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)

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Borknagar - Quintessence (2000)

I always got a sense with Quintessence that Borknagar wanted more of a 'sure thing' alongside their Norwegian peers after the somewhat mixed reactions to The Archaic Course, and to an extent this seemed to me possibly a bit of damage control. At the very least it's a curve back towards some of the sounds we were hearing on the first two records, but with more pronounced snarls and orchestration that were comparable to the material being produced through popular acts like Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir at the time. Being that this is Borknagar, of course, we're still getting a lot of the eclectic instrumentation and philosophical sheen they were already known for, multiple vocal styles being arranged throughout and lots of dynamic, progressive shifts that can be felt through Brun's note patterns and the heavily embedded synthesizers that ranged from organs over to more ambient and electronica-tinged pads.

After having such a prominent role on the album before it, ICS Vortex seems to be subdued here, at least his cleaner vocal style. It exists throughout the album, but is too often paired up with the rasp vocals which often end up sounding pretty silly. In fact, there are a lot of synth parts or melodies here that give the impression of a carnival or haunted house, not enough that for it to avoid the fjords of the band's foundation, but I occasionally feel like I'm listening to a more intense, hectic Arcturus and not so much Borknagar. There are still some great, charging Viking pieces here like "Ruins of the Future", which has some amazing melodies, especially the interchange between the synths and guitars. They also throw this filter on the snarls which is horrifying if over the top. "Colossus" is another track I enjoyed, one of the closest callbacks to the previous records, with a nice clean vocal presence and some swinging, swaggering mid-pace riffs. "Invincible" sounds like some badass carousel black metal, and the close "Revolt" has a nice contrast between its own circus-like synths simmering off in the background between the charge of the beat and the rasping.

Otherwise, I think there are a few misfire tracks with some interesting tectonic rhythmic structures that simply don't manifest riffs of high enough quality for them to stand out. The instrumental ditties are a mixed bag, with the prog-goth organ & drum driven "Inner Landscape" sounding like it belongs on La Masquerade Infernale, and "Embers" giving off a "Planet Caravan" like vibe as it leads into the last track. The mix on the album is pretty solid, but I think perhaps some places there are certain instruments or vocals that should have been emphasized or dialed back. This was Lars Nedland's first album with the band, and I think they also overused his keys, just a fraction. I'm a HUGE fan of his, don't mistake me, in both this band and his mainstay Solefald; there are plenty of moments where he shines even here, but the album does come off a bit overcrowded or messy in certain spots. Ultimately, Quintessence is my least favorite of Borknagar's studio efforts apart from the acoustic Origin, but it's still pretty good. There's an EP worth of fantastic material here, and nothing else is necessarily bad, it just doesn't resonate with me as much as the first three albums or many that have arrived later on.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (swept toward a new domain)

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Borknagar - True North (2019)

True North is arguably the most 'friendly' or accessible album in the entire Borknagar line to date, and I don't mean that as any sort of criticism, because it's fantastic nonetheless. Memorable, melodic melodrama for all of us would-be woodsman and Viking-alikes the globe over, captured with expert songwriting and performances all around giving well over 100%. It's also one of those albums well into a band's career which seemed to vault a number of fans back up on the bandwagon; at least in my circle of acquaintances, I had to remind numerous friends that Borknagar had already put out two excellent albums leading up to it in Urd and Winter Thrice. But for whatever reason it seems they're finally being appreciated as the Scandinavian savants some of us always held them up to be, and that is absolutely fine. But there's probably also a slice of the audience that finds a bittersweetness to this one...

The Vintersorg years are over. Hedlund had an amicable parting with the band and bounced back over to his eponymous mainstay to produce a (worthy) sequel to his debut Till fjälls decades before, and his absence can certainly be felt here. Not through a dive in quality, but just in how True North does not attempt to come across as busy as some of its predecessors. You don't have the massive vocal arrangements they all pulled off together on the albums running up to this...still some duets, but in general the vocal patterns are more straightforward. Fortunately, they're also AMAZING, with ICS Vortex giving one of the best performances of his entire career, both his epic cleans and his harshes. There was also some new blood in the fold here, with drummer Bjørn Dugstad Rønnow, the third in three albums, and guitarist Jostein Thomassen, aka Pendragon, who had played with Rønnow before, as well as a little late 90s/early 00s black metal outfit you might have encountered called Source of Tide. Both of them fit into Borknagar so well that you'd have thought they were already playing with them for a good decade or so already, and in fact the drumming is quite potent, which gives a lot of life to such a dynamic effort which to my ears sounds like the most modern thing they've ever done from a pure production standpoint.

Now, I'm not going to lie, True North is a bit heavily front-loaded, but damn are these first 4-5 cuts epics that match almost anything the band had produced before. "Thunderous" is quite an accurate description of itself, a powerhouse that isn't without its own acoustic, emotional self-balancing sequences that include some very tasty guest violins. "Up North" might be the most presentable use yet of Vortex's yodeling, melodic cleans, so damn catchy that one weekend when my wife and I were driving the kids through the White Mountains to Santa's Village in New Hampshire, I had all of them trying to yodel along to that part. And they're a bunch of squares! To them, Loki is just a Marvel action figure they have lying in a toy bin with so many others. "The Fire That Burns" is another mighty tune, a more mid-paced joint that makes you feel like you're watching your landscape transform into the Nine Worlds in slow motion, vocally impressive with some great little proggy bits and acoustics. "Wild Father's Hearts" stands out for being a better Borknagar ballad than almost anything you'll find on Origin, some powerful choruses, and when the electric guitars arrive they are brilliant.

After that point, the album shifts down to just regular old 'greatness' and some of the brilliance might subside, if not the magnificence. Tracks like "Into the White" and "Tidal" have some wonderful moments, but they also have a few riffs in there that don't quite stick the landing as well as others, or might feel a little redundant with other Borknagar tracks here or in the past; for instance I heard some callbacks to The Olden Domain in the latter. Nothing wrong with that, but that initial rush in which I couldn't believe what I was hearing faded away and I was left with just a pleasant listen to material which is still far better than most anything else I'd listen to in any genre in 2019. So, not much of a downer and not only a few points get shaved as a result. Altogether, True North just exemplifies the resilience and continual growth of the group, even with these lineup changes they pull together one of their strongest albums, and in fact after listening to this one for the last six months and change I'm happy to say it's my second favorite in their whole catalog, just marginally nudging out its bad ass predecessor.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10] (where the air is clear)

Friday, March 13, 2020

Borknagar - Winter Thrice (2016)

Some people love the Three Tenors, some love their G3 guitar god tours, but I've got my Winter Thrice, an album that teams up all three of Borknagar's 'lead' singers to great success, thanks to some real teamwork and excellent songwriting. Now I admit, I've already made a bit of an exaggeration since 'Fiery G.' only appears on a couple of the tunes, but let's just combine his presence with Lars Nedland's added vocals and count them as one person. What's even more, like Urd before it, Winter Thrice feels like the band had a new lease on its existence, the compositions here are compelling, fresh, and apart from their stylistic parallels, didn't feel like any sort of senseless or lazy rehash of anything that had come before. A lot of that is the vocal interplay between Vintersorg and ICS Vortex, which was already well managed on the previous album, but seems to have matured here with a better balance between all the snarling black metal vocals, chants, choirs and Vortex' clean, almost yodel-like presence which had long been one of their most distinct characteristics.

But for all that, they also manage to squeeze in 'Fiery G.', Kristoffer 'Garm' Rygg back into the fold with the amazing title track and "Terminus", later on in the playlist. For a band that already had so much going on, so many weapons to skewer you with, this is just added detail that makes them so consistently engaging. You could very easily fuck up something like this with too many cooks in the kitchen and make the album sound like a crowded mess, but Brun is such a great writer that the album never suffers from any sort of excess, the structure of every moment is divine. I've already mentioned the title track which was instantly catapulted into my top handful of Borknagar tracks, not only for the trio of singers but also because of those Viking-like swaggering riffs colliding into the proggier parts with the amazingly memorable clean vocals. I hear this song every time I dream, from the melodies to the grounded brickwork laid out by Baard Kolstad, on loan from Leprous, who does a killer job here taking over for David Kincade, even if just for this one studio effort. Other highlights include "Cold Runs the River" with its desperate, surging rhythm and swells of heavenly orchestration, or "The Rhyme of the Mountain", one of their best career openers, or the nerding out of the proggy "Panorama", or the mellow but no-less-potent "Noctilucent".

