The lapping of waves, creaking of ropes, blowing of horns as ships leave the shore, the all-powerful resounding of Gjallarhorn heralding the twilight of the gods — evoking ancient times yet looking ahead to the end of this world, these are the sounds that begin Enslaved’s 16th full-length album Heimdal. Similarly serving as a reflection on past, present, and a look towards the unknown future, Heimdal is a true adventure through everything Enslaved has had to offer in their 32-year history. With dynamic songwriting, powerful performances, and what is thematically their strongest album to date, Heimdal proves that Enslaved remain at the top of their game and are worthy of recognition as one of the greatest bands in progressive and extreme metal.
When a band has such a massive yet incredibly consistent catalogue as Enslaved, how does one even begin to properly situate a new release? Is it better to be taken at face value, or is it necessary to critique a new album as yet another segment of a continuous narrative? Heimdal solves this dilemma as it serves as the perfect continuation of the path began with 2020’s Utgard — that of homages to Enslaved’s diverse influences and more overt allusions to Norse mythology. Utgard had sequencer-driven krautrock (“Urjotun”) and riffs taken from Viking-era Bathory (“Jettegryta”), while Heimdal presents us with icy 2nd-wave black metal complemented by “cross-country ski blasts” (“Congelia”) and ferocious thrash riffage (“Kingdom” and “The Eternal Sea”). Yet as always these influences are incorporated in true Enslaved fashion; in other words, a way still uniquely their own.
If one form of atmosphere can be attributed to Heimdal, it would be a nautical one. Throughout the album there’s a continuous ebb and flow between tempos, harsh and clean vocals, progressive technicality and thrash-inspired grooves. “The Eternal Sea” has a sea shanty-esque bass line throughout the intro, before leading the song into a driving beat evocative of rowing. The blackened fury of “Congelia” is the depths of a storm that doesn’t let up for five whole minutes until the clouds burst and the sea calms with the monumentally epic closing section, one of the most powerful moments on the entire album. Heimdal is said to be the son of nine mothers, nine sisters of the sea, and Enslaved’s roots lie in the western coasts of Norway, so the scenes painted here are surely intentional.
There’s some intriguing contradictions that arise in Heimdal both musically and thematically — there’s no retreading of old paths here, except when there is. “Caravans to the Outer Worlds” reappears from 2021’s EP of the same name; a cynic might say that this is reused filler to pad the run time, but it’s such a dynamic song (and so appropriate for Heimdal’s themes) that the inclusion is most welcome. Keen Enslaved listeners will also find that the Caravans title track is not the only music from that EP that reappears on Heimdal — this second piece recontextualizes the 2021 release in a fantastic way. There may be prior paths retread here, but don’t expect to hear something like a direct callback riff to “Heimdallr,” first recorded for the 1992 Yggdrasill demo. As “fun” as that might be given the fact that the watchman of the Bifrost returns to Enslaved’s vision over 30 years later, they have too much respect for both their past and present selves as musicians to make such an obvious reference.
On the thematic side, Heimdal is often said to perish in battle against Loki during Ragnarok yet here he serves as The Navigator for humanity into the new world that follows. Given the fragmented nature of the Nordic mythological record there’s a lot of mystery surrounding the origins of Heimdal, and since Enslaved are no strangers to esoteric interpretations of this mythology there is no better figure in the Norse pantheon to steer this album. The closing title track resolves Heimdal’s journey as guide before, through, and after Ragnarok — while Heimdal doesn’t end on any sort of bombastic or epic note, there is a definite sense of looking forward towards what the uncharted future will bring.
If there’s one thing I believe Heimdal will cement when reflecting on its place in Enslaved’s history, is that it proves this is the definitive Enslaved lineup — everyone has such an integral part to play here. The beauty and power in the vocal harmonies between Grutle Kjellson, Iver Sandøy, and Håkon Vinje are some of the most compelling moments throughout the album. Håkon’s keys are very prominent in the mix, and like on E and Utgard he gets his Jon Lord-esque solo on “Forest Dweller.” When performing them alone Iver Sandøy’s clean vocals are diverse and emotive, and his drumming expertly guides the band around every corner. Ice Dale’s solos are often brief, yet “Congelia” and “Heimdal” would be incomplete without them. Grutle’s harsh vocals are eternal, his cleans more fully developed, and his bass heavier and more thunderous than I would have expected in a modern Enslaved mix. And Ivar Bjørnson, master of riff and songwriting, ties these elements together with all the experience 30+ years of crafting music brings to the table.
Heimdal is the guardian of the Bifrost connecting all the realms visited thus far in the Enslaved saga. It takes the listener on a journey from familiar shores into unknown lands beyond the mist, but with a look toward the new dawn on the horizon. Where it will stand in their immense discography is not yet known, but one thing is certain: Heimdal is undeniably Enslaved.
Heimdal will be available March 3 on Nuclear Blast. For more information on Enslaved, visit their official website.