Are Borknagar talented or what? I don't suppose that it's a little amusing that I give nearly every band I write for a favorable review, but then what would be the point? The reviewer's job is to recommend. Plus, I make a point not to own any music that's bad. ; ) In all seriousness, though, I am really not trying to be hyperbolic in the case of this group. Defined (as these types of ensembles often are) as both a side project and a super-group, Borknagar is the brainchild of the guitarist, Oystein Brun, formerly of the group Molested. He proceeded in short order to surround himself with musicians of impeccable pedigree within the black metal community, enlisting Ivar Bjornsen on keyboards (of the group Enslaved), Infernus on bass, Grim on drums, and Garm (of Ulver and Arcturus) on vocals. Line-up changes quickly ensued, with I.C.S. Vortex and Kai K. Lie moving through the lineup. By 2004's "Epic," Vintersorg, one of the premier vocalists in the metal community, joined up, and Asgeir Mickelson had replaced both Grim on drums (who died of a sleeping pill overdose) and Vortex on bass (who had left to work with Dimmu Borgir). The results are as fantastic as one could hope for. The production, done by America's own Century Media label, is extremely high-quality and so will not please the truest of the true, but even for them it should stand as a further development in the battle to push metal beyond its image-rooted limits and into a realm of higher seriousness and sophistication.
Borknagar (as of this album) is:
Oystein G. Brun - Acoustic Guitars, Electric Guitars, Hi-String
Lars A. Nedland - Synthesizers, Hammond Organ, Background Vocals, Grand Piano
Asgeir Mickelson - Guitars, Drums, Fretless Bass Guitar, 5-String Bass
Vintersorg - Guitars, Vocals, Chorus
Here's the album track-by-track:
1.) Future Reminiscence
The band doesn't pull any punches with their opener. 5 and a half minutes of very complex music blows by the listener in a fantastic stream of fast-paced fury. The song actually seems longer than it is, blowing by as it does at the pace it's at and with such complex music under it. This quality is a testament to the amount of different sections the song manages to cram in. There is a crazy fast drum pattern, and a heavy guitar mix with a cool classical-style interlude. The vocals by Vintersorg are top-notch.
Once again, the fury of this music is unleashed on us. Vintersorg's harsh vocals and his clean vocals are in top form. The neat thing about this band is that they tend to eschew typical black metal song structures in favor of a more accessible style that retains the tenets of black metal's sound but which is still very much based in a more standard rock song structure. There is a fantastic interlude here with great tremolo picking, followed by a strangely virtuosic piano-guitar section. The level of layering in this music is really sophisticated, and it never sounds hackneyed or ill-flowing. There is a heavy section that flows perfectly into an acoustic passage, which itself gives way to an interlude that is much more sophisticated than is at first apparent, especially with regard to the bass. These band members make it clear right away that they are fantastic musicians, and it definitely shows.
This song is a bit different, more slower-paced, and reliant on the same kind of power-crushing dynamics of death and related metal styles. There's even a sustained chord over strummed acoustics and a pounding drum pattern near the beginning. Vintersorg's "choir" vocals are very cool here, providing a very nice ambience. Personally, at this stage in the album, I am a little overwhelmed by just how sophisticated this music is. There is so much orchestration going on beneath the surface, that when one pays attention one can find an incredible array of instruments and parts all combining to make a very complex whole. This is an album where the obvious chops of the musicians involved gel in such a way as to render it unnoticable but nevertheless influential. Highlights here are the acoustic interlude, which is slightly reminiscient of Opeth, but only slightly.
4.) Sealed Chambers of Electricity
Great drumming here. Another slowly paced effort, the symphonic textures lurking in the background move this piece along. Vintersorg churns out many a catchy clean vocal, showcasing his perfect comfort with both "grim" vocals and clean styles, and his equal skill with both. Once again, I continue to be astounded at the deceptive complexity that is littered throughout this song, as I notice that in the background of many sections a Hammond organ is playing along with the very distorted metal guitars. The classical-style interlude here is very melodic and pretty, and so utterly different from what came before it that we wonder just how they managed to get us from there to here without making us cry foul. It's almost as if they're cheating, but they're not. They're really that good.
5.) The Weight of Wind
The symphonic touches opening this song are fantastic, as are the piano lines that follow. This is truly a genre-bending track, being as it is an instrumental with equal parts symphonic touches and distorted guitars and the like. Equally stellar stuff.
Great tremolo picking lines inform this. A very fast-paced and nimble black-metal-type song, the harmonic content is provided by excessively layered guitars, and the results are effective, if the song is a bit reminiscient of "Future Reminiscience" (lol see what I did there?) There is a really nice tapping solo in the middle, although it's mixed a bit low and it moves in conjunction with that awesome Hammond organ.
A generally cleaner tune, Vintersorg takes a few different vocal tacks here, grunting in a lower register for the heavy parts of the opening, while singing out at his finest in the middle. The drumming continues to stand out for its speed. Even during the ballad-type parts of this song, Vintersorg makes the black metal yelps work in an odd way. The outro is informed by deeper clear singing and slower acoustics, in an epic, dramatic style reminiscient of a heavier power metal style. It feels somehow folkier than the rest of the album. Must be the band members' inner Vikings.
Vintersorg continues to churn out ever-impressive vocal styles, but I admit that this song isn't much different from the few that came before it. There's no real differentiation in tempo, and the drums especially are distressingly similar in the last triumvirate of songs. By this point in the album, I'm having a little trouble staying focused, despite the fact that the quality hasn't really decreased noticably.
I like this one a lot, as it opens with a melodic passage with a lot of grandeur. The verse passages are honestly shining moments as the symphonic elements continue to be played up. It's a shame that the heavy sections continue to suffer from the sameness that has permeated the songs to now: as I said, the quality level is still VERY high, but for some listeners would get tiresome.
10.) The Inner Ocean Hypothesis
Well, now, this is a good deal different. Opening up with great piano figures, there is a stellar symphonic element here. Vintersorg's clean vocals have dominated the album, mostly, in this spot, and in a few spots I detect a death element in the double-bass drum patterns and the grooving mid-tempo beats. But the black metal style comes back as the tempo is double timed and that great, great Hammond organ continues coming back. The muted string sounds are also very cool. Nice change of pace, and right when one was needed.
Borknagar gets it. The symphonic element is one of the most interesting elements of their sound, and the fact that they so seamlessly weave it in is one of their greatest strengths. This is no exception: perhaps inspired by the previous tune, this song is rife with strings, organ, symphonic horns and synthesizer leads supporting the very metallic guitars and drums. Vintersorg never ceases to impress. This song takes the name of one of Borknagar's albums: I'm unsure if it shares any themes, but it's very good besides.
12.) The Wonder
Once again, we get medieval-like, folk-type intro with great flute, acoustic guitar, and an awesome ride pattern. As a closer, I'd say that this is adequete. There's a great double-bass pattern in the bridge with fantastic screech and yelled vocals from Vintersorg, and the clean guitar and acoustic work is stellar. The instrumental layering is very ambitious, and the song, while not the strongest of closers--it probably would have been better served in the middle of the album--it certainly is a good definition of the album title.
Basically, the only problem with this album, as with many consistent ones, is the lack of discernable highs and lows the deeper one gets into a album length. With twelve songs all at 4-5 minutes each at typically speedy black metal paces, the lengths can seem much longer and more tiresome: some of the guitar parts and drumbeats seem to run into each other. As far as what Borknagar accomplishes with this, they certainly succeed in continuing to bend the typical definitions of metal, and the lavish production can make this particular style of black metal accessible to people less inclined to deal with low values. I highly recommend this.