I wouldn't say the album is entirely perfect, for all the masterful tunes here there are certainly a few moments where the music doesn't catch the ear quite so spiritually. Granted, this is a matter of measures or riffs, never whole tunes, and there is no sub-par material whatsoever that I feel like skipping, but I didn't think the album was incessantly genius, mostly just Urd-level with a few tracks going above and beyond anything on that one. Production is very polished and even, whether they're storming off into a blast beat with Vintersorg's rasp leading the way, an acoustic segue, or a more choppy progressive bit, and the lyrics are some of their finest, conjuring up these cyclopean and sweeping images of nature and philosophical whimsy. I can recall listening the fuck out of this thing when it first showed up early in 2016, and then for several late Autumns since then it provided me with an awesome soundtrack to some of my landscaping, whether it was bagging leaves or clearing snow. Just one of that albums that sounds even better outside than it does when you're experience it in a closed off environment. Expansive, mesmerizing and proof there was still a LOT of life left in this almost infallible Norwegian act. Tied with The Olden Domain for my third favorite Borknagar.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10] (raving forces of the inevitable)

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Borknagar - Urd (2012)

The reintroduction of ICS Vortex into the Borknagar lineup was a truly momentous occasion; although I can understand the draw towards playing in a major act like Dimmu Borgir, and they made what they could of their time with him, I always felt like he was underused. Considering that I enjoyed The Archaic Course more than anything that other group ever released, you could understand my palpable disappointment, and it was so great for him to return to where he rightly belonged, and to instantly play such a major role again shows a lot of class on the part of Vintersorg in particular. Not to marginalize his own presence on this album, because the two actually work wonders together, and Hedlund still contributes most of the harsh vocals and a lot of the cleans, while Lars Nedland also serves as a third vocalist in addition to his keyboard duties.

In fact, Urd is almost like a warm up to the greatness that would follow it in 2016, but in of itself it is quite an excellent album that felt considerably fresher than Universal or Epic before it. While the baseline mash of progressive, folk and Viking black metal aesthetics remained fully intact, there were a number of riffs and arrangements throughout the entire record that felt unique to me. The album doesn't seem to lean as much on the organs or synthesizers as prior outings; although they're still woven in rather well, this record heavily favors the guitars and vocals, and arguably might be the most black metal infused offering the band had released since Quintessence. Not to the exclusion of the other styles, for there are flowing, orchestrated acoustics on the calming of "The Plains of Memories", or majestic melodic folk metal on "Frostrite", it's still a heavily dynamic, diverse effort. But it does feel like you're getting a lot more floods of tremolo picked guitars, David Kinkade laying out a ton of meticulous blast beats, and the way it opens with "Epochalypse" just goes for the throat immediately with some intensity while showcasing this new multi-vocal attack and some a few really sweet riffing progressions.

Whole album is a beast, in particular the vocals, which are fairly even distributed between Vortex' cutting, higher pitch which had matured by this point over his earlier years with the band, the rasps and mid-range cleans of Vintersorg which had also improved, and Nedland's additional lines. Once in awhile they'll have this choir-like track just hovering off in the mix which sounds amazing to the point where I wish it was used even more...there is always something happening here and I'd have to brand it as one of the finer vocal albums over their whole career, trumped only by its own followup. The mix of the album is clear, but textured and powerful, like a lot of their material I feel like they just have so much more weaponry than other bands in their field, and none of it drags behind any of the other instrumentation. Combined with the great lyrics, the packaging, and the overall vision this is one of the band's top albums, although really, there are so many to choose opinion of this one has even INCREASED over the last eight years since I picked it up, but it's clearly a shower just as much as a grower, more evidence that this is just one of the best bands around.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (Where the rivers recoil and return)

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Borknagar - Universal (2010)

The sole Borknagar album not to appear on Century Media Records, they kept it in the family by putting this one out through the esteemed Indie Recordings, a label that has long served as both a harbor for veteran Norwegian bands and upcoming progressive acts in the black metal realm and beyond. But don't take this as any sign of mutation or perceived artistic freedom, Universal is does not far from the tree of its predecessors, to the point that I often get it confused with its 'heavy' predecessor Epic, ignoring the acoustic album that fell between them. Well into the Vintersorg era of the band, it doesn't distinguish itself much from albums before it, but just offers another marginal round of refinements and the same level of intricate, competent craftsmanship that had defined them.

