Enslaved – Utgard Review

Enslaved can do no wrong in the eyes of its diehard fans. After years of releases and reviews, most of the band’s material sits comfortably in 80-90% ratings on Metal Archives. I was, at one point, one of these fans. That was until 2004’s Isa. Where had my Frosty bois gone? I could do Monumension and Below the Lights, but what is this? It wasn’t until the follow-up, Ruun, I understood where Enslaved was going. I loved Ruun and even found that I loved Isa too. Sometimes a band makes such a drastic change in style that you’re floored by it. Many times upset by it. But Enslaved made it work. Well, at least for a couple more albums. I liked most of RIITIIR, but nothing after. And when E and its saxophone-sucking closer arrived five years later, I had pretty much given up on the band. So, you can imagine the dread I felt when I got the promo for Utgard.

Let me be clear about something. The greatest criticism I have against Enslaved is not that they reinvented themselves with a style that is so unique that you could call it ‘N Slaved-core. Nor is it that they abandoned that old, Norwegian black metal sound. I wouldn’t go there. Because if you love one era of Enslaved or love another, it’s all unmistakably Enslaved. No one sounds like them. And that Grutle shriek stands out to this day, while newbies become Abbath, Corvus, and Nocturno Culto wannabes. My greatest criticism is that they haven’t written a great album since 2010’s Axioma Ethica Odini. Again, if you have Enslaved’s Viking blood injected into your veins, you’re not gonna agree with me. But, from beginning to end, that was the last album of theirs I could listen to as a whole. But Enslaved hasn’t seen those days in a long time. And that hasn’t changed with Utgard.

The general feel of Utgard is the same as E. But while E begins with soothing atmospheres and clean guitars via “Storm Son,” Utgard ends with it. Though “Storm Son” goes on to be a much bigger piece after that smooth introduction, Utgard’s closer, “Distant Seasons,” is four-and-a-half minutes of calm keys, guitars, and vocals. As with all Enslaved records, though, there’re always pieces with the band’s familiar trots and downbeat assaults. With Utgard, you can feel safe with “Fires in the Dark” and “Flight of Thought and Memory.” Well, except for the flutey shit of the former and the go-nowhere outro of the latter. So, yeah, we’re off to a good start.

The top-tier pieces on the album are “Sequence” and “Storms of Utgard.” The first has an excellent driving riff with emphasizing keys, and the clean and gruff vocals play well together. And when it finally takes a chill pill, “Sequence” fills the void with classic Pink Floyd-inspired beautification. Sadly, the song is also home to one of the lamest key solos the band has ever written. Thankfully, “Storms of Utgard” sounds exactly as its title suggests. It has a similar groove to “Sequence” but is far more progressive. And Grutle’s mighty scream signals the mid-song storm to begin.

To these ears, those are the take-home pieces on the record. I understand that many liked the “Homebound” single but when I heard it, I thought my media player was trolling me. I looked at my phone to make sure it hadn’t shuffled to The Ocean’s latest release. Because that’s how the vocals sound. It’s not bad, but it feels awkward coming from Enslaved. The songs that stick with me in the worst kind of way are the back-to-back “Utgardr” and “Urjotun.” “Utgardr” is a short, spoken-word piece that’s here for the story. That’s not the issue. The issue is the awful Escape from New York-style keys in the background. What makes it worse is it doesn’t stop there. They become the pillar of “Urjotun,” with Grutle’s bass guitar supporting them. The entire time I listen to “Urjotun,” I imagine running through the New York streets with Swan from The Warriors.1

Remember that time when AMG Himself said he “almost” didn’t review an Enslaved record? Well, this might be why he didn’t review Utgard. Enslaved can write some killer music, but Utgard is no better than their last couple records. That makes it disappointing for all the reasons I mentioned in this review. And that’s a bummer because the dynamics are lovely, and the album feels good on the ears. But I find myself jumping to my favorite tracks and ignoring the rest. And there aren’t that many good ones. Which is my biggest beef about any album. I know the masses won’t agree, but Utgard is boring.

Rating: 2.0/5.0
DR: 8 | Format Reviewed: 274 kb/s mp3
Label: Nuclear Blast Records
Websites: enslaved.bandcamp.com | enslaved.no | facebook.com/enslaved
Releases Worldwide: October 2nd, 2020

Show 1 footnote

  1. Not Ajax? C’mon, man! – Steel
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