REVIEW: BORKNAGAR – “True North”
By all reasonable definitions, 2019 has been an exceptional year for progressive metal and rock. With little effort, I can think of a half dozen or so albums that, during any given year, would make a best-of year-end list, and we’re only in August. And there are still a good number of albums on the horizon by prominent figures in the genre to eventually contend with. And one of the releases that will surely make waves is ‘True North’ by Norway’s progressive/avant-garde masters Borknagar. The band has recently seen some lineup changes, and are recharged, focused, and are releasing an exceptional work.
The band as always is driven by guitarist/founding member/main writer Øystein G. Brun, without whom Borknagar simply wouldn’t be Borknagar. I.C.S. Vortex is back behind the mic handling both screams and clean vocals, as well as bass. And Lars A. Nedland returns with his distinctive clean vocals, keyboard work, and writing style. The band lost their longtime lead vocalist Andreas “Vintersorg” Hedlund, veteran guitarist Jens F. Ryland, and drummer Baard Kolstad, leaving some concern among fans. They need not worry as the completed new line up of lead guitarist Jostein Thomassen, and drummer Bjørn Dugstad Rønnow, are more than up to the task. Brun considers it the most diverse album of the band’s career, and it would be hard to disagree with him.
The album kicks off with the powerful and rather aptly named “Thunderous,” and the dual clean vocal work of Vortex and Nedland, before the swirling maelstrom of black metal sonic violence and frenzied screams take over, the transition is a chill slash to the face, and incredibly satisfying. At 8 and a half minutes in length, this mini-epic is one of the longer tracks on the album, and the band uses the full length in a careful blend of styles and pacing in a reminder of what truly progressive black metal should sound like.
This is followed up by a rather different piece in “Up North,” which is entirely sung in clean vocals and is driven as much by the bouncy almost blues like organ work of Nedland than it is the complex, and very heavy guitar runs, and rock-solid rhythm. The song could almost be called commercial, except that it’s anything but. However, the main hooks of the song are highly melodic and memorable. To my hearing, it has a strong Solefald vibe to it, which given Nedland’s involvement and vocal contributions aren’t very surprising. Its quirky nature has made it one of my favorite songs on the album. This is immediately followed up the first released single “The Fire That Burns.” Unlike earlier songs, this one jumps directly into the fierce BM style vocals before Nedland takes over with some cleans. The song is a fitting first single and captures much of what the band is trying to accomplish with this new release.
One could go on forever talking about each song and what it has to offer, but that becomes tiring almost immediately, so I’ll instead jump ahead to “Into the White,” another song that has stood out to me from the first listen. The real draw to this song for me is the perfect use of juxtaposition between the two vocalists and their styles. Be it the mix of harsh and clean, or the careful vocal harmonies they create while both singing cleanly, the song encapsulates everything about the album that I think works so well.
The album closes with “Voices,” a more folk-driven song, composed, and mostly lead by Nedland. The song deals with our internal compass and the direction that we wish our life to go, and what internal elements we decide to follow. Compared to the majority of the album it is musically sparse, focusing far more on the strength of the vocals and vocal melodies than the other instruments. And while it does at times venture into folk metal territory, the metal elements take a decided backseat. The result is incredibly haunting and beautiful. The song feels like a walk along a wind-beaten coast, with ice-capped mountains in the distance as the singer approaches the end of his life. It is perhaps an unusual way to end such an album, but it’s also the perfect way to end it.
Borknagar have for nearly 25 years been one of the leading voices in adventurous, innovative, progressive, and avant-garde black metal. The upcoming September release of ‘True North’ simply reiterates these facts. The term ‘true north’ is a navigational one, it is constant, and a baseline for all other directions. One could say the same about the band, and this album. It is easily one of the best of this genre I have heard in recent years, and any fan of the band, or forward-thinking black metal, in general, would be well served in getting their hands on a copy. Highly recommended.