Universal does suffer somewhat from redundancy, for as much work as they obviously put into their material, a number of the tracks present here flow into one another and previously released tunes to the point that they can be a little difficult to pick apart. There's still a strong backbone of melodic black metal, but constantly being complemented with acoustic segues, Hammond organs, synths and pianos so that there's rarely a moment of raw riff that isn't accompanied. The 'Viking' sound here is quite prevalent through Brun's chord constructions and that interplay of electrics and acoustics that feels like you're drifting along the winds and waters of some far North idyll, interwoven with the substantial vocal arrangements of Vintersorg and Lars Nedland, between raving rasps and some slick male choirs which help elevate it that much more above the mundane. The proggy keyboards are legion, and Borknagar had long since become one of the bands outside Finland's Amorphis to best incorporate them without coming off as overly atmospheric hacks.

Sprinkle on some bluesy, Pink Floyd-style lead guitars and you've got yourself another rich, detailed album you can adventure through numerous times with plenty of new patterns forming. The new drummer at the time, American David Kinkade added quite a lot to the aural canvas with his beats that effortlessly bounced between intensity and calmer rock grooves and fills, and there were a few moments where Tyr's bass playing also got pretty perky. For me this album really picks up with the trilogy of tracks "For a Thousand Years to Come", "Abrasion Tide" and "Fleshflower" which are the most exciting and interesting of the lot, some excellent vocal lines, jarring proggy guitars and boiling organs and other synthesizer lines frenzying out to kick some life into the occasionally bland tunes that came before them. And for a wonderful surprise you get a guest spot from none other than former (and future) vocalist I.C.S. Vortex on "My Domain" which is a great way to close this out and perhaps offer a little foreshadowing.

The digipak version I own comes with a bonus "Making of" DVD which is pretty typical of such things, and not all that interesting to where it offers me much more value. You get a good glimpse of their process and their wintry environments where the album is being recorded, but I'd have loved more of an intimate thing where someone could pick their brains a little more, maybe see them out about town in the midst of the hole thing. Unless you want to sit there watching guys record their instruments individually for songs that you know far better and like better on the whole, it's kind of a dud and not even shot particularly well, but then again it's not like they HAD to include it, they wanted to kick a little something extra to the audience and so be it. Not a mar upon an album that, while far from their best, still has plenty to recommend about it and for me trumps both Origin and Epic before it.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Friday, March 6, 2020

Borgne - Y (2020)

There aren't many metal musicians quite so prolific as Bornyhake, and what's more, despite being active in, or the full creative force behind about a dozen plus acts at a time, many of them are held to a reasonable level of nuance and quality. Borgne has always been one of his main projects, and in my estimation the most interesting of them, almost mirroring his countrymen Darkspace in the older albums that were given minimalist Roman numeral titles and songs that were enumerated rather than given titles, a choice that often challenges the listener to really dive deep into the audio aesthetics since no obvious picture will be painted for him/her beyond a basic cover artwork and cursory genre knowledge. Bornyhake dropped that tactic around his fourth full-length, but not the poignancy of his songwriting, since a lot of albums since that point in 2009 have gotten even better, with standouts including 2010's Entraves de l'âme, its successor, 2012's Royaume des ombres, and, well, this one right here, Y, his ninth album.

The style Borgne plays is dominantly industrial black metal, comparable to Darkspace or certain phases Blut Aus Nord; but not always quite as distant and bleak as the former, or as dissonant and bizarre as the latter. Y is a sensuous flood of programmed electronic drums, consistent patterns of tremolo picked notes, evil chords, and one of the best Swiss rasps we've ever heard. It certainly leans more on the side of pure black metal, with the exception that the backbeat isn't organic, and there are a lot of synthesizers provided for constant atmosphere by the group's second member Lady Kaos. On the whole, it's really quite simple, there are very few spaces on the album that aren't filled with just a thundering assault of rhythm, but then he'll splice in some breakdown parts which have more of a chugging industrial guitar, and drums patterns that seem more acclimated to that genre. Such a shift might seem cheesy or superficial if it weren't so damn serious, it's almost like a more muscular version of countrymen Samael's brilliant Passage album, but doesn't create its own language of sound quite as well as that, instead drawing from the two halves of its influences and merging them together in a memorable distribution and execution. Some tracks feature atmospheric segues before the surging, pounding aggression returns, but on either side of the contrast the album functions well.

