Up there with the Norwegians’ finest
Long running Norwegian (Bergen based) progressive black metal/avant-garde/folk metal outfit Borknagar is one of those bands that rarely have fans seeing eye to eye on just which album from the band’s vast catalogue stands out as their definite creation to date. Sure, there are a handful of releases that vie for the top spot, but none can be agreed on across the board as the one that others are measured against. To prove my point, I thoroughly enjoyed the band’s foray into progressive acoustic territory on Origin back in 2006, but found that their last full-length release, Universal (2010), was a little patchy compared to some of their past efforts and yet others seem to look down upon Origin, and praise Universal. At the end of the day, it’s safe to conclude that all of Borknagar’s albums to date have drawn strong opinions that pull in many different directions.
So here we are in 2012, and Borknagar have returned with their ninth full-length effort Urd. Only this time, I believe that most would agree that this release is some of the band’s best work in some years.
One of the reasons why this album works so well is that the band has spread the vocal duties over three individuals this time around, with bassist/vocalist ICS Vortex (ex-Dimmu Borgir/Arcturus) making his long overdue permanent return to the fold after more than a decade away from the band (although he made a guest appearance on Universal, he last appeared on 2000’s Quintessence). His vocals, alongside those of Vintersorg and keyboardist Lars A. Nedland (who’s also in Solefald) add an extra dimension that has been missing in Borknagar for some time.
Outside of vocals, the song writing seems a little more inspired and progressive than it has in recent years, with primary song writer/guitarist Øystein G. Brun really pulling out all the stops to give the album some real diversity, but all the while making it flow with the addition of some truly mesmerising vocal performances from the three vocalists.
As for the rest of the band, lead guitarist Jens F. Ryland and drummer David Kinkade (who recently parted ways with the band to join Soulfly), their roles can’t be understated, with the solos and the drumming throughout executed in truly inspiring fashion.
In terms of songs, the album begins in speedy fashion, with Epochalypse showcasing the many different voices from within Borknagar over a melodic black metal soundtrack that is carried along with a relentless blast beat and some fast paced/tight knit riffing. Around two thirds of the way through, there’s a break from the speed to allow a great piano interlude from Nedland, which is nothing short of magnificent.
The follow-up track Roots is undoubtedly one of the album’s heaviest tracks, but oddly enough one of the catchiest as well. The combination of clean and growled vocals is balanced out well, while the intense blast and choral work around the latter half of the song, and the somewhat mellow tail end of the song behind Vintersorg’s inspired vocal lines definitely makes the song a stand out on the album.
Vortex, alongside Nedland, really stands out with his distinctive vocals on the towering vocal-driven The Beauty of Dead Cities, while Vintersorg’s clean/grim vocal performance on The Earthling is absolutely stunning, and proves that he can stand alongside the other vocalists as an equal (something that wasn’t always the case in the past as far as I am concerned).
The cinematic/progressive based instrumental piece The Plains of Memories is a welcome intermission around the halfway mark of the album, while the blackened intensity of Mount Regency once again throws the listener into the fast paced and intense realm that Borknagar started the album with – albeit it with fewer vocal melodies.
Vortex takes centre stage on Frostrite, and not surprisingly, it sounds reminiscent of the material that made up his solo album Storm Seeker from 2011, while all three sing in unison on the multi-tempo stunner The Winter Eclipse.
Finishing up the standard edition of the album is the epic In a Deeper World which is not only one of the album’s most complex pieces, but also one of the album’s more emotional efforts. Needless to say, this track alone brings to mind some of the classics the band delivered on some of their earliest releases.
On the limited edition release, there’s an additional two tracks – with the first being Age of Creation. While some bonus tracks tend to be below the standard of the official album, Age of Creation is anything but a track better left on the cutting room floor. There’s a real intensity here that rivals some of the heavier numbers on the album, and the combined riffing and keyboards throughout give off a real symphonic flair that is really memorable, while the pockets of gentle atmospherics dotted throughout the track add a consistent feel of ebb and flow from light to shade.
Finishing up the album is the band’s cover of Metallica’s My Friend of Misery which originally featured on a tribute disc that came with the German version of Metal Hammer in August 2011 in celebration of Metallica’s self-titled album’s twentieth anniversary. Borknagar’s cover is impressive, with Vortex really pulling out all the stops to do something different. The subtle orchestral edge is interesting as well, and gives the song an interesting twist on the original.
As I mentioned earlier, Borknagar have never produced an album that has had fans proclaiming any one album in particular as a stand-alone classic. As it stands, Urd isn’t about to change that one bit either. But if there’s one thing most fans will agree on, it’s that ‘Urd’ is easily the strongest album the Norwegians have produced in years, and the kind of album that easily ranks alongside the four albums that are generally hailed as the band’s finest.
(Century Media Records/E.M.I. Music Australia)