Enslaved - Heimdal review
|Release date:||March 2023|
01. Behind The Mirror
03. Forest Dweller
05. The Eternal Sea
06. Caravans To The Outer Worlds
07. Gangandi [bonus]
Disc II [The Otherworldly Big Band Experience Blu-Ray] [digipak bonus]
01. Ruun II - The Epitaph
02. Bounded By Allegiance
04. Caravans To The Outer Worlds
06. Slaget I Skogen Bortenfor
07. What Else Is There? [Röyksopp cover]
On their first album of the 2020s, Utgard, Enslaved made a break from the elaborate long-song prog that had dominated their 2010s output in favour of shorter, more compact, and arguably more accessible songs. If it were another band, perhaps one might have braced for subsequent simplification on future albums, but this is Enslaved we’re talking about, and Heimdal is absolutely not an extension of the trajectory Enslaved went in from E to Utgard.
On this, the sixteenth full-length entry into what I feel is probably the most consistently excellent metal discography out there from such a veteran act, the progginess has definitely been dialled back up again; of 7 tracks here, 4 are longer than any that were on Utgard. It’s not just length, though; there’s a meandering explorative vibe to a lot of the writing here, and there’s also less immediacy in even the more overtly melodic portions of it, with instant hookiness clearly down the list of priorities. Also, not necessarily ‘extremity’, but the intensity is higher again; the ‘blackened’ portion of the ‘blackened Pink Floyd’ reputation they’ve acquired over the decades is a bit more prevalent this time around. I made no bones about my affection for Utgard when it came out, so I had no clamouring for Enslaved to go in this direction, but they accomplish some great stuff in the process.
I don’t feel that Heimdal necessarily sees Enslaved recapitulating the sound of any of their 2000s records in particular, but there are moments that perhaps go closer to some of those albums than they have since Axioma Ethica Odini. Arguably the most striking moments in this vein for me is in “Forest Dweller”; the peculiar synergy of the acoustic, distorted and lead electric guitars in the intro to this song, plus the brash Hammond organ-style keys later on, are more of a recent Enslaved prog slant, but the way that pounding drums build within an acoustic passage and suddenly redirect it in a rampaging blackened direction is eerily similar to a comparable transition in “The Crossing” from Below The Lights.
Another song that reminds me a bit of that era is “Congelia”, which for me is the highlight of Heimdal. For large portions, this is the most extreme song on the album, with a frenetic first half filled with all-out drum attack and jagged, contorted proggy black riffs, but as it progresses, some showmanship is incorporated into that fury, most notably with the trumpet blasts and spacey sounds integrated about halfway through. Where “Congelia” shines brightest, however, is in its final third; while it’s not the exact same vibe, the triumphant determination of the huge, emphatic climax of this song leaves me thinking of the similarly all-conquering conclusion to the song “Ruun”, which I consider arguably the band’s finest achievement, so it’s no surprise that a song that delivers the same feelings has me so keen to laud it here.
I don’t think the album’s progressive inclinations always work out perfectly for it; some of the songs have quite meandering introductions or other passages that struggle to make quite the impact Enslaved presumably intended (and I’m also still not sure whether a strikingly exuberant guitar solo on the title track is genius or just a major misstep). Arguably the most detrimental of these is the first couple of minutes of “The Endless Sea”, which never feels like it really knows where it’s headed. Perhaps compounding this is how the transition later in the same song into an up-tempo, rampant blackened passage feels quite unnatural; there’s strong moments in this song, but overall I’d rank it as the weakest on Heimdal.
Just as much as the album’s progginess defines it, though, its riffiness also merits attention; pretty much every song finds a moment to get stuck into a gnarly riff or lively groove, culminating in the closing title track being rounded off with an understated yet fun riffy jam, in contrast to the more grandiose or mellow conclusions the previous few albums ended with. Probably the most riff-heavy song here is “Kingdom”, also the album’s shortest; not all riffs are equal, however, as a slightly middling first half evolves via an ominous tension-building bridge into a proper headbanger (the drumwork in this bridge, by the way, features a spectacular tom workout).
This isn’t my favourite Enslaved album; it’s arguably their least overtly compelling one since at least Vertebrae, if not since before their landmark record Below The Lights. Despite its imperfections, however, it’s still a really impressive blackened prog record, and quite a bold one as well in several places. I’m not the kind of person who loosely defends disappointments by my preferred bands with statements such as “even a ‘bad’ album for them would be the highlight of most other bands’ careers”, but I do feel that the consistency Enslaved have accomplished, where any fluctuations in quality between records are basically tiny blips, is pretty much unparalleled, and Heimdal is a continuation of this; any small issues I have with certain moments on it are dwarfed by the pleasure that it provides in many other moments.
||Written on 19.03.2023 by|
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