Review Summary: Empowering and impassioned while sophisticated and subtle, Borknagar’s self-titled debut is truly a black metal masterpiece.
What happens when a forward-thinking death metal musician grows tired of the tedious, “brutal” direction of his own genre? He enlists some big-name talent to craft one of the greatest black metal albums ever made. Øystein Garnes Brun left death metal band Molested when he felt he needed an outlet for his more melodic and progressive songwriting, and he found the then blossoming genre of black metal to be the best fit. Upon writing all the music and lyrics himself, Brun rounded up Garm from Ulver to do vocals, bassist Infernus of Gorgoroth, Grim from Immortal and Gorgoroth on drums, and Ivar Bjørnson of Enslaved (a man that plays every instrument) to provide keyboard work. No demo was ever to be recorded; the band simply approached Malicious Records and asked for a record deal, a request granted solely on the strength of band’s lineup. Thus, what was perhaps the first black metal “supergroup” was born.
With an all-star lineup should naturally come a heightened level of instrumental prowess, and that certainly is the case here. Perhaps the most staggeringly blatant success is Garm’s outstanding vocal performance. His ferocious shrieks have more power and conviction than can be seen on any Ulver album, and yet his singing and chanting remains beautifully gripping. It almost causes one to engage in compulsive cranial scratching to think that he would outshine his previous work in his own band for this, a mere side project. Brun’s guitar work manages to be overtly intricate without crowding the other components. Each riff is as strong and memorable as the last, whether it be showcased through the trebly roar of an electric or the gentler serenade of an acoustic. At few points the privilege is even granted of witnessing the two in blissful marriage. While stylistically many of the riffs and melodies hearken to mind the folk-tinged black metal of early Ulver and at some points the Viking metal of early Enslaved, many are wholly unique and a beast of their own. In similar fashion, the drumming is refreshingly complex and, while often a barrage of percussive speed, is injected with plenty of clever fills and rolls. The bass succeeds in perfectly supplementing the music without always blindly following the guitar, which can sometimes be a rarity for the genre. The fact that the mixing and production leave it clearly audible throughout the entirety of the album works greatly to spotlight this. From the arpeggiated piano accompaniment in “Dauden” to the simple, yet effective organ of “Grimskalle Trell,” the keyboard work, frequently oscillating between subtle and prominent, elevates the entire album to an atmospheric work of art. Whether it’s piano and organ or synthetic horns and choirs, each sound seems expertly plucked for its respective application. Though it may take a discerning and proactive listener to pick out each of these elements and appreciate them as a whole, the thoughtfulness and artistry are certainly present and are ready to expose themselves to all those who are ready.
somehow manages to be explosive and unpredictable while achieving a flow and cohesiveness most musicians only dream of. The progressive ingenuity of the songwriting is thought-provoking and at times breathtaking. The more “black metal” tracks implement such a vast array of unique ideas and dynamics that really aren’t borrowed from enough in the genre. Shorter instrumental tracks anchor the album with experimentation that feels anything but: a science perfected as it was being invented. The battle march-like “Tanker Mot Tind (Kvelding)” recalls a certain “Silvester Anfang” from Mayhem’s Deathcrush
, but the keys breathe into it a fresh mystical aesthetic that’s unlike anything unleashed upon the world before. Its counterpart, “Tanker Mot Tind (Gryning),” draws the record to a close in such a satisfying display of ambience that most established acts would be lucky to recreate.
The group’s freshman release is one that exudes wholly a sense of majesty and inspires both wonder and violent head-banging. It pushes the boundaries of what black metal can and should be with the charming sincerity of that which dares into an alien musical frontier. Borknagar
is smart without being pretentious and heavy without being crude. It is an album that embodies just about everything one could want from metal that begs to be appreciated on a higher artistic level: unbridled emotion, audacious risk, and thoughtful composition. It is an album that deserves to be enjoyed, appreciated, and studied for years to come.