then both acts are Roadburn stalwarts, so perhaps this should not be surprising).
Having such a clear anchorage in their own musical roots means that, when they do wander miles into the light, such as the stomping and beauty of ‘Sequence‘, it feels simply like a new string to the bow, rather than a new instrument.
Yet again, Enslaved have deepened their toolbox, and yet again, it is still Enslaved. The superficial stylings may have changed, the beards may be longer and greyer, but it still all scratches exactly the same musical itch that makes you dig out Eld or Ruun or Mardraum after all these years.
While the list of bands to broaden their palette so successfully is not short, there are none who can boast the ability to do it so significantly without dropping what defined them and made them good in the first place.
Opeth may have morphed into a brilliant prog band, but there really is not the same feel to Pale Communion‘s grace as there is to Watershed‘s mixture of brutality and beauty, however much Mike may argue otherwise. Death may have invented three separate death metal sub-subgenres on Chuck’s own, but even he never really veered that far outside the subgenre itself, and as much as Leprosy and Human are two of the best metal records ever, they are so different in feel and effect, they could have been from different bands. Anathema’s goth metal era and the shiny post-prog they played in the 2010s basically have nothing to do with each other. And before that small section of Metallica fans who love Load as much as Ride The Lightning pipe up, the simply reality is that they are just that: a small section. Most Metallica fans are divided on whether they like the shift or not.
Enslaved come with none of these caveats. They remain one of the most reliably brilliant bands in heavy music, and have been since that first EP in 1993. They have shifted their sound every other album without ever losing what made them who they are, and in this, as well as how easily identifiable they are, they are truly unique.