Nuclear Blast
rating icon 8 / 10

Track listing:

01. Behind The Mirror
02. Congelia
03. Forest Dweller
04. Kingdom
05. The Eternal Sea
06. Caravans To The Outer Worlds
07. Heimdal 

The riddle with ENSLAVED is now this: Where does one start in the band's deep discography? It may no longer be their groundbreaking 1990s Viking metal era — those albums certainly don't encapsulate the mesmerizingly vast explorations the Norwegians took at the dawn of the century; nor does it account for some of the band's more mesmeric moments starting with 2010's brilliant "Axioma Ethica Odini" through 2020's "Utgard". Poll any number of ENSLAVED fans and you're likely to get a different favorite. "Heimdal" should be an easy entrant into those discussions.

For the recurrent talk of ENSLAVED's Norwegian black metal origins, they've often positioned themselves as a progressive band at heart. Influences from the 1970s — HAWKWIND, LED ZEPPELIN and PINK FLOYD — readily hang over "Heimdal", igniting the band's trademark soundscape whirl, that, through repetition and smart, agile riffing and composition from guitarist Ivar Bjørnson, remains formidable.

Opener "Behind The Mirror" begins with the ceremonial blowing of a horn, then crashes into a craggy doom riff of unbridled heaviness — garnished with clean vocals from drummer Iver Sandøy and space-age keyboards. The early showstopper comes via "Congelia", a cut featuring over eight minutes of steady blasting, but steadily builds like an oncoming storm. It's a masterstroke of sound, akin to several songs dropped on top of each other to form a singular front. The astral-leaning "Kingdom" and "The Eternal Sea" provide plenty of airtime for Sandøy, with the latter unfurling into the familiar Viking plunder and pillage of yesteryear when bassist Grutle Kjellson uncorks his gurgle-y rasp.

Already a standout as a pre-release single, "Caravans To The Outer Worlds" clocks in as the album's true catch-all. The track offers some looks back to the riff-frenzied days of "Eld" and "Frost", but also gets flipped on its head with a cascade of acoustic guitars and Sandøy's harmonious vocals. The closing title track — with its warped keys and thick, churning guitars — provides the appropriate cap to the album's concept about Heimdal, one of the most mysterious figures in Norse mythology.

"Utgard" occasionally felt like ENSLAVED were still ironing out the kinks with Sandøy behind the kit, but more importantly, as clean vocalist. It appears this lineup has gelled on "Heimdal", but it really boils down to this: After over thirty years and 16 studio albums, remarkably, ENSLAVED still find a way to remain true to their origins while defining extreme metal progression.

Author: David E. Gehlke
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