Album Title: Heimdal
Label: Nuclear Blast
Date of Release: 3 March 2023
It might, to many, amount to blasphemy, but Enslaved are one of those bands with whom I have had a rocky relationship over the years. It took me ages to listen to their music and, when I eventually did, I struggled, certainly to begin with. Some of their albums I have liked, others I have not. And, if I’m honest, the bulk of their material I’d say I admired and appreciated, but not loved. They are not therefore, the essential band in my collection as they are for many others.
Not only is this helpful context when approaching this review, but it also acts as an interesting and slightly confounding conundrum. Over the course of three decades, the Norwegian band have been one of the most unique and evolving entities within the metal world. Starting out as a black metal band, Enslaved have consistently sought to push at certain boundaries, incorporating elements of folk, prog, ambient, and even a touch of the avant-garde into their music. In fact, it is probably fair to say that Enslaved c.2023 are less a progressive black metal entity, and more of a progressive metal band with extreme and black metal elements woven into their own unique sonic tapestry. Given that I love both progressive music and black metal, why is it then, that I have always struggled with Enslaved?
This question is, in part, rhetorical, and one that I shall mull over for many an hour. But as with us all, we have bands that should click with us but, for whatever reason, simply don’t. Despite liking a smattering of albums, Enslaved just happen to be one of those for me. It might be as simple as that.
Nevertheless, every new album offers another opportunity to try again afresh. And ‘Heimdal’, with its beautifully evocative artwork and exploration of one of Norse Mythology’s more intriguing, enigmatic individuals, was no different. Would album number sixteen, then, be the one that finally allowed me to take the band to my heart?
At first, the answer was a solid and unequivocal ‘no’. In spite of the apparent increase in metallic muscle and spite, I disliked it immensely. Bemoaning a lack of any kind of immediacy, with a greater emphasis on being progressive and ‘odd’ for the sake of it, I thought about moving on and rejecting the opportunity to review it completely. However, here I am. So, what changed?
It’s difficult to put my finger firmly on the reason, because I’ve been grappling with that same question for days with very little success. In the same way as I am scared of spiders but feel compelled to look at them, or afraid of falling but have to peer over the cliff edge, so I felt compelled to listen to ‘Heimdal’ again. Morbid fascination? Perhaps. At first. But then, the more I listened, the more I could hear, and the more I could understand. Even now, with numerous spins under my belt, I can’t say for certain that I have fallen in love with ‘Heimdal’, but I can certainly better appreciate what these musicians have crafted, finding enjoyment in much of it, too.
One of the finest of all the songs, is the opener, ‘Behind The Mirror’. It begins with the sound of oars gently cutting through still waters, whilst the sound of a horn (courtesy of Wardruna’s Eilif Gundersen) grows ever louder. What follows can only be described as a majestic soundscape of progressive metal with blackened edges. The melodies aren’t overly pronounced, lurking beneath the surface much of the time, but they are some of the most immediate on ‘Heimdal’. The song veers off into strange off-kilter realms, but always comes back to that more majestic core. Mixing up the black metal growls with elegant clean vocals, and punctuating the composition with striking electronic embellishments for added atmospheric intensity, it is classic Enslaved in the way in which it seeks to entertain and challenge in equal measure. If there’s one song I’ve grown to love on the album, it would be this one.
The same cannot be said of ‘Congelia’, which I still have yet to really warm to. It is a relentless, jarring, and cacophonous experience for much of its life, but deliberately so I have no doubt. It is cut much more from the black metal cloth, with the guitars suitably intense, alongside rasping, caustic growls. Even when the composition allows a greater, sweeping electronic presence, the guitars work alongside the rhythm section to keep up the almost monotonous, relentless attack. The latter stages of this eight-minute composition are what save it for me, as it opens up a little to create something a little less punishing on the ears, including a rather nice lead guitar solo and multi-layered vocals.
‘Forest Dweller’ is altogether a much calmer affair for much of the song. The ambient textures, however, are no less epic-sounding or all-encompassing despite their gentler exterior. The more traditional 70s prog sounds loom large even when the music increases in volume and intensity, meaning that this overall one of the more chilled compositions on ‘Heimdal’.
Alongside the opener, ‘Kingdom’ is arguably my other favourite track on the album. I really like the way in which the track opens up to deliver one of the biggest, most expansive melodies found anywhere on the record. What’s more intriguing is the fact that I thought very little of it on a first listen, but now look forward to its arrival. Elsewhere within the song, I like the beat carved out by drummer Iver Sandøy, and the more pronounced electronics give the composition both a modern and a psychedelic, spaced-out vibe at the same time..
To be honest, each of the seven compositions on ‘Heimdal’ bring something quite interesting to the party, and none of them lower the bar in terms of quality per se. But it’s more of the same old story for me, in that as much as I like various component parts within the songs, I don’t get to the end and think ‘wow’ or, ‘I’ve got to listen to that again, immediately’. Yes, I’m drawn back to the material, but my enjoyment is more in listening to the musicians within Enslaved test themselves and their boundaries just that little bit more. It isn’t because I unconditionally love what I’m hearing. For others, the love may be strong and mesmerizing, but for me, it’s another Enslaved album towards which I tug my forelock or doff my cap in appreciation only.
The Score of Much Metal: 75%
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