Monday, April 9, 2012

Borknagar - Urd (2012)

Creeping up on their 20 year anniversary, Norway's Borknagar have a sound unto themselves. Taking all of the heavy elements of black metal, and combining them with progressive and melodic touches, there are few bands who can even touch this signature style. Having been rejoined by former member, and Dimmu Borgir alumnus, ICS Vortex, and adding talented young drummer Baard Kolstad to the fold, this six piece is as tight as ever. On "Urd," they make a strong statement, and assert themselves into the "album of the year" conversation.

Without ever being told who was playing, the opening moments of "Epochalypse" would be a dead giveaway. The combination of extreme metal speed guitars and clean vocals is Borknagar at the core, a sound they have helped to create and evolve. The drums are absolutely unbeatable, with speed and precision coming together in a painfully excellent way. The vocals can switch seamlessly between screeching and almost psychedelic crooning, something that is never out of place. The same could be said about all the components at play here, with songs like "Roots" showing off the delicate balance of keys and symphonics. There is a stark contrast between the aggression in the drums, and the subtle beauty of the synth and guitar melodies. Sandwiched together with vocals as diverse as the band itself, and you have a winner time and time again. The pure simplicity in the beginning of the outro is amazing, with a clean vocal passage taking center stage.

The flow from track to track deserves mention, as well, with a seamless bridge to "The Beauty Of Dead Cities," a track that on it's own could shock a room of metalheads. The vocal melody in the verse almost holds an air of The Beatles in the delivery. Strange, but true. This is the softer side of Borknagar, which is entirely welcomed. The writing and execution of tracks like that should be celebrated, especially as part of an overall arc of an album. And yes, while these progressive elements do take the spotlight often, there are still pure black metal portions to be had, as is evident in "The Earthling." But rather than stick to one or the other, they combine both without skipping the proverbial (or literal) beat. The rhythm section is the driving force, but the guitar work stands out, whether it is in the speed riffs, or a harmonic filled solo. But in the more subdued moments of "The Plains Of Memories," the band gives a lesson in restraint. A silky smooth bass line cuts through, followed closing by beautiful strings. This four plus minute instrumental takes you to a new place, entirely.

Don't let the overflow of perfect harmonies fool you, tracks like "Mount Regency" exist in all of their harsh glory. The lightning quick kick drums return, hand in hand with screeching vocals and deathly growls that incite fear. The clean vocals offset some of the brooding hate, but this is a darker side of things, backed by an evil symphony of keys and strings. For a song of six minutes, this touches on every peak and valley of the metal genre, ending with a fading note. The psychedelic touch on "Frostrite" is just enough to induce awe. The melodic vocals are absolutely stunning, raising your eyebrows each time the higher register is touched. But underneath it all lies a battery of percussion that is endless in scope, a barrage of snares, cymbals and kicks that may leave you dizzy when all is said and done. The space age keyboards that enter in the outro portion are a nice touch, providing the melody for a more stripped down guitar and bass approach.

The longest track on the album, and also the most ambitious, is the nearly nine minute "The Winter Eclipse." If there is a track that could convert passers by to rabid fans, this would be the one, with an intense use of black metal tenets and symphonics. It plays out in such an epic way that it demands multiple listens. Layer upon layer assaults your ears, with each separate piece forming a pillar that holds up the mix. There is no need for extra, meaningless additions. Every note is well placed, every fill has a purpose. There is no filler here, despite the length of the track. Contained here is a perfect blend of clean and dirty, light and dark. The finale is a contradiction in and of itself, at times pairing black metal vocals with clean guitars. The dynamic created on "In A Deeper World" isn't completely new, but it is one that Borknagar have done more often and with more success than any other band that comes to mind. The synthesizers provide a richness to the mix that is undeniable, without sacrificing the mood of the song. Throw in a brilliant bonus track, a cover of Metallica's "My Friend Of Misery," and the album closes with a bang.

The metal market in the US seems to have forgotten about Borknagar. Despite their long running career, and the pedigree of the members, their name rarely, if ever, comes into the conversation for the shallow American fans. We fawn over our metal heroes, like Opeth, Mastodon, and Ghost (conveniently touring together). But albums like "Urd," with its rollercoaster melodies, savage screams, and haunting synthesizers, should be enough to achieve a greater success in the West. Look through the overwhelmingly black metal font, and you will be treated to a form of progressive metal that only these Norwegians truly know how to play.


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