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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Borknagar - Urd (2012)

Band: Borknagar
Country: Bergen, Norway
Style: Progressive Black Metal
Label: Century Media

I have to admit that despite my love for the band Borknagar, their last several releases have been, while initially surprising, ultimately disappointing. I'm a big fan of Vintersorg's vocals, but even I have to admit that his work with the band hasn't produced some of their best work. To be perfectly frank, when I heard this album was coming out, I was more than a little skeptical of it. Now that ICS Vortex is back in the band, how is that going to affect their sound?
I should say right off the bat that I am a fan of Vintersorg, I like his solo material and several of his other projects, I think he's a very interesting artist and I've always enjoyed his clean singing voice. Even since he joined Borknagar, I have felt like the band has really been searching for somewhere new to go with him, you had the more folky black metal records with Garm, and then their progression into more progressive territory when ICS was fronting the band, but the four albums after that felt rather like the band weren't really sure where to go. Sure, they've been embracing their progressive influences to various degrees on three of those releases, with Origin being a completely folk album, which I actually enjoy quite a bit, but I can't really say that any of those albums is all that memorable for me. In 2010 when the band released Universal, initially, I was very much into it, I thought it was a great album, but with every listen following the first few, it just felt less and less interesting. Maybe I just wanted more clean vocals from Vintersorg, but there were really only a handful of songs from that record that I ever go back to regularly. One of those songs just so happened to feature ICS on lead vocals, which turned out to be one of the best tracks on that album. I guess the feedback that the band received was enough to make them ask if he would be a member of the band again.
Lucky for them, welcoming ICS back into the fold has resulted in one of the band's strongest albums yet, certainly their strongest with Vintersorg on vocals. Right from the get-go, Epochalypse just takes off and immediately caught my attention. Like I said above, I really like Vintersorg's clean vocals, and he uses them a lot in the song, as well as throughout the rest of the album. In addition to that, ICS and Lazare (who happens to be my personal favorite of the three vocalists in the band) also add in a couple of lines that help to diversify the song. I have to say, I wasn't sure how the band was going to pull off the three vocalists thing, I figured that Lazare might actually get lost in the fold and might stop doing vocals, which I for one would find a disappointment, but they pull it off with applaud. The first song the band released, Roots, I actually found to be a rather weak song, and I happen to think it's probably the weakest on the entire album, I felt was rather typical in terms of the vocal arrangement but that isn't how the rest of the album worked out to be. Each song has a nice array of vocals from all three, and there are songs on here, The Beauty of Dead Cities for instance, in which Vintersorg doesn't even perform vocals and ICS and Lazare take the lead, which is actually one of the strongest tracks on the album in my opinion. Having said that, when Vintersorg is in control of the vocals, I think that he's in top form and gives the performance of his career thus far, at least in my opinion.
But to focus solely on the vocals wouldn't be fair since the instrumental side of the band are on top form on here as well. Like I said above, the band has been trying to hit the right balance between their folky-black metal sound and their more progressive influences for a while now, but have finally hit the right mix. Øystein and Jens' guitars are heavy and, for the most part, aggressive, but never boring and provide plenty of variety throughout the album. The riffing early on is certainly still very much tremolo and black metal based, but as the album progresses forward, they rely on that element less and less, moving into slower and more mid-paced riffing that allows the more epic side of the band to really come out in full. It's also great to hear that Lazare is being given a bit more room for his synthe work as well, the organ solo on Mount Regency is just great and really hammers home that progressive element the band has been working towards for so long. But his work on the other tracks should be taken note as well, as he strikes a rather interesting blend of epic sounding atmospheric synthes with more 70's oriented organ sounds. ICS's bass work isn't really the star on the album, but certainly sticks out on a song like Frostrite to the point where it can really be taken note of and appreciated. But really, the entire band is in top form on here, in summation.
I was hoping for a step up with this album from the band, but I was given better than that, I actually believe this to be one of the strongest releases in the band's discography. I was more than pleasantly surprised with the album and think that it is without a doubt, one of the best releases I've heard this year. It's really going to be hard for the band to top this one, but I am certainly looking forward to whatever they put out next. Definitely check this one out if you haven't yet, it's really, really good.
Overall Score: 9
Highlights: The Beauty of Dead Cities, The Earthling, The Winter Eclipse

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