ENSLAVED – Heimdal
RELEASE YEAR: 2023
BAND URL: http://enslaved.no/
Whereas E²⁰¹⁷ was a sore disappointment after the phenomenal In Times²⁰¹⁵, the former seemingly ending the string of top shelf material from Axioma Ethica Odini²⁰¹⁰ and Riitiir²⁰¹², Utgard²⁰²⁰ was a notable, if a partial return to form. I remarked similarly in my review of the album (5/6) where I claimed that the Norwegian progressive blackmetallers Enslaved (named after Immortal’s “Enslaved in Rot”) were a hit or miss when it comes to the appeal but not the quality, which is, admittedly, always very high and I think, given, again a fantastic product with this here their 16th offering Heimdal released on March 3rd, an album which may and should be heralded as a full return to form as well as one of their most accomplished works to date, that it’s time to realize that Enslaved never does anything accidentally, haphazardly or without premeditation.
After a string of groundbreaking legendary albums Vikingligr Veldi¹⁹⁹⁴, Frost¹⁹⁹⁴, Eld¹⁹⁹⁷ and Blodhemn¹⁹⁹⁸ Enslaved needed two progressive bridges, Mardraum (Beyond The Within)²⁰⁰⁰ and Monumension²⁰⁰¹ in order to dig deeper and for creative juices to keep flowing which yielded the, again, legendary landmark releases Below The Lights²⁰⁰³, Isa²⁰⁰⁴ and Ruun²⁰⁰⁶ before the next bridge, Vertebrae²⁰⁰⁸ (an album which sounded like Pink Floyd deciding to play metal instead of psychedelic rock on, say, Animals), and hence had come forth Axioma Ethica Odini, Riitiir, and In Times before Enslaved was due for another bridge which they simply called E, whereby Utgard was its first offspring and Heimdal is its more complete continuation. That is to say that would work if Heimdal was anything like E which, to these ears at least, it isn’t.
Instead we are getting a progressive near masterpiece, which, while not perfect, is at least present perfect in its form – reaching far back into the past while firmly planted in the present, sounding both classic and devastatingly modern. Whether you listen to the perfect progressive melodic yet psychedelic death metal of “Kingdom” with militaristic Teutonic thrash riffs, the Mastodonic progressive rock dissonance of the opener “Behind The Mirror” (featuring a very loud horn courtesy of Wardruna’s Eilif Gundersen) or the favorite blackthrashing but dreamy soundscapes of “Caravans To The Outer Worlds” highly, too, evocative of the classic Opeth, or you let yourself be carried away by the beautiful Judgment Anathemanian clean vocalizations of “The Eternal Sea” or Katatonian and Daylight Dies stylings balladry of “Forest Dweller” you won’t be able to deny that Enslaved are still master songwriters who layer their tracks intensely while keeping your attention throughout with ease and finesse that behooves a 30 year old band. In fact, I would call them Tool of black metal because of how dense while catchy this stuff is. And all the while Enslaved reek of themselves, of their own classicism, which is evident from the downright industrial repetitive rhythms likely designed to put you in a trance so that you can absorb more and more, which is highly reminiscent of Below The Lights.
In the right sense of the word, there is something magical in what the main songwriters Kjetil Tvedte “Kjellson” Grutle (vocals, bass, mouth harp, electronics, effects) and Ivar Skontorp “Bjørnson” Peersen (guitars, keyboards, piano, electronics, effects, percussion, backing vocals) have been doing for 30 years with their vast, seemingly unlimited talents, and even more magical is the way they let Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal (2002-lead guitars, 2015-backing vocals), Håkon Vinje (2017-keyboards, piano, clean vocals) and Iver Sandøy (2018-drums, percussion, keyboards, effects) merge with their vision seamlessly and particularly on Heimdal. If magic is the key thing, the concept behind the album, the titular Heimdal is the key figure. According to Grutle, Heimdal is named after arguably the most mysterious entity in Nordic mythology. Most famously known as the gatekeeper between the nine Norse realms, he’s a source of constant speculation, as scholars continue to offer new interpretations of his origins, and his purpose. There are contradictions in who are his parents, and there are even theories that he could be Odin himself. There’s one theory Grutle found particularly interesting, and a lot of the album is based on this, that after the Ragnarok that is coming, he will be the new main god after Odin. Grutle used that mistery, or more accurately, that sacred secret (which I can’t help but compare to the father and son relationship between God and His Son Jesus Christ, and who knows, maybe they are the same entities) between the Heimdal and Odin figures to mirror the journey Enslaved have been on for 30 years: the dialogue between older and younger versions of oneself, and whether they are separate, or bound as one, as Grutle points out, remarking that it’s the constant shifting and counterpoints of Heimdal’s overall dynamics that give it such a sense of immersion and wholeness. Grutle asserts, in the sort of summary of the album, that with the aforementioned horn in the opener Heimdal announces Ragnarok is nigh, and that he’ll meet us on the other side which is combined with readings from an ancient text known as the Heimdal spell and, in the title track, Heimdal reappears as the navigator for the human race, leading us to a destiny as yet undefined, which is where the album ends – uncertain, bereft of co-ordinates to orientate by, but full of hope.
As almost all tracks deserve at least 5.5 score, it was relatively simple to award that score cumulatively but it always begs the question: why not 6? With all the accolades for the marriage of old and new in their songs Enslaved decided to make the closing title track the odd one out, with more djenty Messhuggaic Obzen leanings and a very creepy psychedelic spoken word before a catchy melodeathly conclusion a’la early Scar Symmetry, a combination I found a bit awkward which is why the title track, while still very good, is my least favorite. Only two tracks, “Kingdom” and “Caravans…” I found perfect while the remaining 4 just excellent, seemingly with room for improvement. But make no mistake, THAT Enslaved is back in full force and Heimdal, to borrow from the now defunct metalreviews, comes highly wreckommendead.