By Dr. Abner Mality

I’ve followed the winding path of ENSLAVED since the days of “Hordanes’ Land” and have seen them grow into one of the most unique bands arising from the Norwegian black metal scene. One thing you’ve got to keep in mind with these guys: expect anything, because nothing is off limits for them.

The general feel of “Utgard” is more laid back and progressive than their last few releases. I could kind of see that coming, since “E” was fairly intense. But as is always the case with ENSLAVED, you can’t get away with just saying “this is a mellower one”. The songs have to be listened to and examined in minute detail to pick up everything. “Fire In The Dark” is a good example of how they throw more curves at you than Sandy Koufax. The song is austere and melancholy and doesn’t coming roaring at you swinging swords and axes. But neither is it a ballad and there are parts where the guitar and vocals both get harsh and rigid. Grutle’s rasping black metal vocals are so damn good, so perfectly on point. Keyboardist Hakon contributes the rich clean vocals this time around and does a great job They way these guys weave in and out with each other is magical.

Second tune “Jettegryta” thunders in with a metallic arrogance. Most would have opened the album with this cut, but not these guys. It’s a great straight forward metal cut, but it also has its proggy moments if you take time to listen. There are no real epics here. “Sequence” is just shy of the 8 minute mark but covers all the territory it needs to.

Most surprising song for me is “Urjotun”, which is ENSLAVED’s crack at synth-driven krautrock and electro-rock, mixed with their folkish metal. It’s not only the catchiest tune here but one of the most forward thinking and unusual. The final song “Distant Seasons” is wistfully laid back and folk-like, but not really the song you’d expect to end the album. To tell the truth, while “Utgard” is superbly played and has many of touches we’ve come to expect from ENSLAVED, it doesn’t have the tense and epic feel of their best material.

If you’ve hung in there through all their other albums, “Utgard” should be another addition to your collection. But I don’t put it at the very, very top of ENSLAVED’s output.