September 23, 2019 Borknagar – True North (Album Review)
As we approach the twenty-fifth anniversary of their existence, Blackened Progressive innovators Borknagar prepare to release the eleventh studio album of their lengthy and groundbreaking career. On Friday, September 27th, 2019, via Century Media Records, the Norwegian collective will bestow True North upon a fan base that has grown with them since day one. Beset once more with some fairly significant lineup movement, can the creation of founding guitarist Øystein Brun once more withstand change to produce a work of art worthy of Borknagar’s lofty reputation?
A group whose strengths reside in progressive leanings melded with catchiness and melody, Borknagar’s proclivity for uplifting, powerful anthems to the majesty of Nature continues with the pseudo-title track “Up North.” Despite enjoying vocal contributions from the likes of Vintersorg, Krystofer Rygg, and current Keyboardist Lars Nedland, the band’s music is arguably never better articulated than when bassist and vocalist extraordinaire Simen “ICS Vortex” Hestnæs commands the microphone. Command it he does on this dramatic and soon to be iconic song. The aforementioned Nedland adds the atmospheric grandeur of Hammond style keys to the mix, which only elevates the unique sound space this band often occupies.
Nedland’s monstrous skill set, however, is not merely limited to the keyboards. His soaring voice (as in his own band Solefald) is used to great effect on the more mellow “Lights.” Here Borknagar shines their own godless spirituality onto the listener, melody and feeling interwoven superbly to create a buoyant tune that makes up in emotion what it might lack in pure heaviness. The touch of growled vocals against the key-soaked sound provides a nice juxtaposition, reminding the listener that though Brun and company have scaled the heights of sonic exploration, they did emerge from the icy northern darkness of Norwegian Black Metal.
Speaking of which, it is opener “Thunderous” which leaps from the speakers with all the blackened grace these Norwegians have been honing for decades. Yet, the arrangement acumen the band possesses manifests with a rousing chorus and a clear-sung heart that beats in precise harmony to that furious blasting counterpoint. The music is calculated without feeling deliberate. A slightly more tempered approach can be found in “The Fire That Burns,” once more featuring Nedland’s vocals. The word stately comes to mind, evoking the great pines and fjords of Borknagar’s homeland. The listener can see the shape of things without knowing every corner of the album’s music, in much the same way a glance at a forest landscape can show its canopy but still hide its vast secrets.
“Wild Father’s Heart,” a song of touching tribute to Brun’s deceased forebear, provides the longtime Borknagar fan with a smooth ballad replete with Nedland’s classically influenced keyboard presence. Both Vortex and Nedland – simply the most majestic vocalists the band has ever employed – provide heaps of nuance and feeling. Whether it’s milder shores or a more robust cascade like “Mount Rapture,” (a sister title to “Mount Regency” from 2012’s Urd album) the new album sees Borknagar taking more time with melodies and tones, the keyboard sound more reminiscent of the band’s first foray into proggier ground with 1998’s The Archaic Course and 2000’s Quintessence.
Fans of the heavier sonic approach may find themselves a tad underserved with True North, where the heavier elements are carefully reigned in, showing their stormy souls here and there instead of dominating the whole. Borknagar is not setting out to lash the listener for an hour and twelve minutes, though, nor do they posture to such affect. “Into The White” provides the same atmosphere as the hardiest of Norske Svart Metal, but it does so with as much of a nod to Rush and Dream Theater as it does to Immortal. The superb guitar solos, dreamy and indulgent keys, and peerless vocal arrangements are as heavy as the stony heart of Jotunheim itself, but the song sweeps and breathes over the listener without crushing them. The effect is monumental. As if to put an exclamation point upon this iteration of their sound, the 9:32 “Tidal” is Borknagar at the absolute pinnacle of prog-infused blackened metal superiority, the stratospheric heights of Nedland’s voice eclipsed by the deliciously evil growl of Vortex.
As they so often have done, Borknagar synthesize the elements of their sound into a timeless collection of songs, which sees the arc of their career tearing through the goddamn roof to heights undreamt of by most bands. Transcending genres, we are watching the old guard (along with countrymen Solefald and Enslaved) quite literally jumping out of their own sonic molds to twist and turn from humble beginnings through the halls of unrivalled artistic splendor. Cryptic Rock gives True North a resounding 5 out of 5 stars.