Review Summary: True North will be defined by stellar vocal melodies and classy progressive metal that borrows from black metal without being dominated by it.
I’ve never considered myself a huge Borknagar fan. I tried to like them when Garm was their vocalist, but the music never held my attention. When Simen "ICS Vortex" Hestnæs joined, the music had become much more enjoyable and diverse, but I couldn’t get into his vocals. It would take the addition of Vintersorg for me to finally enjoy Borknagar’s music and vocals at the same time. Vintersorg’s addition was also the point where they finally transitioned from black metal with occasional prog tendencies to fully-fledged progressive black metal. Each subsequent release found them fiddling with their prog/black formula with varied results. It wasn’t until Winter Thrice
, though, that it started to feel like they were finally perfecting their sound – but then Vintersorg left, and Simen assumed lead vocal duties again.
I’ve never appreciated Simen’s vocals beyond the token clean singing with Dimmu Borgir and his limited contributions to Winter Thrice
, but I was hopeful True North
’s music would be good enough to make up for the vocal change. It turns out I had nothing to worry about. True North
contains a career-defining vocal performance from Simen, ample vocal contributions from Lars Nedland, and a brand-new take on Borknagar’s signature sound. With the exception of their acoustic release, Borknagar have always remained staunchly black metal with progressive influences integrated within that framework, but that all changes on True North
. This time it feels like Borknagar are a progressive metal band with a prominent black metal influence. This is nowhere as apparent as on the vocals. It feels like clean singing makes up at least 80% of the overall vocals on the album, and it instantly elevates True North
to another level.
As stated earlier, Simen’s singing has improved significantly since Quintessence
; but even if you thought his voice was always fine, you might still notice a positive change. My main issue with Simen’s vocals has always been the nasally delivery of his clean singing. It was never a deal breaker, but it was never something I appreciated either. On True North
he sings with a powerful and clear delivery that has caused his vocals to sound much more melodic and accessible. A song such as the ballad “Wild Father’s Heart” would have absolutely failed for me if they had tried it on Quintessence
, because I don’t believe Simen would have been capable of carrying it vocally, but on True North
it is one of the stand-out tracks. Of course, it goes without saying that his black metal rasp is still as powerful as ever, it’s just not used as often as one might assume based on previous Borknagar releases.
Despite Simen’s improved clean singing, he isn’t expected to carry the album alone. For those that don’t know, Borknagar’s keyboardist, Lars Nedland, is an accomplished vocalist in his own band Solefald, and Borknagar are finally using him to his potential. Throughout True North
, Lars shares just about equal time with Simen when it comes to clean singing, and he brings a different tone and style that compliments Simen and the music seamlessly. In fact, some might not have realized that it was Lars’ clean singing on the first half of the first song released from the album, “The Fire That Burns.” He’s also responsible for my personal favorite, the melodic prog-leaning track, “Lights.” Really, though, the coolest thing about having two competent vocalists is the amount of harmonized melodies found throughout the album. When Simen and Lars sing together, that’s when the songs really start to gel and it’s those portions that really push the songs to another level…
… but what about the actual music? Has it improved too? The answer to that question will depend on what you’re looking for from Borknagar, because the black metal influences have been toned down quite a bit compared to previous releases. It’s not as though Borknagar have suddenly dumped black metal entirely, as songs such as “Thunderous” and “The Fire That Burns” prove, but they’re also about as black metal as True North
gets – and even they are dominated by clean singing and a more diverse musical undercurrent. Instead, True North
is better represented by songs such as “Up North” and “Mount Rapture.” In these songs, the black metal influence is much more integrated into other styles without being overtly obvious – such as the percussion in most of “Up North” played underneath an energetic prog metal style and an entirely ‘clean’ vocal delivery. No matter what angle Borknagar are approaching the music from, you can expect just about every song to be driven by clean singing and a musical foundation that flirts with energetic melodic prog while hiding its black metal influences just under the surface. Of course, these black metal influences do occasionally rise to the top, but their time as the prominent sound is usually pretty short-lived.
It was a risky proposition for Borknagar to reduce the black metal that has been their bread-and-butter for nine albums down to a bit player on True North
, but they have pulled it off. The vocal melodies are catchy and so well written, and the same could be said about the music. Each song is full of dynamic shifts that hit the aggressive parts often enough to keep the old fans interested while maintaining an array of catchy, classy, prog-lite melodies at all other times. Borknagar’s True North
will be defined by stellar vocal melodies courtesy of Simen Hestnæs and Lars Nedland, as well as classy progressive metal that only borrows from black metal without being dominated by it.