Since their fifth album, ‘Mardraum (Beyond the Within)’, Norwegians Enslaved show a preference for Progressive Black/Viking Metal. And of course their sixteenth album ‘Heimdal’ bears the seal of Progressive Rock as before. And if the term “progress” is understood not as a reference to musical style, but as a departure from the “roots”, then Enslaved have gone very far. In hand-waving terms, their colleagues In the Woods… are much more “the very same good old ones” on their latest album ‘Diversum’ than Enslaved on ‘Heimdal’. This despite the fact, by the way, that In the Woods… currently have only one original member, and even then a drummer who is far from being the main songwriter, put it that way. Whereas Enslaved are still built around the founding duo of Ivar Bjørnson (guitar) and Grutle Kjellson (bass/vocals).
Nevertheless, ‘Heimdal’ captures all the stylistic elements that Enslaved use to construct their music in recent years, including music for the previous album ‘Utgard’. It is Progressive Rock, of course, that is in the first place – there are as many as you like the Prog elements in each song on ‘Heimdal’. Black/Viking Metal sections are trying to alternate with them, but they are still inferior in quantity. These (almost) tremolo-picked riffs over (almost) blast beats seem to be designed to periodically remind the listener where Enslaved started. Correspondingly, there is an almost constant duel between harsh rasping vocals and several clear voices sounded one after another.
In its turn Krautrock is used as a seasoning, that is, simply speaking, electronica and space sound samples – most impressively in the beginning and finale of the fifth ‘The Eternal Sea’. Also, whether you want it or not, a Muse vibe. Yes, from the very beginning, when Enslaved took the Progressive path, they are compared to Pink Floyd in one way or another, but the flip side of this Space/Progressive analogy is precisely Muse. The first half of the third ‘Forest Dweller’ is full of such a vibe, while the fourth ‘Kingdom’ serves as an even more compelling example: in the beginning, after amazing fast drumming, the passage follows, as if Muse imagined that they were Enslaved. Something like that.
So the elements are the same. However, the approach to them is far from the same. Of course, first of all, attention should be paid to “pure” Black/Viking Metal sections. It is clear that over the years they are engaged into Enslaved albums less and less willingly, however, on ‘Utgard’ they occurred more obvious than on the current ‘Heimdal’. Already on the second ‘Congelia’ you get the feeling that Enslaved are trying their best to offer the listeners something reminiscent of old school Enslaved, but the return to the past does not excite them, that’s why it doesn’t work very well. Even the most obvious passages (for example, an acceleration in the last third of ‘The Eternal Sea’) are more an attempt to place good old Enslaved on the Procrustean Progressive bed than an bout of nostalgia.
Oh yes, of course, no doubt, this change is not dramatic and certainly not global. However, this little thing is combined with another little thing, and as a result we get a slightly different stuff. Little things matter.
Let’s take another “little thing”. Production has become a bit more low-end. Not too much, but still enough that Enslaved’s signature move – palm-muted riff – adds to ‘Heimdal’ a dark sullenness from Groove Metal. If on ‘Utgard’ palm muting was almost soft (no Thrash Metal attitude, like on ‘Mardraum’, no way), now it is again perceived as quite aggressive, especially against the background of Progressive Metal, as the beginning of ‘Congelia’ shows, where the palm muting even drowns tremolo-picking. Or the second half of the concluding ‘Heimdal’, here we hear the almost signature Thrash Metal palm muting chug.
Another “little thing” is monotonousness, which was, by the way, appropriate exactly for their pure Viking era. Nevertheless, ‘Heimdal’ does not come close to the “roots” because of this. ‘Congelia’ is a majestic song, that is the word, however, it is a surprisingly monotonous piece, some kind of indescribable atmosphere is created here by the same plainly repeated attack. ‘Utgard’ didn’t sound anything like this. ‘Kingdom’ is also marked by some kind of nervous pumping up the atmosphere due to the repetition of the same passage. ‘The Eternal Sea’ boasts epicness and splendour too, but again, this unearthly atmosphere is created, among other things, by the frequent repetition of the same passage. Because of this static condition at the beginning, it even seems that Enslaved cannot begin song. This trick pulls away ‘Heimdal’ from ‘Utgard’ even more.
Needless to say, ‘Utgard’ wasn’t that… angsty/disquieting. You might even say that ‘Utgard’ had a vital atmosphere. Whereas ‘Heimdal’ acts as an agent of rather disturbing music infecting the listener with anxiety vibes. It could have served as a soundtrack to some disaster movie. To be honest, we didn’t even try to get into the idea behind the ‘Heimdal’ videos, however, we have to note that the volcanic eruption in the ‘Forest Dweller’ video fits perfectly with the music of today’s Enslaved. What is formed on ‘Heimdal’ that was not so strong before is suspense. Its apogee comes in the final title track: disturbing Progressive rather Rock than Metal is just as unnerving as ‘The Black Death’ by When, or even ‘If I Had a Heart’ by Fever Ray.
‘Heimdal’ is also darker than ‘Utgard’ in terms of Art Rock decoration passages, they were somehow more fairytale before, and now they are some Cassandra-esque (beginning of ‘Forest Dweller’). In their turn Progressive Rock solos were longer and more definite on ‘Utgard’. As for ‘Heimdal’, the picture is different. For example, there is no idea what the solo is at the end of the very first ‘Behind the Mirror’: it’s too simple for Progressive Rock, while for Viking Metal it’s too soft. But most importantly, it is short. Almost all the solos on ‘Heimdal’ are short, and this does not allow the Progressive component to manifest itself in all its glory. In the sixth ‘Caravans to the Outer Worlds’ we hear a harsh solo, and you know, it’s a chaotic solo with regard to Progressive music. The same in the closing ‘Heimdal’. However, it cannot be said that this change is detrimental to the Progressive component on the whole album. But it changes the atmosphere.
Summary. Well, you risk nothing if you listen to this album. Especially if ‘Heimdal’ plays in the background. It’s still the same modern Enslaved, lambasted by the old-school crusaders. The only difference is that this time they turned out to be insidiously angsty – whether it was done intentionally or not. With that said, the music is beautiful as before.