I just love the simmering synthesizer lines that burn like some illegal rave held on a dock between giant steel shipping containers. There is certainly a broad, claustrophobic, urban deterioration here channeled through suicidal and drug-addled emotions. There's not a lot of subtlety despite all that's going on, from the occasional, melancholic melodic guitars that spire off into the nightscape in the bridge of "A Hypnotizing Perpetual Movement That Buries Me in Silence" or awesome wails that haunt "Qui serais-je si je ne le tentais pas?" The vocal arrangements are excellent, and he covers all manner of voices between wails, chants, whispers, snarls and growls of various levels that are probably one of the most intricately designed parts of the album. Even where the album goes more for a pure industrial motif as in the 9+ minute instrumental "Paraclesium", full of little electronic impulses, bleeps and bloops, the oppressive nature of the whole record does not permit your escape. And then he pulls off this climactic, 17 minute track "A Voice in the Land of Stars" which never once bores me throughout its surprising levels of climactic majesty delivered through walls of doomy riffing, shrill synthesizers and tinny percussion. Devastatingly effective album, if you've love entrepreneurs of this style like Red Harvest or Dodheimsgard, or the other Swiss bands I mentioned earlier, and somehow haven't heard Borgne, well you've just been given notice.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Borknagar - For the Elements 1996-2006 (2008)

For the Elements is another of those pretty senseless and shady compilations of previously released material which arrived at a peculiar time when Borknagar was between Century Media signings. The album directly after this came out through Indie Recordings, so one has to wonder if the label might have just been trying to squeeze out a little more profit from the original signing and not have any foreknowledge that the band would eventually return to the roster. Sure, they're a business, they own the material and have the right to do what they want with it, but one can only imagine what a nicer fan package might have included if there were odds and ends around to fill it. I know the band never really had much by way of demos before their signing, but perhaps there were a few rare tracks lying around that could have filled this one out? Or live recordings?

We all know how I feel about these shenanigans, and I can't promise my crusade ends here, but there are two slight things working in this particular compilation's favor. For one, they've remastered the material so it sounds a little more balanced from the slightly rougher years of the s/t or The Olden Domain and the more pristine, glistening production found on records like Epic or Origin. This was also curated by Marco Barbieri, one of the early driving forces at Century Media, and a guy I happen to admire a lot. In fact, his writings in Ill Literature were some of my own inspiration to deciding to review the metal music that I so long admired. So if someone is being handed a catalog of tunes to pick through, I sort of trust that he'd put their present some of their best. And he does well enough, it's not as if the Norwegians had any bad material to begin with, and thanks to its chronological presentation, the acoustic tracks from Origin are wedged at the back of the order, and even there they included that album's best track "White". 15 tracks overall, with 2-3 taken from each of the albums put out by that point under the Century Media banner. The exception is the s/t, of which only the excellent track "Dauden" is present...a misfire, I probably would have dropped one of the Empiricism tunes and added "Grimskalle trell" or "Krigsttev".

Of course, nitpicking details like track inclusion is a complete waste of time, just like this release is. Borknagar is an exceptional band that should be experienced through its full-length albums, and even though a few tunes here might be glossed up or polished, and decently I might add, it's just so critical to explore the context of all the band was creating at each of these incremental stepping stones in its career. There is no bonus material of note and it doesn't even look all that great in presentation. Not to mention, some of those earlier records have full remasters available out there through various labels, so one of the benefits this might have had in 2008 was quickly erased by subsequent products that are much more deserving of your hard earn coin (or even your trust funds if you're so fortunate). If you're brand new to the band, just head immediately towards True North, or Winter Thrice, or honestly any other studio album other than Origin and spin them front to back. You won't be disappointed. Save this change for a coffee and sandwich.

