Saturday, March 28, 2020

Borknagar - The Archaic Course (1998)

Despite its introduction of Simen Hestnæs, I.C.S. Vortex, into the Borknagar lineup, and onto the radars of metal fans the world over, The Archaic Course seemed to arrive and depart without a whole lot of fanfare. It wasn't that it had a particularly negative reaction, but there was a sense of disappointment for some who were likely expecting more of the arguably denser material that comprised The Olden Domain. Although it has just as dynamic a range between its aggressive tendencies and folksy Nordic flow, it is certainly a little more sure of itself and straightforward. But the switch between Garm and Simen's vocals might have been a sore point, or the more rambling and vaulted songwriting, or whatever perplexing reasons that it wasn't better received.

Obviously, I would disagree with any such assessment, because if it's not already painfully clear, this is my favorite Borknagar album. Not by a wide margin, mind you, but this was simply one of those important records that came along in the decade of grunge, nu metal and diminishing returns for a number of subgenres and blew my mind. This is one of those of those 90s albums that expanded my own expectations of what 'metal' music could be, what it could accomplish, and even though they've continued for decades to create beautiful iterations of this style with albums like Empiricism, Winter Thrice and True North, this remains the point where the floodgates opened and a band that had already deluged and impressed me with its earlier works simply drowned me in admiration. That's not to say it doesn't have a few flaws, some rough edges that would be hewn down the road, but I found it positively magnificent back in my 20s and feel no differently in middle age. This thing is a storm of mood and majesty across eight tracks and 38 minutes, and features a number of my fave tracks across the Norwegians' entire history to date.

Now the style here doesn't exactly distance itself far from The Olden Domain, but there was a cleaner and more cosmic feel to how the material was presented and produced. Vibrant if melancholic chord patterns continued to pull from the traditional folk influences just as much as Bathory's Blood Fire Death, and there was a lot more of a direct showcase on the guitars themselves, with percussion often segueing out for some glimmering acoustics or even the winding electric riffs. Kai K. Lie was still performing bass at this point and offers up a cool, subtle, almost psychedelic selection of grooves that lock right together with Brun's poignant riffing. In his final Borknagar performance before a tragic overdose in 1999, Grim lays out a dense level of thunder on the low end of his kit, which only helps to elevate the vocals and guitars out into the firmament, and his fills are great at adding more depth to the constant, swaggering shifts in rhythm. Ivar of Enslaved was still here helping to arrange some of the songs, as well as joining Vortex on the synthesizers, which range from ominous choirs to more slicing, proggy pads that cut through the backdrop of the rhythm instruments' atmosphere. Just because it's a little more direct doesn't make this any less complex than its predecessor, in fact as heavily arranged as their later material would be during the Vintersorg years and before, there was often every bit as much going on throughout this one.

Of course the real star for me is Simen's voice, which even with its lesser level of polish here is still one of the most distinct entities on the whole Norse scene, which contains a whole lot of bands I like that have made constant evolutions beyond their traditional roots. There is obviously a parallel to Garm, but Vortex was simply capable of presenting a wider range, like a yodeler who suddenly got all grim and serious. The snarls here are solid as well, but there was no question after hearing this that the soaring clean vocals were going to remain a central feature going forward. While he occasionally does seem to go off pitch ever so slightly, the way the voice interacts with the busy riffing was just something so new to me back when I first heard this. And having had the good fortune to see them tour on this album with Emperor, the Kings of Terror package, I can attest that it sounded even better in that setting than it did on this recording. But it is utterly mighty either way, especially in tracks like "Ad Nocturm" or "Black Token" where he alternates it with some of the more chaotic and wicked black metal rasping for a duality that doesn't sound the slightest bit forced or cheesy.

It would be hard to choose favorites here, but in addition to those I just mentioned, I'll give a nod to the beautiful, steady "Winter Millennium", "Universal" and the heavily fjord-flowing "Oceans Rise" which was a track that definitely caught on with a lot of folks, even if the album as a whole didn't. But there's not a bad track among these, not one point that I ever feel like skipping a single measure, not even for the arguably anticlimactic synth, voice and storm-sampled outro "Fields of Long Gone Presence", which has this warmth to it among the crackling thunder and shining keys which is worth its very short journey. It's totally awesome, even for the few instances where the vocals or melodies might not be perfectly executed in isolation from the rest of the mix; the flaws, and they're minor at most, only end up endearing me to the whole thing even more (and I'd say the same of Garm's stuff on the first two albums). Ultimately, with its ponderous, nature-tinted lyrics and the rich musical language the band had been developing for itself coming fully into fruition, The Archaic Course is probably one of the most underrated albums I own in my entire collection. I've still got my beat up old cardboard promo slip CD for this one, from my early zine years in the 90s, and it's well past time I upgraded for one with a booklet.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10] (slide into forever)

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