Review: Borknagar - Urd

Band: Borknagar
Album: "Urd"
Style: Epic progressive (black) metal
Release date: 2012-03-26
Origin: Norway/Sweden

1. Epochalypse
2. Roots
3. The Beauty of Dead Cities
4. The Earthling
5. The Plains of Memories
6. Mount Regency
7. Frostrite
8. The Winter Eclipse
9. In a Deeper World
10. Age of Creation
11. My Friend of Misery (Metallica cover)

I wont deny that I have been a fan of Borknagar since 2001, when the mastermind behind one of my absolute favorite bands Vintersorg joined the Norwegians on vocals after Simen "Vortex" Hestnæs stepped down to join the morons in Dimmu Borgir permanently. I enjoyed that years outcome "Empiricism" a lot and slowly began to trace my way backwards through their discography and fell utterly in love with "The Archaic Course" (1998) and also later - "Quintessence" (2001).
But that was aeons ago, and the band has since released three albums - the somewhat satisfying "Epic" (2004), the experimental with a-not-so-great-outcome album "Origin" (2006) and the quite messy and ultimately dissapointing "Universal" (2010). Since that last album, former vocalist Vortex has once more joined the band - this time on bass and vocals - still leaving Vintersorg as the main vocalist though. The last song on "Universal" was a leftover from the "The Archaic Course"-days and featured Vortex solely on vocals. That song - "My Domain" - left a nostalgic aura in myself and made me long for the days when Borknagar was more focused on semi-black metal epics and less progressive weirdness.

Those days has come anew...

The album opens with "Epochalypse", which in typical Borknagar-fashion is a fast and aggressive piece. Vintersorg's clean vocals sounds better than they have done for many, many years and his screams are nailed to perfection. The layers of choirs (present on most of the songs here) are perfectly laid in the background and doesn't destroy the sonic landscape (there's a lesson for the guys in Dimmu Borgir) as it could have done. After a while, the song shifts tempo and Vortex takes over with his incredibly epic vocals. We are also treated to a brief appearance in vocals from the keyboardist Lars A. Nedland (known from the weirdos in Solefald) who does his job with equal perfection. To have these three vocalists - Vintersorg, Vortex and Lars - in the same band is a blessing that all other bands should envy forever.

The second song, "Roots" gives us a bit more midtempo, even though the song shifts tempo a lot. Overall, it is a good song even though it does not come up to the same class as many of the other tracks apparent on "Urd". Let me get this right - the dynamics between Vintersorg and Vortex are fucking ace! And I think that is a strong factor as what it is that make this song better than anything we heard on "Epic" and "Universal" but still just an in between-track on "Urd". The songwriting has improved a lot since the last record but the mere presence of Vortex adds a whole other depth to the album. Not to take anything from Vintersorg though, because he really does an outstanding job here - but to have Vortex there with him is a dream come true.

Next up is "The Beauty of Dead Cities" which is a song written by Lars A. Nedland. He usually has one song on each album that has his type of writing all over it. Those songs usually reeks of a more progressive and calmer feeling and this one is no exception. This is far from black metal at all and the chorus just begs you to sing along. Still, it does not feel out of place at all and it is a cool addition to the album altogether. I just wished they placed one or two songs later on the album, but that is a minor complaint.

The fourth song is an oddity if anything. It begins very slowly and at first I questioned Vintersorg's approach to this song as well. But it slowly picks up the pace and becomes something of it's own. And the first time I heard the chorus "Nature, the venomous path of man. The existential gravity, the blinder of light.  Mankind, bestride the glimpse of the Sun. Instinctively oppose, the harvester of light" - I knew I was in love. It feels like a nod to the past but then again, not at all. Quite hard to describe actually, but "The Earthling" is for me one of the highlights of the album.

The - at least when it comes to Borknagar - mandatory instrumental piece "The Plains of Memories" is alright. I still question whether it is necessary at all to have one on every single record. But even so, this is their most enthralling instrumental since 2001 and I think that as well gives you an idea of just how much stronger the songwriting is this time around.

Borknagar 2012: Jens, Lars, Vortex, Vintersorg, Øystein & Baard
Up next is a great track called "Mount Regency" that feels more black metalesque and old-school. That is of course until the keyboards come in and gives off a 70's-vibe. Closer to the end, we get a great collaboration between Vintersorg and Vortex. That last part is beyond amazing and it gives me shivers each time I hear it.

The seventh track is where Vortex really shines the most. Having written both music and lyrics to it, he must have been truly satisfied once he heard the final result. His vocals are soaring on "Frostrite". And I mean that in the most positive way I could say it. It is epic beyond recognition and has that "Nocturnal Vision"/"Nocturnal Vision Revisited"-vibe that all you old-school Borknagar and Arcturus-fans knows. And even though the lyrics actually feel a bit TOO much like the past (read the lyrics to ye olde classics "Universal" and "The Witching Hour" and you'll know what I mean), the song can really stand on it's own and feels like a breath of fresh air.

...and the strange thing is - once "The Winter Eclipse" starts - it also feels like a breath of fresh air since we now hear more straight forward black metal and incredibly good grim vocals from Vintersorg. It has a good "The Genuine Pulse"-feeling to it and when it slows down - Vintersorg shows that he also can shine when it comes to the clean vocals. This eight track features classic Øystein G. Brun-riffing as well as good contributions from Lars A. Nedland, both vocal- and keyboard-wise. I should also mention that drummer David Kinkade has his work cut out for him here and he does a good overall job on his last record with the band.

The ninth and last (unless you own the digipak-edition) track "In a Deeper World" slows things down a bit and is a tad more average compared to the last three tracks - but definitely not bad in any way. It is mostly Vortex on vocals and it is somewhat comparable to "My Domain" from the previous album.

As I said, if you have the digipak-edition, you'll also get two bonus tracks in the form of "Age of Creation" and a cover of Metallica's "My Friend of Misery". The band's own song feels more like a leftover from the previous album. Not bad, but nowhere near the rest of the actual album. The guys made a good decision when leaving this out of the regular edition. What about the cover then? We'll, I think that the original is one of the more boring songs from the black album and musically, the Borkendales can't do very much about that. Also, it feels quite weird to hear Vintersorg's vocals to this song. It's just a bonus, but skip it if you can.

Production-wise, "Urd" isn't perfect. But it's damn near though. The band have been plagued by bad productions in the past - for instance, Vintersorg's vocals were barely audible on "Empiricism" - but that has all changed now. It sounds clear and modern, without sounding too modern at the same time. There are some rough edges here and there which only gives the album a better feel as a combination of the band's past and present.
Musically, it feels so refreshing that the band has drawn back most of the progressiveness and have placed more focus on black metal (without sounding that much black metal). Much of that credit must be given to the main man in charge - Øystein G. Brun. The artwork works, though lacking the grandeur that the last three records had. But this is a very minor complaint, since I find the entire album so refreshing and so god damn good! If, at the end of the year, "Urd" doesn't make it to one of the three best albums this year - I will personally bite my left ringfinger off.


1 comment:

  1. Good review and I respect your opinion
    I thought there were only a couple of good songs on this album - I would label it bland and give it a 5/10