Review: Borknagar – True North
Let’s take a good, hard look at a record we should have been taking a long, good, hard look at two months ago, the latest offering from Borknagar.
It’s no secret that I love Borknagar; while I may adore their earlier, more blackened records, it’s the later, folk- and prog-influenced material (where black metal is more of an influence, a remnant of bygone days and their link to metal music in general) where I think they’ve made their best work. There’s been a good many changes since their previous record Winter Thrice, with the departure of long-time guitarist Jens F. Ryland and drummer Baard Kolstad. Especially losing the latter’s recognizable style stung, since his decision to focus on Leprous hasn’t always produced music I’ve welcomed with open arms. But both roles found very capable and suitable replacements in Jostein Thomassen and Bjorn Ronnow respectively, whom had already collaborated in the symphonic black metal band Profane Burial and gothic/black/power project Viper Solfa previously.
However, the biggest change would without a doubt be Andreas “Vintersorg” Hedlund’s departure. Having been the band’s celebrated voice for the entire passing millennium, there was no doubt that an era had come to a close. Coming on the heels of an album often described as the band’s “vocal record” made it all feel twice as much. But there was also a part of me that celebrated the fact—as long as Borknagar was able to secure a powerful vocalist, this would be for the better in all likelihood. First of all, Vintersorg has a LOT of projects and bands going on. I don’t know how active Fission, Gravisphere and Waterclime intend to be in the future, or if Otyg’s second coming will actually manifest in the new record I’ve been waiting for during the last six years, or even in any further shows.
But his titular band remains active, and sprouting from similar prog- and folk-influenced black metal soil, Vintersorg’s sound has oftentimes steered close to Borknagar’s territory, and while I’ve never felt there was any actual danger of mixing the two, putting additional mileage between two bands I so enjoy will bring no harm to either. (Especially considering Borknagar’s mastermind Oystein G. Brun and Vintersorg do also collaborate in Cronian, and have every intention to do so in the future as well.)
Fortunately, the band was not short of an exceptional vocalist as it was—ICS Vortex, who had already helmed the band as its frontman in the 90’s and sung lead on a few tracks on each record since his return, was willing to step up again. And let me tell you, Winter Thrice may have been called the vocal record because of the songwriting placing more weight on the performance of the band’s singing trio—Vintersorg, Vortex and Lazare Nedland (even Kristoffer Garm Rygg was invited to return for two songs), but with the arrival of True North, the title is moved in favour of the newcomer. You may have had an opinion on Vortex’s vocal performances previously, but whether good or bad, you’ll likely find yourself blown away by the range and styles he showcases here. Borknagar is the band he was born to sing in, and nowhere else has he ever come close to the prowess he exhibits on True North.
Brun’s songwriting has also taken a noticeable step away from the vocal-centric way of it’s predecessor. “Thunderous” is an aggressive opener with some of the band’s most blackened riffing in a while, and finds itself delving further into these influences as it progresses, introducing ICS Vortex’s harsh, tearing rasp against a choral background. The song runs a full cycle before transitioning into an emotional, softer back-half with some standout basswork briefly reminiscent of Tyr’s time in the band that I did not know to expect. Although it’s noteworthy that Vortex has only played bass for Borknagar on Urd and the more black metal-minded Quintessence, which did not necessarily allow for much room to flex, Winter Thrice’s bass seems to have been performed by Leprous’ Simen Borven.
It doesn’t take much longer for the Vortex/Lazare duo’s vocal diversity to crown itself the king of this record. “Up North’s” surprisingly upbeat and catchy songwriting is complimented by vocal melodies that wouldn’t be out of place on the cream of rock radio’s offerings or, as some other people have pointed out, on Volbeat’s records; this section is quickly followed by blast-beats and tremolo-picked riffs. On True North, Borknagar excels at pushing the limits of their songwriting, though they still keep a firm grip on the sound that has come to define them over the 00’s. There are few songs that sum Borknagar up as well as “The Fire That Burns” does, and though it does all the things you’d expect a Borknagar song to, it does it all so well, and comes at a perfect place on the album, between “Up North” and the stunning, continuously growing, Lazare-led “Lights.”
The biggest surprise isn’t served until “Wild Father’s Heart,” an emotional, heart-rending (but calmly hopeful and uplifting) ballad. The journey through True North’s first half is emotionally exhausting, its songwriting exploring ups and downs, every nook and cranny constantly finding new ways to hit hard in the feels, yet its pacing keeps it from becoming exhaustive. After such a thrill ride it’s almost impossible to keep yourself engaged with more to come, and it did take a bit of effort to be able judge the back half as fairly.
Although “Mount Rapture” is a great song in its own right (on a lesser record a possible highlight even), the emotional exhaustion still lasts well through “Into the White,” which takes fair advantage of the two vocalists by placing Lazare’s cleans against Vortex’s rasp, an approach that I have felt has been lacking from the band’s arsenal before. I’m shaken up enough to be fully on board again, just in time for the massive, 9 ½-minute “Tidal,” the album’s only song that struggles with its length and contents, lacking some of the memorability of the rest, and stretched for the greatest length. But the album comes to a staggering end with another curveball. “Voices” is a folky, tension-filled piece that doesn’t sound entirely unlike a song based on an idea that was once the foundation of an unused later-day Solefald song. For most of the song it seems like the instrumentation is only providing rhythmic background for Lazare’s repeating lines, at their scarcest almost chant-like, but it manages to grow into its own throughout the song’s length.
True North is not a short record, but it doesn’t struggle with its hour-plus length, and though it can get hard to concentrate on the back-half as intensively as on the front half, one isn’t weaker than the other. It finds Borknagar comfortable with their sound, but outside their comfort zone, or what previously was their comfort zone anyways, a one of a kind record in their discography that features a whole bunch of new favourites for years to come. It’s amazing how much variety Borknagar has managed to include in this record, and how well it all fits together and especially how good all of it sounds individually.
4.75/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell