(Andy Synn casts his all-seeing eye over Enslaved‘s new album, out tomorrow via Nuclear Blast)
I almost didn’t write this review. After all, it’s not strictly necessary, is it?
Let’s face it, Enslaved have long-since reached the stage in their career where, no matter what they put out (and, let’s be honest, they do have a few duds in their back-catalogue, at least by their own high standards) the fans are going to buy it and the critics are going to fawn over it in a patently un-critical manner.
But, as has been pointed out to me, I haven’t failed to write about a new Enslaved release for years, so I might as well keep that streak alive with Heimdal, right?
But where to begin…
Well, for starters, I can say that Heimdal is the band’s best – and most confident – album in a decade.
It also, for all that, starts off on entirely the wrong foot!
I’m not saying that “Behind the Mirror” isn’t a good song – I’m especially keen on the unexpectedly old school synthetic symphonics and captivating clean vocals provided by “new kid” Håkon Vinje (who, to be fair, has long since established himself as a vital part of the group) – it’s simply that, as an opener, it doesn’t quite set the tone for the record the way it needs to (especially following the directionless disappointment that was Utgard).
But “Congelia”? Now that’s more like it. There’s the initial slow build-up of tension that the band then maintain throughout the rest of the track, keeping you constantly engaged and on edge. The progressive (in all senses of the word) layering of seemingly disparate elements which, one by one, begin to reveal the song’s true shape. And then that epic climax? Now that’s how you start an album.
It’s an especially apropos way to begin (sort of) an album like this one, which often feels deliberately less audience-friendly – or, at least, more willing to challenge its listeners – than the majority of the band’s post-Axioma work.
That’s not to say there aren’t some absolutely massive and instantly memorable cuts here by any means (the lush acoustic guitars, soaring melodies, and mellifluous vocals of “Forest Dweller”, for example, will likely lay down permanent roots in your brain the very first time you hear them).
Nor are they afraid to lay down some seriously blood-pumping riffage and let the lead guitars soar (both “Kingdom” and “Caravans…” – the latter making a welcome reappearance – demonstrate that while Enslaved may be getting older, they’ve still got that fire in them) in a way that reminds you that the band have never been the “Black Metal Pink Floyd“… if anything they’re the Black Metal Led Zeppelin.
But what really sets this album apart from its most recent predecessors, when all is said and done, is that it once again sounds like Enslaved are all on the same page and all pushing (or pulling) in the same direction.
And while I intimated earlier that Vinje was potentially the album’s MVP, the truth is that all of the band’s members feel like they’ve brought their very best to the table this time round (though I’ll admit I am particularly partial to the oft-understated, but impressively intelligent, percussive performance of drummer Iver Sandøy).
It’s still very recognisably them, make no mistake about it, but the songwriting – especially on numbers like the outstanding “The Eternal Sea” (occasional chuckle-worthy lyrical non-sequitur aside) and the towering Prog-Doom-tinged title-track – just has that extra frisson of excitement and unpredictability about it… the proggier parts are proggier, the riffs are riffier, the hooks are hookier (yet also stranger) and the melodies (particularly the multi-part vocal harmonies and arrangements) that little bit more magical.
Make no mistake, after several years where it seemed like the band were a little lost at sea, Heimdal, much like its namesake, finds Enslaved once more turning their gaze towards new horizons… and it’s about damn time.
Encouraging review, Andy. I’m definitely way more excited to hear this one than I have been with the last few releases. I liked Utgard initially but after a few listens I just neve felt the urge to go back to it. This one seems way more inspired and (from what I’ve heard so far) will hopefully draw me back in for subsequent listens.
I like Enslaved. Frost is one of my favorite black metal albums of all time. Beneath the Lights was like unlike anything Id ever heard when I first heard it. I still spin that once in a while. Everything else through it’s highs and lows has never really caught my attention. I’m not the biggest prog metal fan because I have (believe it or not) touched a boob. But I’ll probably give this one a spin at work.
Not much can compare to Vertebrae for me, their newer style just feels like a stale re-hashing of that album. That sounded too harsh, I don’t dislike anything they’ve released recently, just never really found any of it engaging
Hopefully this will grow on me, though I have some doubts. The songs still have that sense of meandering directionless so prevalent on Utgard. Enslaved is one of my favorite bands. I like all of their material, all eras, old and new, up through In Times, and E. Remember songs from E, like “Storm Son”, “The River’s Mouth”, “Sacred Horse”, “Axis of the “Worlds”, etc. Absolutely thrilling prog-black metal. I am focusing on E because that was the last album I liked, and it wasn’t too long ago. What happened to songwriting like that? Nothing on this new album comes close. Starting with Utgard they really lost their way. (Utgard was my biggest metal disappointment of the decade, hands down). Hopefully they are starting to rectify things with this new album, but they are still not out of the hole they fell into.