Verdict: Epic Fail [1/10]

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Borknagar - Origin (2006)

I tend to abhor the 'acoustic album' as a rite of passage, which is unusual since I have no problem with well-written acoustic songs, or the use of the instrument intermixed with heavier music. But for so long there seems to be this impulse which necessitates that most bands have to produce some chilled out acoustic experience which somehow grants them some ephemeral sense of legitimacy. Fuck it, make mine electric! Now, you wouldn't need a trip to the oracle at Delphi to tell you that an acoustic Borknagar album was going to be inevitable, the band is simply too rooted in its folk influences to ignore the possibility, especially having settled in with Vintersorg, who is also a proponent of the style with some of his other projects.

To their credit, Borknagar did not just phone in a predictable 'unplugged' album of previous released material, at least not for the most part. "Oceans Rise" is a new version of the track off of The Archaic Course, and not terribly welcome on my part, not just because its acoustic, but because I just don't enjoy Vintersorg's voice as much as Vortex's snarls or cleans on the original. To that effect, I have never really been able to get much into Origin. I can appreciate the subtle nature of this transition, and the wonderful production that delivers each light beat and shining string with such clarity. The vocals and backing vocals are mixed very well, balanced between delicate verses and powerful choruses that emphasize Hedlund's strengths. Most of the original compositions for this are quite nice, and probably would serve well to give the band a breather at a live performance, but I only find a few of the riffs memorable in this acoustic context, and I sense that the same things delivered with electric guitars and heavier drumming would probably sound stronger.

"White" is an exception, because I liked the creeping progressive nature of its structure and it has one of my favorite vocal performances from Vintersorg ever in this band, and "The Human Nature" is another excellent example of where it all works due to the vocal arrangements. It's also not just some bare-boned exhibition of acoustic guitars and drums, there are also violins, flutes, cellos, and fretless bass all over the place to really flesh out this sound. In fact, I think for fans of pure folk music, this one might have some staying power. If you just like sitting by the bay, or around the campfire, as the birds dart about, the clouds ramble on through their adventures, nursing wine or mead, just desiring the simplicity and warmth that this medium of music can provide, with the band's introspective form of lyrics that examine the self's place in the natural world, this is certainly successful. This if Viking Hippy 101, but in terms of memorable construction it just doesn't always achieve what the band has long been able to while plugged in. To some degree it's a bit of a sedative, I feel like falling asleep several times through the experience, not necessarily a bad thing but not what I'm after. And the two instrumental tracks here are by far the most dull, thankfully brief.

Granted, this is a sort of one-off 'experiment' and might not be considered a true Borknagar album, but it's clear that some effort went into this with a lot of new songs, so I can't exactly isolate it as some non-canon stepchild. Thus, it's my single least favorite in their actual studio discography, but that's not to say it isn't decent for what it is and that some fraction of the band's audience is bound to fall in love with it. I just find too much of it to be samey and lack the dynamics of their metal work.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Borknagar - Epic (2004)

I admit that I struggled to remember much of Epic before going back into it, or at least any 'highlights' of the album that have stood up to me against the greatness of so much in their discography. I can't say that Borknagar has ever released a bad album, but there are certainly some phases of their career I find more memorable than others, i.e. the first three albums or the two newest efforts Winter Thrice and True North with Vortex back in the fold. The solely Vintersorg-fronted material is not my favorite, but all of them are rewarding enough to listen through as I'm finding once again with an album I personally underrated for whatever goddamn reason that it just didn't sink in with me much at the time I first picked up the CD over at the local Bull Moose Music chapter.

Part of that was probably that it blends in rather well with Empiricism. The production on Epic is more prominent, as its title might imply, and the black metal vocals slightly more visceral, but the arsenal is much the same, proggy-infused melodic black metal that shifts between thundering blast sequences, frolicking mid-paced passages where the vocals shine, and folksy segues. Hedlund does continue to warm up and improve his vocal style here through multi-tracking, and delivering some more solid lines in the upper range of his comfort zone. As much as I wasn't feeling some of his singing on older albums of his career, it's absolutely certain that he brought his A-game with this new Borknagar venture, it remains some of his best work and helped spur continual growth through his other projects, particular his eponymous solo records which are generally quite good. Some of the rasping stuff can get a little bold or silly sounding in spots, but his cleaner vocal arrangements sound really good on tracks like "Traveller", or even where he's largely using them as backups for the snarls in "Resonance", etc. I think the band had also gotten a little better at making the symphonic sweeps sound more organic and natural within the tunes.

The group had whittled down to a four-piece here, with everyone handling multiple duties and really offering a showcase reel of their talents. I don't know that Asgeir Mickelson is as good a bass player as he is a drummer, and thus that instrument isn't quite as effective as it was on prior Borknagar albums, but he's got his moments, and even offers a little lead guitar. Lars Nedland continues to refine the progressive and orchestral aspects of the group's sound that were originally introduced by Ivar of Enslaved on the first few albums, and the acoustic pianos and guitars all over the album sound great. There's definitely a lot of shared songwriting duties which might make the album feel a little more chopped up than its predecessor, but everything still flows quite well together, and passionate tracks like "Cyclus" or "Sealed Chamber of Electricity" really floored me like they never had before. I think sometimes a group of this quality and consistency has a tendency to overwhelm me with what it offers, so I'm grateful that the style and production on this album holds up so well, that I can listen back on it over decades and continually discover what I'd been missing. It's still one of my least favorite efforts in their discography, but when the lower tier is still this good, who's complaining?

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, March 2, 2020

Borknagar - Empiricism (2001)

The replacement of ICS Vortex with Sweden's Vintersorg on the vocals was one that took some time getting used to, as I've long been a fan of the latter's musical ability and composition style far more than his vocals. Frankly I thought his alma mater Otyg was quite weak in that department, but he started to hit his stride with his solo records, and the philosophical, progressive folksy bent of his lyrics and songwriting does seem like a natural fit for what the Norsemen had been developing. Already a seasoned presence by the time Empiricism came about, Hedlund shows up here and does his job quite fluently, with an even distribution of his passable black metal rasp and his mid-ranged crooning. So while I immediately missed Vortex's higher pitched caterwauling style that I so adored on The Archaic Course, Vintersorg definitely contributes a lot to making this fifth album work, and instantly dissolving any apprehension of how he'd work within the group.

In fact, this is an album that not only continues to cultivate the ideas of Brun and company from the 90s, but you could also see it as an evolution on the Vintersorg solo path, a followup to the previous year's Cosmic Genesis just as much as it honors Quintessence or The Olden Domain. His own folk black metal style would be heavily permeated with progressive sounds and influences on efforts like Visions from the Spiral Generator and The Focusing Blur, and while Empiricsm is a little heavier, flowery and dramatic than those, they certainly share some roots. This album fosters some of the faster moments of Quintessence, but integrates a lot more dynamic range, with a wide array of instrumentation thanks to the lush synthesizers, Hammond organs, six-string or fretless bass lines, and tasteful acoustics. Few of these things are new to Borknagar, sure, but the way they strike a balance across these 10 tracks and 50 minutes is certainly a slightly different vibe than what I got on the records preceding it. With a crisp production, intricate musicianship, lots happening, never a second that betrays their origins, it's just another feather in the cap of one of Norway's finest, maybe not the plume I'd admire the most upon first glance, but a robust and well-crafted experience that holds up today like so many of their other works.

In fact, it's just another album they've written that I continue to grow fonder every time I revisit it. Extremely consistent across it's entire duration, I wouldn't say they take many risks, but it features another of their better instrumentals, or 'mostly'-instrumentals, "Matter and Motion", with its superb, brooding piano lines that only escalate once the percussion and electric guitar chords arrive. There are some swaggering, potent mid-paced cuts like "The Stellar Dome" in which Vintersorg really has to flex himself over numerous vocal tracks that show some of his better work at that mid-to-slightly-higher range that he finds himself so comfortable in. And then there are plenty of surging pieces like "The Genuine Pulse" or "Four Element Synchronicity" which should sate those that appreciated the fiercer material on the s/t or Quintessence, and even these themselves feature a microcosmos of textures and tempos. The lyrics are very tight, parades of eloquent grammar residing in philosophical and natural subjects; perhaps a bridge too far on the dorky side if you're expecting more Viking or Satanic-themes with your black metal, but for those of us who like to sniff our own fumes as we wax poetic pretentious on the underlying truths of the universe, they are pretty intoxicating.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]